Aug 272009

When Web Design Gets Dangerous

Here's a theoretical question: what happens when a (very expensive) web design and development shop is ignorant of search engine optimization (SEO)? Answer: they seriously hurt their client's online business. Or even worse, they kill it (temporarily, let's hope).

Okay, maybe that's overstated a bit. But then again, maybe not. Read on...

This post outlines the consequences of web development done without some (pretty basic) knowledge of SEO. It is not meant to "out" anyone or firm, and it's not meant to demean another party in order to make us look better. That's not how we operate. What it IS meant to do, is illustrate the serious consequences of web design shops that don't know (or care to know) SEO.

The facts

First let's lay out the facts in this situation (the details have been slightly changed to protect all parties.

There are some amazing web design shops out there. But there are some scary ones, too. This post is solely meant to illustrate the consequences of SEO ignorance, in the context of web design firms underserving large companies.

The client (a big company with a lot of stakeholders)

      • A large publicly traded Fortune 500
      • Several brands with ecommerce sites
      • Annual revenues in the billions

    The agency (a decent design firm but with nonexistent SEO)

        • A large design firm
        • Fairly solid technology
        • Clients are very large companies
        • Almost zero knowledge of SEO

      The situation

          • Sites were being re-designed and re-launched
          • A complete strategy was developed for redirecting legacy URLs
          • They were behind on a number of initiatives, and SEO was pushed down

        The major fail

            • 99% of the redirects were not set up properly (and most of the URLs changed)
            • Thousands of URLs broke and were returning "page not found"
            • When a page wasn't found, it was 301'd to an error page
            • The error page returned a 200 status code

          ... cue meaningful silence ...

          Let's break it down

          There are some serious consequences here. Let's quickly analyze what happened.

          Terminal output showing the redirect status codes

          Because redirects were not properly in place, and because most of the URLs changed when the new designs rolled out, there were literally tens of thousands of broken links upon launch (across several sites). These broken links were delivered an error page (okay so far - not ideal - but okay), but the error page returned a status code of 200 (all's well, page found). Whoops.

          That's not even that big of a deal, and an easy fix. The gotcha here is that links were being permanently redirected with a 301 to the error page, which returned a 200.

          The sequence:

              • tens of thousands of pages were permanently redirected to an error page
              • the search engines were told to permanently update the links on these domains to point to the new target - a 404 not found page
              • the 404 page gave a status code of 200

            So googlebot and bing and slurp were all told: "these pages have been permanently redirected to a new location. Please update them in your engines. The new location is our error page, which pretends it's not an error page."

            If the error page returned a correct 404 status code, the engines would have known not to update links to the error page. But, because the error page returned a 200, that didn't happen and tens of thousands of URLs began the process of 301'ing to the error page. Ouch! Major revenue impact!

            What can we learn?

            So what is there to learn from all this? At a minimum, this situation illustrates that knowledge of SEO is critical for anyone running a web design/development firm. But I would argue that this isn't even SEO -- it's basic web 101. To think that companies are operating without this knowledge, and doing their clients real harm, is a little scary.

            Everyone makes mistakes. I make plenty of them. But I try not to charge my clients vast sums of money for my errors.

            Be careful out there.


            12 Responses to "When Web Design Gets Dangerous"
            Arif Gangji says:
            Nicely done ... it's the agencies that are open to admitting that they don't know it all that will evolve and grow. Do you think it's arrogance or ignorance? I mean I have seen where it's strictly budget, but keeping those inbound links alive seems like something you should find room for in the budget! Hopefully, it's ok to share, but I had a similar post about an agency we ran into that was solely pushing PPC to a client: Pros and Cons of Pay Per Click
            Adam Audette says:
            Thanks Arif. If I'm being honest, I'd say there's a lot of arrogance in this equation. Which sort of creates or motivates their ignorance of SEO. Thanks for the link -- good points in that post.
            Leanne says:
            Our client base is different but we find ourselves in similar situations all the time. Someone gets their site re-designed and then they come to us for SEO and there's a lot of work to be done - A lot that could have been avoided if only they had included someone with SEO knowledge right from the beginning.
            john andrews says:
            Hi Adam. Any chance you can get to the management level on this and learn what went down when schedules and budgets were crunched? That'd be interesting.... When faced with "website ready on time, or ready as per SEO plans" which one should be selected? Why? After a project advances with some aspects tabled, who returns to those tabled issues? Was a priority ever acknowledged? In other words, was risk ever managed? I find much of the online SEO advice lacking when it comes to real-world practicalities. I always fall back into risk management mode when working on projects. It seems to be a common thread all of the (often competing) parties can understand. It might be enlightening to learn what really happened here when someone had to make decisions..although it might not be wise to study a client project in public to that level of detail(!)
            Adam Audette says:
            Indeed John, great points and definitely the 'meat' of the matter here. I'm a little scared of publishing too much (sensitive to parties involved), but I agree would be great to see more real-world stuff on SEO blogs generally. I'll keep that in mind myself.
            SeoNext says:
            Really a nice post and all the points you have taken are valid.I am totally agree to see more real-world stuff on SEO blogs.Nice information .
            In our business we've always tried to communicate to clients that their is essentially two important processes to having a presence online. One being a high quality website, and two, ensuring people can find it and that it actually brings in business - which of course we offer Search Engine Optimization services for. It's all too true though, not only are a lot of clients naive, but the design businesses are also.
            Web design is pretty a complicated thing to do. It is not dangerous, but it needs to be done with great care and considering some aspects. SEO work and webdesign must go hand in hand. This is why, i personally recommend people to be more attentive what webdesign services they use.
            SEO Desk says:
            Good post Adam it does happen when some web design companies dont have the SEO in mind you can get some real problems. Its getting easier over time but still something that needs addressing. Good post.
            Dude says:
            Leanne if you know so much about SEO how come your website lacks several major / minor SEO basics. I won't point them out as you should learn them. People like you annoy me as you ruin the industry of SEO, entering a world in which you do not understand. I read every comment carefully and to be honest I was intrigued by yours. I am an Industry professional who works solely on 'blue chip' corporations, who pay myself excessive amounts of money in order to make sure their SEO is up to at least their main competitors standards, and with the correct amount of money we can exceed it, admittedly the requirement for skill set is pretty much at expertise level, as extra work need to be done when working with 'blue chip' corporations and the budgets they have in place. I understand SEO to an advanced level which in correlation provides business with millions of additional revenue (main benefactor of SEO for corporations). But what infuriates me is people claiming to do this for a living and their showcase site lacks basics like missing 'title' tags within 'href's' just to name one, as I do not want to do your own "job" for you....anyhow please do me a tremendous favour and please devour through tonnes of books and publications, journals, extensive research and testing.....come back.....then say......."I am a true SEO (professional)". Regards, Dude.
            Dude says:
            And in relation to the article 'web design' is used improperly as SEO has absolutely nothing to do with the aesthetically side of the design. I am in fact originally a Front End Developer working within the Industry as a Designer, whilst studying SEO for around 9 years before becoming a professional.....however I was indeed brilliant at it, but decided to use it to start several business which gain my company attention and propelled us into the world of 'WEB DEVELOPMENT' which I think was the word intended to be used in this article, especially when relating to a website from start to finish...development side of things is just as important for SEO, many people reject the thoughts and notations for development infrastructure, clarity for accessibility and other issues which have been prevalent within the Internet now for many years, including laws for corporations in the EU to append websites to formally change to accessible requirement standards, or face fines.....however I do not see this put into place. Relating to SEO (Search Engine Optimization) , the whole point is to reflect a better attitude to 'RELEVANCY'. Search Engines are engineered to bring relevant information to the user, so why not the disabled and accessibility bound individuals, they need the internet too, and should have free access to information and be able to purchase like any other the end of the day, it's their right! People still disregard these instances and do not realise that search engines have been analyzing this for many years now. Especially Google since they have such a push and market share within the Advertising Industry, and to point out Video/Sound advertising is getting popular meaning Blind/Deaf people can also sponge the advertising like any individual. It's Google's ethos remember ;) 'Don't Do Evil'...that is a little pointer for you all....not claiming it's new, but damn people if you call it your job....implement TODAYS STANDARD! Regards, Dude, Angry SEO Genius, Nom nom nom! Burp!
            Hey Dude, thanks for coming by. I've been secretly hoping Jeff Lebowski would chime in here, even though this post is about 3.5 years old. You said, "And in relation to the article ‘web design’ is used improperly as SEO has absolutely nothing to do with the aesthetically side of the design." This is actually incorrect. The evolutions of Google's algos mean updates like Panda have actually made web design a scoring factor in SEO, directly. Remember, Panda is a classifier that mimics things like the perceived quality, credibility, authority, quality, and yes, even the aesthetic design of a site. And as a second order effect, web design for the last several years at least has been a factor in how easy it is to share a piece of content, and thus earn that content links. Quality design generates more sharing, and thus, more links, which as you know drives SEO. Where you are correct is calling attention to the importance of web development and SEO, however in this particular case the design and development were both governed by the same company, thus the title of the piece. Once last thing. That rug really tied the room together. Did it not.

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