Client Horror Story: Are You Sitting Down? We Changed Our URLs!

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The moment you hear your client say these words, your SEO radar goes on alert:

“Are you sitting down?”

In other words, beware of what clients decide to do on their own when you’re at a conference. Upon returning from SES San Jose in August 2009 and embarking on a conference call with the client team, I sat down. Here’s what followed:

“While you were gone, we decided to change our URLs from underscores to hyphens as word separators. We know we should have talked with you first and that we’re going to take a hit, but we decided to just get it done. IT had time to do it, so we jumped on it.”

A Little Hyphens vs. Underscores History

I began working with this corporation at the beginning of 2009 but with a different division and website. Our engagement commenced with an audit as we planned design and optimization of a new site, including information architecture and URL structure.

Communications involved many parties, including members of the marketing team for the company’s main bread-and-butter website. They were working with a large SEO agency who did NOT do an audit when they began their “SEO” efforts. This same agency had previously instructed the marketing team that it was best to create keyword-rich page names (good) using a keyword-rich folder structure (be careful) along with keywords separated by underscores (OUCH). No kidding!

I conducted some research, presented a case study with as references showing that search engines (and people) preferred hyphens vs. underscores.

Needless to say, they later asked me to work alongside their marketing team and let go of that big agency. We focused a lot of discussion on best practices in SEO.

Knowledge is power. BUT, power, in the hands of marketing and IT proved dangerous in this case.

The URL Fallout

The website was a leader in its lead-gen space and was almost 18 years old. It had already suffered from the big-shot SEO agency’s keyword-stuffing/underscore approach earlier in the year. Fallout from round 2 of URL changes began.

Traffic started to falter, partly due to the drop in ranking and visibility. Unfortunately, changes in the economy resulted in fewer people searching for their short and long-tail keyword phrases.Could the timing of moving from underscores to hyphens have been worse?

To add insult to injury, the company cut back staff, and the marketing team of 6 was trimmed down to 2 a month after the rewrites. Budget was also cut back. Our recovery plan and resources were nearly halted.

Could it get worse?

Yes! By the end of the year, they had completely dropped out of the top 100 rankings on Google for a plethora of terms.

Recovery Plan

As Winston Churchill said,

“Never. Never. Never give up!”

Limited resources cannot hold back creative thinking. The two members of the truncated marketing team were writers. Ah ha! They understood their industry and had learned how to tell a story with keywords and relevant terms. We planned and implemented the following:

  • A content development strategy with better images and engaging content
  • Industry blogger and PR outreach (link marketing)
  • Better linking within the site verticals (Yes, you may use the term “silo” here.)
  • Pushed home page PR to key pages with, you got it, keyword-focused anchor text.

Bottom line, we published and updated content frequently. The search bots picked up their crawl rates. Traffic increased.

Fortunately, recovery only took a few months thanks to a website with a lot of history, a PR of 6, 180K+ links, and high authority in its space. By late early February of 2010, we had 11 #1 rankings and multiple page 1 results.

Do you have a similar horror story? I’d love to hear your recovery plans and success.

Dana Lookadoo

Dana Lookadoo

Dana Lookadoo is the founder of Yo! Yo! SEO, a boutique agency based around the concept of Word-of-Mouth SEO. Focus is on helping businesses optimize... Read Full Bio
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  • It happens a lot, the only safety measure with really big clients is planning, planning, planning. You have to plan 12 months ahead, even more if you are able and willing to do so. Forcing the clients to adhere to a strategy, allows them a better usage of internal resources (or even worse, external agencies).

    • Melissa Fach

      Hey Gareth!

    • Dana Lookadoo

      Garett, you are SPOT ON! Decisions made in haste have lasting, often detrimental effects. Lack of planning kills kittens, 😉

  • Hi Lookadoo,

    I can understand the fury and frustration that you must have faced when you came to know about the change.

    I once had told the developer to add a canonical tag only on the home page. I had even written that in bold that it is only for the home page but he went and added it to all the pages.

    You can understand what must have followed.

    The site recovered but it took at least 2- 3 months to get the indexing and the rankings back.

    • Ahhhh… Misuse of 1 canonical tag results in loss of search visibility!!!! Thanks for sharing, Bharati. What a dramatic example of what happens when IT doesn’t pay attention to details.

  • Hi Dana,

    Great post!

    Unfortunately this happens a lot to us. As much as we try to explain natural SEO and advise our clients to leave it to us, we find that the more curious clients are the biggest offenders.

    Because of their curiosity, they tend to look up and try to understand SEO in 5 minutes. This causes lots of problems because their curiosity gets the better of them and they start to alter title tags and meta data and begin to stuff their content (which was already nicely optimised for our researched keywords) with irrelevant keywords that don’t get the traffic.

    They know that we wouldn’t be happy so they do it secretly and it’s only when we analyse their data for the monthly report that we find things have been tampered with as their visits take a massive hit.

    On the flip side however, after we’ve sent the report and they see that what they’ve done has impacted their traffic and sales then they appreciate the work we do for them and trust us to continue the way we were.

    Sometimes the recovery can take months but without sounding harsh, at least it ensures we receive further custom from them to correct their meddling.

    If nothing else, it teaches them a lesson in ‘if it aint broke don’t fix it!’

    • Adam, you’re so right. As the saying goes, “curiosity killed the cat.” Fortunately, some clients have 9 lives, but they suffer in the process. Thanks for sharing some good food for thought to help us all work together more closely to ensure they understand the consequences!

  • This is what happens when you go to SEO conferences.

  • I have another good one:
    client: “we have created a preview of the new graphic of our website on, could you give us some feedback?”
    me: “It’s nice, when did you put it online?”
    Client: “a week ago”
    me: “it seems google was able to index it. Do you have have put a disallow inside the robots.txt?”
    client: “a what on what ? ”
    me: “ok, you have a problem of duplicated content…”

    • LOL! Oh, Gareth… Another example of the little details. And how many people think about robots.txt for subdomains? They usually think they are “hidden” if no one knows about them. Lesson: Google knows all!

  • I think Churchill would have rather fought WWII all over again.

  • Great story- that’s what happens when the client knows enough to be dangerous! At least they didn’t attempt to make you the scapegoat.

  • You wrote:
    “By late early February of 2010, we had 11 top 10 rankings and multiple page 1 results.”

    What is the difference between ‘top 10’ and ‘page 1’?
    or is it a misprint?


    Yves Baggi

    • Dana Lookadoo

      Yes, that is a misprint – Should be “11 #1 rankings.” Thanks for catching that, Yves, and we’ll get that edited.

  • Under “The URL Fallout” section, you mention that rankings and traffic started to falter. What was the reason for this? Did they not properly implement 301 redirects? Or was it just fallout from a continued change of URLs? Did they publish a proper XML sitemap? etc.


    • Dana Lookadoo

      Kyle, they implemented 301 redirects, but that was it. Plus they had a number of other factors on the site that should have been cleaned up first. They could have done this in a “batch” so the whole site wouldn’t have taken a hit. They should have implemented a content publishing plan to build internal links and an external link building campaign at the same time.

      Lesson: Plan something like this with a staged, holistic approach.

  • One customer of mine changed their name and domain. They’re country-specific company and #1 in the field. Before I arrived, some consultant suggested that the only way to stop Google from ranking their old domain higher was to de-register it. I arrived to a wasteland. I nearly hit the roof.

  • I’ve had similar problems with clients in the past! Great blog post!

  • Hmm… As long as I know, if you’d leave a correct 301 redirect from old pages to new ones, there would be no drop in traffic, it can be acheived with tweaking .htaccess file, at least, for my site

    • Vlad, highly visible sites with lots to lose may, and obviously do, lose ranking and traffic. Best practices is proper planning and coordination to ensure the search engines know about those change URLs – links, social, etc.

  • Clients need to get their SEO on board whenever they want to make any website changes. We are here to help them. Keeping us out of the loop until it’s too late often results in lost traffic and a huge dip in ranking because they just don’t understand how it all fits together.

    • Nick, you’re so right. They MUST keep us in the loop, because they often don’t understand the ramifications. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Ah Nick but you forget that SEO is a simple thing that we simply package into a little box and deliver to clients on a silver platter whenever they want it! 😉

    Website planned? Check.
    Budget signed off? Check.
    Marketing campaign planned? Check.
    Development work done? Check.
    New site live? Check.

    Better give the SEO guy a call to do the SEO stuff now…

    • Scott, thanks for the laugh. Sadly, you’re correct. SEO is often just a task the marketing team checks off rather than understanding it’s holistically part of everything they do!

  • Can you let me know what you found when you looked for the difference between hyphens and underscores? I’ve never heard of a difference.

    • Daniel, good question. I didn’t want to go into too much depth here, and the case study is on an old site to which I’d rather not link. 😉 Here are just 2 tips…

      1) There is the human/usability factor that people don’t read underscores as well as hyphens, especially when the URL is underlined with and hyperlinked.

      2) SERPs results are an indication of how search engines think. Try searching for a high-demand keyword phrase with 2 words using various options below. You’ll see that SERPs are different for the following:

      – no space between keywords
      – hyphen between keywords
      – underscore between keywords
      – no space, in quotation marks to return exact phrase
      – hyphen, in quotation marks to see if hyphen also returned exact phrase
      – underscore, in quotation marks to see if underscore returned exact phrase
      – plus sign between keywords to eliminate unrelated results

      Your results should show that spaces, hyphens, and + sign return almost the same number of results. The significantly lower # of results for underscores shows they do not think of this separator in the same way.

      • Sunita Biddu

        This answer itself a microblog.. good one

  • It scary how many SEO firms main qualification is based their sales prowess.

    I now save articles like this so I can reference the methods I use to perform effective SEO when my suggestions are called into question.

    Unlike sales (not all sales people) I do not pull things out of thin air to get the sale.