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Rebranding, Relaunching, and Search Engines: Truth About ‘The Dip’

Posted October 11th, 2012 by Andrew Goodman

Seth Godin wrote The Dip about the scary transition period when you really need to re-engineer something fundamental about life or business, and in the transition, your day-to-day results are almost certain to be worse for a time, before you (ideally) ultimately re-emerge on a higher plane.

There is no more literal view of that ‘Dip’ than when you watch the search referral graph in your Analytics following a move to a new company name or URL. Down you go. When will you come back up?

In the SEO world, we’re so dreary (yet optimistic) about what relaunching means to Google that we refer cryptically to said relaunches as a ’301 redirect strategy’.

You can also get worse performance from paid search, due to an interruption in Quality Score history in the “display URL” and ad history, but no one would make that out to be quite as risky.

Back in the day, there were long checklists circulating among SEO wonks about everything you should do to survive a relaunch. Some items including going around and asking people to change their links to you, even if it was something they did as a favor five years ago. SEO people! Almost as self-absorbed as Googlebot itself!

This subject is still important, but for some reason it stopped showing up on conference programs. When we revived the concept at SES Chicago last year, the room was full; it contained approximately 100% of the people at the show who were undergoing a site relaunch that month. But generally, it’s still a topic that has seemingly run its course at the shows and on the f0rums. Maybe it just means we’re getting more strategic in our thinking.

In hindsight, the classic SEO view of this Dip was both too narrow and too apocalyptic.

Yeah, it’s certainly possible to botch it up, and sure, there are things you want to do to ensure that you accelerate the gathering of new signals by search engines. One frustrating thing we witnessed with one client was the knowledge that almost perfect continuity is possible (because Bing didn’t flinch by one click when we threw the switch), but not likely to be something you get to enjoy full in the real world (because Google is more temperamental, and prefers to rebuild signals anew, and reconfirm them in its own good time).

What SEO’s don’t do a great job of is understanding the broader strategic risks and rewards, and the need for visionary entrepreneurs to power through such “dips” more often than a mere tactitian would see as advisable.

Maybe the acid test is simple hindsight. If you went through one of these dips, would you do it again? Does it horrify you to imagine how stagnant or out of step your business might have been had you avoided a major relaunch, rebranding, or rethinking?

There’s actually not a whole lot I can say about some of the examples I know, because they’re clients and the data is private. But I do have a couple of points that can be safely made.

HomeAdvisor is in the news [not a client] because they’re the new brand for Service Magic, which is a huge risk in the mind of one analyst because of all the SEO equity and indexed pages Service Magic has enjoyed over the years. But ask yourself: if all of that “equity” is going to a stale brand with a strategy you no longer plan to pursue, wouldn’t you be better off deciding that you’re probably going to be fine porting *some* of that equity to the fresh, new brand and concept, and letting the new brand get back to where it was or better… as itself, the new business, and not the stale old one?

This is the risk Godin outlines in The Dip; it is accompanied by a calculation that the new result will take things to a higher plane, or at least not gradually descend off a cliff of irrelevance. If strategic change (or rapid iteration, or both)  is imperative, then you do it. And do what you can to make the search engines happy, following some best practices while tossing others in the trashbin of history and hoping that someday soon, search engines appreciate the new functionality, brand, relevance, etc. of your business as much as your customers and users do.

There’s no way to share specifics, but insofar as we’ve been through these kinds of changes with clients like [disclaimer: a client] (also mentioned in the Denver Post article, misleadingly given that the Dip was indeed temporary), HomeStars, and others… I think it’s pretty safe to say, it nearly always works out.

At HomeStars, we changed URL’s twice, and have had numerous soft relaunches and upgrades to architecture and technology, and no doubt we’ll undergo many more. We catch some of the worst problems to do with search engine visibility, but other times the things we do are meant to enhance functionality and credibility, etc., with our stakeholders and users. Those times, we make a conscious decision not to pander to “SEO.” Long term, that’s generally the right decision.

If we had simply tried to mine some aberrations and early successes in search referrals, we’d be stuck in 2007 with a dead brand, an untenable site architecture, and 100 problems to solve and myriad mysteries to solve (answers needed to which we would not even have known the questions). Put another way, to move a business forward, sometimes you have to break stuff. It’s probably not going to be as bad as launching New Coke. :) And even they had a ‘revert’ button.

In most cases, our clients are braver than we are, and more visionary. Our job is to ensure they don’t go out of business through overexuberance, but it’s a mistake to fight an entrepreneur’s vision based only on a weak set of short-term tactical wrinkles.

Purely tactical plays that cling to whatever worked to game the algorithm in the past… well, they do maddeningly well short and medium term, but then one day find themselves either penalized or all but irrelevant to search engines — as they have been all along to users. I have to say there’s considerable satisfaction seeing them fade down the SERP’s when the signals have all added up… like an aging starting pitcher losing it in the sixth inning watching the manager amble slowly out to the mound, to give them the “tap.”

As for, how many ways can you count the value of a shorter domain name that people can more easily share? It fits beautifully into a display URL in a PPC ad, I’ll tell you that. The value of moving on from a more cumbersome brand that may soon become dated? Godin charted it well. There is a temptation to put off these gut-wrenching decisions. But “search engine equity” — based solely on the engine being willing to index your pages and assigning a certain value to them that should be recoverable in time in any case — shouldn’t be a reason to stay mired in the past.


Artwork: Gaping Void

One Response to “Rebranding, Relaunching, and Search Engines: Truth About ‘The Dip’”

  1. Great article, but the principle here is a fundamental one that needs to be viewed in a larger business context. Quite simply, what are the cost/benefits of a major organizational change now vs. later? Do we rebrand and face uncertainty, or stay as-is and risk irrelevance? Its one of the most fundamental business strategy questions around and predates the day anyone ever used a search engine. The stakes are higher now, and much of the uncertainty of the change is due to the fickleness of search algos, but it still comes down to a management decision as to risk and reward. Most website owners would say “go for it”, because we know the downside of not changing in the internet world is not just irrelevance, but obscurity. Take the bullet now.


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