“My Developer Ruined My Site’s SEO”: Three Huge SEO Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

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Far too often, a developer comes in to “modernize” a site—and ends up wrecking a thriving online business by ruining its SEO.

It happens far too often that a web developer comes in to “modernize” a site—to improve the mobile experience, or the color scheme, or the fonts, or whatever—and ends up wrecking a thriving online business by ruining the site with SEO mistakes.

When I say “far too often,” I don’t mean it casually. I mean it as in “two separate new clients have contacted me this week with that exact problem.” Here is a description that applies equally well to both these clients:

The site is a successful, long-running e-commerce site. It’s been around for over 10 years and makes around $100K in annual revenue, mostly through strong organic search rankings. For many years, the site was running on Yahoo!’s functional but dated e-commerce platform.

In early 2017, a WordPress developer implemented an expensive new redesign of the site. After the launch, online sales fell off a cliff: thousands of dollars per month in lost revenue, and a huge drop in site traffic. After a year of growing confusion and alarm, the site owner contacts me wondering what could possibly be the problem.

What’s going on here? In both cases, it’s this: the WordPress developer who redeveloped the site was incompetent, and destroyed the site’s SEO—its positioning in organic search—during the course of the redesign.

This article is for both site owners and developers, and explains the three main ways that a WordPress developer is likely to harm a site’s organic search rankings.

Fortunately, WordPress developers’ mistakes fall into patterns. This article is for both site owners and developers, and explains the three main ways that a WordPress developer is likely to harm a site’s organic search rankings. I’ll explain how site owners can protect themselves from developer error, and what developers need to know to stay out of trouble.

Three Mistakes to Avoid: How a Developer Can Ruin a Website’s SEO

An incompetent developer is most likely to harm a WordPress website’s search rankings by making one of three mistakes.

An incompetent developer is most likely to harm a WordPress website’s search rankings in one of three primary ways. There are certainly others, but these are the main ones. (If you’re interested, the two clients who contacted me this week were victims of mistakes #1 and #2, respectively.)

Below, we list out each of these three mistakes, including:

  1. A general description of the issue.
  2. Specifics on how the mistake happens.
  3. Consequences of the mistake.
  4. Preventing the mistake on your own web projects.

If you’re a developer, read through and make sure you know not to make these mistakes, so that you’re not a danger to your clients.

If you’re a site owner, try to understand what these mistakes mean and how they manifest—especially if you suspect that things may be off with your site’s performance in organic search—and how to protect yourself from them.

1. Leaving “Discourage Search Engines” Checked on a Live WordPress Site

The classic mistake here is to check the box while a site is in development, and to forget to uncheck it when you take the site live.

How I wish I could remove this little checkbox from WordPress.

“Discourage Search Engines From Indexing this Site” does what it promises: it tells search engines to ignore the website entirely. For more detail on its functioning, please read my article on the topic:

Why You Should Never, Ever Check “Discourage Search Engines”

Anatomy of the Mistake

All kinds of circumstances could lead to someone checking this box when it shouldn’t be checked. However, the classic mistake is to check the box while a site is in development, and to forget to uncheck it when you take the site live.

Once the box is checked, WordPress has only a muted little “Search Engines Discouraged” notification when the box is checked, which both the developer and the site owner can miss for months or years.

The result of making this mistake is that Google will—because you’ve told it to—deindex and “forget about” your site. As soon as Google notices that the box is checked, you’ll drop out of its organic search results completely.

Consequences

If you’re checking your traffic regularly, you’ll notice this effect quickly: within a week or two, your organic traffic will drop to zero.

The consequence is very simply what we just said: you will never show up in any organic search, ever, under any circumstances. From an SEO standpoint, that’s “absolute zero”—it doesn’t get worse than that.

If you’re checking your traffic regularly, you’ll notice this effect quickly: within a week or two, as Google complies with your request to deindex your site, your organic traffic—traffic from searches—will drop to zero or almost zero. You might first notice that as overall traffic being down 50% or 70% with no clear explanation.

Unchecking the box won’t fix things, either. Google rewards longevity: websites that have ranked for certain searches continually for months and years continue to rank for those searches, partly because they’ve been around so long. Because rankings are often “grandfathered in” in this manner, even a month or two of being forcefully deindexed can do damage to your rankings that is impossible to repair quickly. You could say that “you lost your place in line”: you were only gone for a little bit, but now you have to start all the way at the back.

This is horrifying and I did it to one of my clients when I was starting out. Don’t check “Discourage Search Engines” yourself, and train yourself to be vigilant about that option on live sites you work on.

Prevention

Never, ever check “Discourage Search Engines From Indexing this Site.” If you’re a site owner, ask your developer to put up a Coming Soon page instead, which will hide content just as well. And learn to notice the little alert that indicates that “Discourage Search Engines” is on.

2. Failing to 301 Redirect Links when Changing Permalinks

As a site owner, anytime your permalinks change, you should be extremely nervous.

If your website is getting significant search traffic, then you need to learn a new instinct: anytime your permalinks change, you should be extremely nervous.

Permalinks is a slightly WordPressy term for “the URLs where your posts and pages live.” Some examples of permalink changes would be:

  • Your About page moves from http://mysite.com/about to http://mysite.com/about-us.
  • Your blog articles move from http://mysite.com/article-title format to http://mysite.com/month/year/article-title format.
  • Your site moves from http://mysite.com to https://mysite.com.
  • Your site moves from https://mysite.com to https://mysite.com/v1.
  • Your site moves from https://mysite.com to https://mynewsite.com.

So that I can stop listing examples, just remember: a permalink change is anytime your existing URLs change, for any reason. These permalinks are the “addresses” for the content that Google is listing you for, just the same way that you live at a home address and get email at an email address.

Anatomy of the Mistake

To see how permalink changes can ruin your site’s SEO, let’s ask: what happens if one of your addresses changes and Google doesn’t hear about it?

The result is:

  1. The old address goes “missing”: there’s nothing there anymore.
  2. Google doesn’t know where that old content has gone, so it shrugs and moves other sites’ pages to the top of the rankings for whatever keywords the “missing” address used to rank on.

This mistake can happen both inside a WordPress site, or during a move to WordPress from another system.

On an existing WordPress site, you or your developer might change your site’s permalink structure, or change the permalink for one or more posts, and fall prey to one or more of WordPress’s inconsistencies in terms of how it forwards permalinks. (For example, WordPress automatically forwards Posts but not Pages, meaning that if you don’t write redirects manually your Pages’ rank gets lost.)

During a move to WordPress from another system, your developer might simply forget (or not know) to redirect your old links: about-us.html to /about/, store/product-name.asp to /shop/product-name/, and so on. In this case, all your old links are now broken. This is a huge and very common problem.

If you want to understand what a developer should know about the technical work of redirecting permalinks, I’ve covered this topic in detail:

Understanding 301 Redirects in WordPress (Or: How to Not Ruin Your Client’s SEO)

Consequences

The consequences of this mistake vary depending on how much content was not redirected, and how important the non-redirected content is.

The consequences of this mistake vary depending on how much content was not redirected, and how important the non-redirected content is.

The mildest consequence is that you lose rank on a few not-very-important URLs. /privacy-policy/ goes to /our-privacy-policy/, Google catches on in a couple of weeks, and it doesn’t matter because the old page wasn’t really ranking on anything anyway.

The most severe consequence is that you have an old and well-established site, and all of its links are broken, lost, and forgotten by Google. If left unaddressed, this basically starts your site over from square one in terms of SEO: all the good “addresses” that Google trusted are gone, and you’re now having to win its trust on a whole new set of addresses without any sense of continuity.

This latter case can, for example, take a thriving business’s online sales very abruptly to zero. That’s the situation that one of the clients I mentioned at the start of the article is facing.

Again, if you’re checking your traffic regularly, you’ll notice this effect quickly—within a week or two, and manifesting as an overall traffic drop of 50% or more. When you look more closely, you’ll find that your organic traffic is suddenly at or near zero.

Prevention

Even without understanding the technical details, you should always be vigilant anytime someone proposes changing your site’s links. A simple test you can do is:

  1. Write down the link that’s going to change—or write down a large number of the links that are going to change, if they’re all changing. Focus especially on the main pages on your site: the ones with ranking keywords, such as your best-performing articles or your main product pages.
  2. After the proposed changes, type in the old links and see if the new pages show up automatically. If all the new links show up, you should be okay. If you get an error page on one or more links (with or without the number “404”), don’t stop until that problem is addressed.

It’s a great idea to have two technical people examine redirects to make sure that the changes went through correctly.

More broadly, always check and doublecheck any changes to your permalinks. Sadly, 301 redirects are quite complex: difficulties with (for example) http and https site versions, www and non-www site versions, and trailing slashes all take a lot of expertise and attentiveness to do properly.

As such, if you’re having your links rewritten, it’s a great idea to have two technical people examine the redirects to make sure that the changes went through correctly. The $100 or so you spend to hire a well-qualified freelancer to doublecheck your 301 redirects during migration could be worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in preserved search rankings.

3. Reworking Content with No Sensitivity to Keywords

Whereas mistakes one and two are more like blowing up a site’s SEO, this mistake is more like poisoning it.

This is a more general, systemic mistake. Whereas mistakes one and two are more like blowing up a site’s SEO, this mistake is more like poisoning it.

In other words, the consequences of this mistake manifest more slowly and subtly, and may be easier to reverse. But they’re harder to notice and diagnose in the first place, and both site owner and developer may not fully know what’s wrong, or even know there’s a problem.

Anatomy of the Mistake

You’re likely to face this problem if someone simply rewrites all the site’s content, without taking into account the existing content’s performance in search.

The nature of this mistake is as follows:

  1. You redevelop a site that ranks on certain important keywords.
  2. Your new site doesn’t properly take into account the way the old content ranks.
  3. Over time, the site stops ranking on those keywords.

How could this happen? An awful lot of ways. The most serious, and likely, would be if the new developer simply rewrites all the site’s content himself, without taking into account the site’s current, or hoped-for, performance in search.

Let’s make up an example. Say the site’s most important keyword is “Chicago saltwater pools.” But the developer doesn’t know to do keyword research, and also, he really likes the phrase “private oceans” for those same products. And he also thinks the site should be drawing business from all across the Midwest, not just Chicago. And so, across the site, every permutation of “Chicago saltwater pools” gets changed to “Midwest private oceans.” The site’s organic traffic goes into a swan dive.

This is by no means the only story. There are so many ways to do on-site SEO wrong—infinitely more than ways to do it right. Let’s say you’ve kept most content the same, but you’ve transitioned all the site’s headers from <h1>s and <h2>s containing text to cool, highly designed drawings of that same text—and you didn’t put in alt tags for those images. The site’s probably going to suffer a sizable SEO hit, for reasons that nobody but a pretty well-educated developer or SEO professional will be able to diagnose.

Consequences

The consequences here depend on how good the former content’s rankings were, and on how much worse, SEO-wise, the new content is than the old content. (Of course, if the new content is better than the old content, the difference will be positive! That’s what we hope for, but if you’re going from a content strategy that is SEO-informed to one that isn’t, improvement is very unlikely.)

The difference might be barely noticeable, if the “About” page’s keyword density takes a small hit from a careless rewrite; or it might be crushing, if someone decided that the store’s best-selling products don’t need titles or descriptions, just images, and they drop 60 ranks apiece.

It’s also hard to know how quickly or slowly the site will feel these effects. You’ll most likely start to feel like it’s just really “hard to rank” for stuff. You won’t know if this is because your search terms themselves are getting more competitive, or if there’s something wrong with the site on a technical level (<title> tags? schema.org markup? site speed?), or, in general, what the heck is going on. Like being slowly poisoned, it’s very disorienting and hard to diagnose, which is why you really want to avoid being put in the situation in the first place.

Prevention

If your existing content is ranking in search, any and all changes to it must be done by someone who knows SEO thoroughly.

The simplest advice for staying out of these waters is to only use good, SEO-savvy content writers. If your existing content is ranking in search, any and all changes to it must be done by someone who knows SEO thoroughly.

If not an SEO professional, the person who writes your site’s content should be good enough at SEO to be able to make it a profession if he or she wanted to. Unfortunately, SEO itself (like web development) is such a slippery and badly-monitored business that that bar is a lot lower than it should be.

This is where social proof comes into play. Your content writer should come well-recommended as someone who understands SEO by another person you trust—whether the person making the recommendation is a developer, a digital marketer, a copywriter, a site owner, another SEO, or whomever.

If you don’t have anyone who can make the recommendation, then find a very expensive, widely-lauded SEO, and pay for an hour of his or her time to talk to the person and verify that he or she is up to the job. Or just ask if the expensive SEO has any referrals.

Stay Out of SEO Trouble!

The people who remodel your restaurant almost never burn it down. Not so with web developers!

Hiring a web developer is dangerous. The people who remodel your restaurant almost never burn it down. Not so with web developers! Twice this week I’ve heard from people whose thriving businesses have been set back months or years by developer mistakes.

Whether you’re a site owner or a developer, I hope you’ve now got a clearer sense of some major SEO disasters to avoid. I also hope you have a healthy sense of looking before you leap. Take it from my own past failures: taking responsibility for the SEO of real online businesses really doesn’t reward an “I’m so smart and I’m sure it’ll be fine” mentality.

As a final note, I’m definitely planning to follow up with an article detailing what to do if your site has been impacted by one or more of the issues described above. So keep a lookout for that.

What other SEO mistakes have set you or a client back? Let us know below!

Image credit: snackerz


12 Responses

Comments

  • Anh Tran says:

    Nice article. Probably the developer checked the checkbox for discourage search engines to index the site in the staging or development mode and forgot to uncheck it in production site.

    The permalink structure is a big problem, though. A good practice is never change the permalink structure, but it’s hard to do that while switching from another platform. A good trick is mimic the permalink structure and do the redirect right.

    For example, if the old URL is http://domain.com/2017/some-link/1354.html, then we can use the permalink http://domain.com/%year%/%postname%/%post_id%.html, or simpler http://domain.com/%year%/%postname%/ and make a redirect via .htaccess:

    Redirect 301 /(\d+)/(.+?)/(\d+).html /$1/$2/

  • Ah. that takes me back! We were contacted by a new client once who had had their website designed (by another company) and had immediately dropped from the search engines. They thought they would have to pay us a large amount to rebuild their rankings, but I quickly figured out that the developer had simply left the ‘Discourage Search Engines’ box ticket – no. 1 in your article!

    I’ve also been amazed at how many freelance developers I have worked with make this schoolboy error. It’s easily done but has such serious consequences.

    Years ago, we added a reminder to check this in a large box on our ‘Website go-live checklist’, to make sure we never destroyed a client’s SEO in this way!

  • The robots.txt no crawl rule is also part of the “discourage search engines” mistake

  • Paul Dahlen says:

    Three very good things to put on a checklist indeed. Your article is an excellent gift to developers and clients as well, as you stated. I do have a problem with framing the article around the repeated word ‘incompetent.’ There’s nothing incompetent about discouraging bots while in development to avoid misdirected links (your #2) and simply forgetting to uncheck the box when going live. As you said, you’ve done it yourself and learned a hard lesson – like we all do. That’s not incompetence, it’s forgetfulness, which can be fixed with the checklist idea above. You could have written this entire article without once casting aspersions on other developers and still have done the same service.

    Indeed, if someone is making hundreds of thousands of dollars based on their SEO ranking, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to hire a developer without strong references! A couple of sayings come to mind: ‘buyer beware’ and ‘you get what you pay for.’ To state that these horrible issues are solely caused by incompetence, particularly #1, is just off the mark.

    Regards, and thank you for sharing what you have learned through mistakes and learning.

    • It is incompetent to work on someone’s website without having basic processes in place to avoid simple but serious errors such as unticking the ‘Discourage search engines’ box. I agree that it’s responsible and normal to block search engines while a box is in development, but it is incompetent to leave these in place when the site is launched.

  • Luis says:

    Number 1 is an amateurish mistake that’s almost laughable. Any web developer who does deserves to be out of a job.

    Thanks for the excellent article. As a web developer myself, I always ensure that my client’s old website links will point to the new one after the redesign.

  • An interesting list, but not specificaly wordpress-related. Those are issues that happened on every CMS. It could be interesting, nevertheless, to work on an extended list of seo issues related on how the website are developped with the CMS (and the impact of some plugin if they’re not configured properly, such as Yoast).

  • Mari Kane says:

    Great points, thanks.

    Re: #1 Discourage Search Engines, how does this apply when you are re-developing a site on a different server, while the old site is still live somewhere else?

    • Hi Mari, you need to tick the Discourage Search Engines box while the site is still in development on the other server, but have a clear process to remember to untick it when it replaces the live site. It’s a useful tool and you should be using it – just don’t forget it when the site goes live!!

      • Fred Meyer Fred Meyer says:

        Hi both,

        What Katie recommends will definitely work.

        I personally recommend instead putting your site behind a Coming Soon page, meaning that its contents are not accessible without a login. Logged-in visitors (developers, site owners) see the site, and non-logged-in visitors (including search engines) just see the coming soon page. Since search engines can’t access the new content, they won’t index it.

        So this has the same effect as Discourage Search Engines is intended for–prevent Google from indexing content on a site in development–without the risk of you forgetting what you’ve done at launch. Coming Soon by SeedProd is a good plugin for this.

  • Nicola Yap says:

    Ohh, this list is already giving me a headache LOL. When we get a new client and have to revamp an already existing website orrrr change the domain name completely for SEO , it’s SUCH a headache and tedious process for everyone involved…. but alas it’s totally necessary. If only web developers ALL knew proper SEO procedure and built the websites with that in mind.. there’s seriously nothing more annoying than trying to optimize a site post-dev that’s just a sad mess SEO-wise. Oh well, guess it pays the bills so I really have no right to grumble.

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