SEO horror stories: Here’s what not to do

There are countless articles about how to improve website rankings. In contrast, there are few about real life, large website SEO horror stories — the kind of presumed optimization steps taken that make actual experts grind their teeth and Google rankings drop to the bottom, which is unfortunate since learning from other people’s failures is much preferred over learning from one’s own mistakes.

Obviously, few people are inclined, let alone feel comfortable, disclosing any disasters of their own making to the interested public. That’s why the following three real-life cases are completely anonymized. They are textbook examples of how not to approach search engine optimization: All three websites were, at the time of the disaster, primarily focused on non-English speaking markets. They all did reasonably well in Google Search. Furthermore, in all three of these cases, poorly informed decisions set a disastrous chain of events in motion.

Most of these businesses eventually recovered. And lastly, none of the experiences shared below pertain to a past or present client or business partner.

Example 1: PremiumRetailWebsite
Over the course of a few years, PremiumRetailWebsite, an online store for jewelry, has developed from a sideshow to the main sales channel, outperforming the brick and mortar showrooms it was supposed to merely support.

In total, a few thousand product landing pages did reasonably well without much oversight, up until the moment the decision was made to move from the lengthy domain name to a much shorter, more memorable one. A common enough situation in the online world, yet basic mistakes were made from the beginning.

No technical audit was performed and no legacy issues were addressed prior to the move. Instead, a crude 1-1 move from the old domain A to a new domain B was planned. With a 301 redirect to the root rule for any outdated, sold-out or discontinued content applied broadly in the process. A mishandled migration like this alone was likely to cause new problems and magnify existing ones.

When content migration is done, Google has to recrawl new URLs, along with all of their accompanying signals, such as backlinks and canonicals, in order to rank what effectively becomes brand new landing pages. Under any circumstances, a migration is best prepared months in advance, carefully planned and executed during a sales low season. In the case of PremiumRetailWebsite, all of the points were disregarded, causing — as expected — an instant drop in Google rankings at the end of Q3.

The site may have recovered over time; however, the migration was rolled back several weeks later due to an unexpected legal issue that arose with the new domain B. In desperation, an aftermarket domain C was swiftly acquired and the migration was performed once more, now to domain C. This unfortunate course of events was further compounded by the fact that domain C’s past and backlink profile were not checked as part of due diligence.

An existing manual penalty, also known as a manual action, took the SERP slide into a nosedive. The final blow for the site rankings was dealt thereafter when, amid the turmoil, website operations were restructured to more closely mirror the countries’ sales teams. In short succession, PremiumRetailWebsite language versions were upgraded with a multitude of homegrown and customized third party CMS’, operated independently on subdomain and directories. Any resemblance of consistency was abandoned due to internal strife. Too many cooks did spoil the SEO broth at last.

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