A Cautionary Tale: 301 Redirects and UX

SMS Text

William Congreve penned the saying, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”. Obviously he never knew about Google.  A web designer friend of mine recently asked me to help him with a client. He thought his client’s developer (whom my friend was told he had to use) might have screwed something up because their website’s traffic drastically plummeted. The subsequent SEO audit read more like the ending of a Russian novel and, even more tragically, was so unbelievably preventable.

You did What!?

August 1st was a very exciting day for this client.  He had a new website and the future looked bright.  He truly believed that this new site was going to transform his business into one that would allow him to quit his day job and live the rest of his life on the beach.  The celebration was short lived though when he noticed that his website was no longer getting sales.  He noticed his traffic had all but dried up and what little traffic he was getting did not convert.  The client looked to my friend and the developer for answers but neither could come up with a reason as to why everything was going down the toilet so quickly.  This is where I came in.

It took me about 5 minutes to realize that the developer had launched the new website without a single redirect.  That’s right…not a one.  It also became evident to me that UX was never taken into consideration and that the new website was overly complicated for the visitors it catered to (most of his clients had an aol.com email address if that says anything).

Server Errors


404 Errors


Search Queries


Organic Traffic


Simply put, the new website was serving up hundreds of 404 errors and a bunch of 500 errors and Google and Bing were through waiting for them to fix the site.

Additionally, the “updated website” did not go over well with the few visitors that did manage to find the site and the conversion rate plummeted.

Conversion Rate from Adwords


I had to explain to the client that his developer did not follow basic website relaunch protocols and this was the result:

  • Organic traffic dropped by over 80% even with the new site indexed
  • The conversion rate of the website dropped by over 60%
  • Shopping cart abandonment increased by over 50%
  • A site that was averaging 10+ sales a day was now lucky to get 1 (this statistic the client already knew)

I had to sit in front of the client and my friend and tell them all of this and explain that the result of shoddy SEO and UX is that they lost massive keyword ranking for pretty much all of their relevant search terms.

I wish I could say that there was steely determination in the client’s eyes to get things fixed, but it looked more like a mixture of panic and pure unadulterated rage.

Fix it! FIX IT NOW!

There are few people more desperate (or bat shit crazy for that matter) than a website owner that sees his website traffic dry up.  The client wanted everything fixed and he wanted it done yesterday.  After a brief discussion with my friend and his client (who was by this time frothing at the mouth), I told him to put everything back the way it was and reset.  I told him that they can wait for things to bounce back and look at redoing the website in the future.  It was my sincerest hope that the client would be able to recover quickly.  We were all disappointed.

Fast Forward a Month

The errors disappeared, the website had its old index back, and the conversion rate was back to where it was before the change. The only problem was that organic traffic did not get better and has yet to get better.  Even after a full month with everything back to “normal” the site has yet to recover from something as silly as no redirects (with poor UX possibly playing a small role).   Though there has been a slight tick in impressions overall organic traffic is still down over 80%.

Fortunately the client has the resources to compete with paid search, but all of that free traffic is pretty much gone.   Not only must he pay for his web traffic, now he must look into hiring an SEO consultant (though he should have done this a long time ago) to help him develop his content, build links, and help redo his website (properly this time) all to get him back (hopefully) to where he was.

In Conclusion

This client spent almost 5 years building his website and all of that came crashing down for something that could have taken a developer 2 hours to accomplish.  The poor UX aside, nothing is more detrimental to a website rebuild than improper redirects and I finally have proof that is more than academic.  It is a tragic truth that sometimes someone has to do something so monumentally stupid to drive home the point that SEO and UX must be taken into account when redoing a website.  We all know the importance of 301 redirects (God knows there are enough articles about them), but seeing the results in person is completely different.

Michael Davis

Michael Davis

Director of Strategic Marketing and Campaigns at The North American Mission Board
Mike is an online marketer with over 15 years experience (in-house and consulting) in helping businesses drive traffic to their websites while building their brands and increasing sales. He is currently overseeing strategic marketing and campaigns for the North American Mission Board.
Michael Davis
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  • http://www.apepaintinginc.com anthony griggs

    Loved the article… thought it was really funny. And could really relate. I am self taught in seo and thought i had it down as my client ranked at the top… something happened this last spring and things have gotten worse in my attempt to fix it… in submission i hired a local seo… but since he came on our results have all but disapeared… his thought is to scrap the site and start over… which i am willing to do… but i want to know what happened to begin with

  • http://informlocal.com/ Michael Kern

    This is truly a sad story. As I began reading, I thought you were going to tell a story about some moron using 302’s. It is truly a cautionary tale for many who still have a golden goose. Imagine if your friend had a SEO consultant. His traffic would have no doubt improved instead of falling off a cliff.

    I am surprised his traffic has not returned, but it is more than a technical SEO cautionary tale. It is also a warning about being to dependent on search engines for traffic. If your friend had developed an email marketing campaign, or maybe an affiliate program he would not have felt the pinch so bad.

  • http://imspgh.com/ Pittsburgh SEO

    Thanks for sharing that story. I’ve had to deal with related issues for clients before. The redirects were done, but were implemented incorrectly and a lot of the old urls went to the home page instead of the new pages with relevant content.

    • Michael Davis

      It really is amazing how something so important is so often overlooked or done incorrectly. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.

  • http://gurueffect.com Michael George

    I can take this even further. A client hired me to rebuild her WordPress site and optimize her content. This was a design job and an “SEO tune-up”, so I didn’t do a lot of redirects- maybe a dozen- just because a few key pages and poorly thought out permalinks.

    Anyway- 4 weeks later and no change in the SERPs. That’s very odd for me, because I consider myself good at my job.

    So I went back and did some investigation using Open Site Explorer and Archive.org — and it turns out the WordPress site that I redesigned was about 2 years old. The domain was 12 years old and was highly ranked. I went back and found a bunch of high authority pages from the .html site — redirected them all, and since then, her rankings have changed dramatically. She literally got thousands more links because of all the links she had to the old site.

    As SEO experts, we need to redirect OF COURSE, but sometimes, we need to go further back than just our own work. Now I look like a superhero…which I am of course.