07 August 2015

The Number One Mistake to Ruin Search Rankings

Graph showing number of search impressions declining after changing URLs
Number of search impressions took a dip after drastically changing URLs.
I've run my website, Messages in the Moonlight (MIM), since 2003. In all that time, I've made a lot of stupid mistakes in terms of SEO and networking. I've fallen into time-suckers (think Facebook) and I've applied tips that took a lot of work to implement (and dropped off the radar while I did them) only to find out after the fact that search engines penalize against them. I'll be putting a list together of good advice to help with boosting your website's popularity. In the meantime, though, I want to make sure you don't do the one ridiculously stupid thing I did.

Don't change your URLs!

I'll say it again so it sticks. Once your website is set up and you continue adding pages, don't change your URLs.

For the first 5 years, MIM went through changes all the time. I often rearranged the navigation. But I always kept the URLs the same. This wasn't intentional at the time. I just didn't consider changing them. The site slowly, but surely, gained popularity.

When Geocities announced closing it's doors, I hadn't considered the impact the changes in URLs would do. When I moved the site to a custom domain (www.moonlightmessages.com), I kept most of the page file names the same. It also helped that I made the switch ahead of time, allowing me to set up a big ol' "We've moved!" notice on the old URL redirecting them to the new domain.

From then on, I continued moving things around, but always keeping the URLs constant. The site wasn't the most popular in the sense that people hung out at the forums and were active (social media boom killed that), but the site was often recommended. It showed up in search results regularly, even if it wasn't always at the top.

But then I was stupid in 2013. I wanted to give the site a much needed makeover. While I was at it, I wanted to take a lesson from newer, more successful websites. Instead of my typical rearranging but keeping the files the way they were, I got all those pages nice and organized. I was so proud of myself! Then I started to drop off the radar. I even made sure to hunt down sites that were linking to the old URLs and letting them know of the changes. But MIM just seemed to get less and less popular (and not in a changing of trends kind of way).

After my son was born, I decided to switch to a host that allowed me to cut back on the time-consuming HTML and CSS and switched over to Google Sites. I thought I was so smart implementing descriptive URLs (because search engines like those). I was so certain it was going to be the greatest thing for MIM. It would up its ranking in search results, people would find it easier, and it would be awesome.

Cue devastatingly low stats, very few pages showing in search, and crushingly low ranking.

Analytics data for Messages in the Moonlight in 2013 before changing URLs compared with today
MIM wasn't the most popular website out there, but there's a massive difference between stats in 2013 before drastically changing URLs and today. What improvements can be seen are so minimal they're insignificant. Multiple factors play a role, but the URL changes have had the most impact on search results.

What the heck? Where the hell did all my loyal visitors go? Well, they got lost and thought it was me who disappeared.

Then I discovered just how important it is to never change your URLs. Now, if you can do a long-term redirect you're great. If you can avoid 404 errors by keeping the old pages in place and set them up to link to the newer version, great. But if you can't, just keep the old URLs.

Here's What Happens When You Change URLs:
  • All that networking you did with the old URLs just went down the drain
  • All those awesome fans who recommended pages think the page is gone forever
  • Outdated sites linking to your site will only reinforce the idea that your site is gone
  • People take advantage that they think your site is gone and pass its content off as their own (and because your new URL is younger, you get the penalty for duplicate content)
  • Search engines treat you like a brand new site (never mind that you've been around for over a decade)
  • Crawlers get confused with all the 404 errors, often taking forever to stop looking at cached versions despite removal requests
  • New URLs may be penalized or take much longer than expected to appear in search results
Now don't get me wrong, there are ways to beat this. Changing one URL isn't the end of the world. And redirects, if you have the option, will do you wonders.

One of the fortunate things about hosting at Google Sites is that clicking on old URLs will take you to a Page Not Found page on MIM, so at least visitors make it to the site. That said, not everyone is like me and willing to go searching for what I was looking for in the first place, so you may as well assume 404 page visitors will bounce and ignore any other links to your site.

Bottom line: If you change your URLs - especially in drastic ways - be prepared to loose years of hard work. I made other silly, easily correctable mistakes around the same time, but this is the one that hurts the most and took MIM back to square one in terms of search ranking.

Have you ever made this mistake? What impact, if any, did changing URLs have on your site rankings? Do search rankings even impact your fanbase? What did you do to fix it?

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