A few years ago we were brought in on a project after a new site had been launched and the client lost 60% of their lead flow. This was a client that relied on their website almost exclusively for all their leads.

This was a complete restructure, "reskinning," and merging of 3 different websites. A complex project if the client didn't rely so much on the site for leads. Much more complex because of that.

Redesigning a site of that scale without someone well-versed in IA and SEO is unbelievably risky. You're pretty much rolling the dice, even with a team that's great in everything else (design, content, etc).

You can't really blame anyone involved. The dominant approach to "redesigning" a site is to completely relaunch everything, so it's completely normal. Nobody knew the risks involved.

We figured out the cause. There was a tool on the site that was ranking near the top of search for a very high volume set of keywords, driving a TON of search traffic and the keyword fit with their target customer was as good as I'd ever seen.

In addition to this unbelievable SEO goldmine they had sort of stumbled upon by accident, there was also quite a bit of traffic coming from other sites linking to the tool.

The tool had a variety of functions, and each function lived on its own, unique URL. When the site was redesigned, the tool's URL structure was changed. And while 301 redirects were put in place for the tools "home" page, none were created for the tool's sub functions. And those sub pages all the links and traffic.

So we determined that 2 major factors contributed to the traffic loss:

  1. First, because no 301 redirects were in place for the tool's sub functions, Google dropped those pages from search results.
  2. Second, the sites that were linking to the tool, sending quite a bit of traffic and propping up its rankings, noticed the tool went down and changed their links to point to competing tools. Links are a factor in rankings so the competition now had our links and they probably weren't coming back. So even after Google indexed the new URLs, the site's rankings never recovered – they basically handed the competition the entire first page.

As long as the competition doesn't screw up, they'll probably never lose those rankings. It would be possible to bump them out but it would take a lot of commitment and expertise. The client was doing so well because they were one of the first sites in this space to offer this tool, which turned out to be in very high demand.

But the tool wasn't complex at all. The client was just the first to create it. Literally hundreds of other such tools existed by the time the site was redesigned and in the eyes of users, and Google, the tools were interchangeable.

There were a number of other issues that contributed to the overall drop in traffic and leads, but this accounted for most of the effect.

We worked with the client to solve the issues, but even after that, leads never recovered to previous levels. This is a client in the double-digit millions in annual revenue that lost most of their lead flow from their primary traffic source.

This was the most extreme case I've ever seen, but 20-30% traffic drops after website redesigns seem like the norm these days.

So what's the solution? It depends.

If you can get away with it, don't change everything all at once. Big tech companies have learned this.

Have you ever seen Amazon completely redesign and restructure their entire site? Or Apple? Or Google? Or Facebook?

Hell, they don't even totally revamp their design all at once, let alone every aspect of the site.

There are 2 reasons for this:

  1. It's incredibly risky. The more stuff you change, the harder it becomes to ensure you don't screw something up and the harder it becomes to diagnose and recover from problems if something goes wrong.
  2. Changing everything all at once is not a data-driven approach to improvement. Why change the entire site all at once based on the subjective judgments of everyone involved when you can use data to incrementally improve things, measuring changes to ensure they're having a positive impact? One of the major benefits of digital is that we can measure so much. But we throw all that out the window when we revamp everything at once.

A better approach is to allocate budget to ongoing improvements. That way you have data to ensure your changes have a positive impact. That's certainly not easy either, but when the alternative is such a crap shoot, it's definitely the smarter approach.

Unfortunately, taking an incremental approach to website improvement is politically infeasible in many organizations for a lot of reasons, so if you must completely redo your entire site all at once, consider budgeting for some due diligence in the planning phases to prevent too big a loss.