A couple years ago I was 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 it was as perfect a fit for their target customer as I've ever seen.

In addition to this unbelievable SEO goldmine they had sort of stumbled upon by accident, there were also quite a few sites linking to the tool from some key pages and those sites were sending a lot of traffic as well.

The tool had a variety of functions, and each function lived on it's 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 had all the links and traffic.

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

First, because no 301 redirects were in place for the tool's sub functions, Google dropped those pages from search results until it found the new URLs. During that time competitions' tools took over.

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 the competition. 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 it wasn't anything revolutionary, and the competition quickly copied it. The client had a major first mover advantage, but the tools all basically did the same thing. 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. I don't know exactly what the client's revenue was at the time, but it was above $20 million. Think about that: 60% drop in leads for a company doing $20 million where MOST of their lead flow comes from the website.

This is an extreme example, but it's so common that it seems like the prevailing wisdom these days is that all sites lose traffic after a relaunch.

That's completely preventable, but it's nearly impossible to ensure it doesn't happen if everything changes all at once.

With proper planning, you can lessen the risk, but it's impossible to eliminate it.

So what's the solution? Don't change everything at once. Big tech companies have learned this. Have you ever seen Amazon completely relaunch their site? New content, site structure, design, everything all at once?

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 does go 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.

The story I opened this post with is not an unusual situation. It happens frequently. It happens so often that it seems like it's becoming common wisdom that a traffic drop is often just what happens when you redesign a site (with the hope that it recovers later).

The only reason that happens is because something was changed that had a negative impact. Maybe the site is slower in some way, maybe users can't find things as easily, maybe redirects were missed, maybe some content was changed in a way that negatively impacted traffic or user engagement.

So, websites often lose traffic after a redesign, but it's not because that's just what happens. It's because something was changed that had a negative impact, and when you're changing everything all at once, it's almost impossible to ensure that doesn't happen and to diagnose the problem when it does.

A better approach is to allocate budget to ongoing testing, to include design. 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.