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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.
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