To 301 or Not to 301, That Is the Question

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hamlet_smallADOTAS – In any given month, I conduct between five to 10 SEO campaign audits. What is an SEO campaign audit? An SEO campaign audit assesses the current search-effectiveness of a website. The audit helps identify what needs to be done to improve the SEO campaign and how to prioritize those tasks in order to produce the highest and best use of a company’s investment in the SEO campaign.

As an SEO I’ve been performing website audits for years. I started with informal SEO audits on the trade show floor at conferences in the early days of Search Engine Strategies. Clients would sit down at a small round table next to my laptop and generally speaking within 15-20 minutes I could find five to 10 problems hindering their sites from being well-ranked.

While informal SEO audits are helpful, there is nothing better than formally critiquing a site and preparing a written report. Marketing, public relations and IT departments are finding that an SEO audit is often one the best investments in the website.

While I often find the same optimization issues from client to client, every once in a while I come across something really new or unique.

This past week, I audited an SEO campaign from a law firm that had 18 sites. This law firm developed 18 sites as a segmentation strategy with the goal of maximizing traffic, leads and revenue for the company. The concept was simple — develop a website for the major practice areas of the firm. Optimize each site for that area of practice and dominate the organic search results.

Now two years later the law firm is re-evaluating the original SEO strategy. My original conversation started with a phone call where the client’s key issue was the following: “Should we keep one site and 301 redirect 17 websites to the primary site?”

Apparently the client read an SEO forum and was convinced the segmentation strategy was all wrong and the best solution was to implement a 301 redirect from the 17 others sites to the primary law firm website. Since this was a major decision, the client contacted WebMetro for a second opinion.

I then began a formal SEO campaign audit for the client. We started the process with an extensive discovery session where I learned about the law firm’s 2010 goals and objectives. I also learned about their overall marketing mix (online and offline) and how their mix has changed over time.

Finally I learned about the market, especially their competitors and who they believe is doing a good job. With this information in hand, I proceeded with a formal analysis of their 18 websites, along with market and competitive analysis.

After performing ranking and traffic analysis across this portfolio of 18 sites, I discovered that only five of the 18 websites have strong organic rankings for high volume keywords or keywords that have high paid search per click value. Three of the 18 websites have absolutely no rankings.

The balance of the websites, 10 of the 18 had some rankings. However, a close examination of these rankings determined that these rankings were for keywords that have either low search volume or low paid search per click value.

Of the five websites, I found that the main website and another website had 37 keywords ranking between pages 2 and 4 of the organic listings. From a business perspective, these two sites provided an excellent opportunity to secure first page rankings within 90-120 days and thereby begin generating immediate leads and revenue for the law firm.

Following the ranking and traffic analysis across this portfolio of 18 sites, I then performed market analysis. My market analysis included keyword search trend analysis to confirm the keywords are best and search engine market share analysis at the keyword level to understand where to focus the campaign resources.

Finally I performed competitive analysis. I evaluated a number of competitors to understand and appreciate their marketing efforts as they compare to my law firm client. My competitive analysis focused on keyword ranking, traffic analysis, link analysis and keyword gap analysis.

After evaluating all this information and considering the client’s business goals to increase traffic and leads to maximize revenues for 2010, I came to the conclusion that the law firm should focus its efforts on the two websites mentioned earlier. Not only do these two websites have the highest probability of securing top organic rankings but the keywords they target are high volume and high business value.

After these two websites have matured their rankings and effectively reach diminishing returns from a lead and revenue perspective, then the law firm should swap the SEO campaign for the other three top websites. This process will ensure a constant revenue stream for the law firm and a positive return on investment from the SEO campaign.

I presented my analysis and recommendations to the client. They commented on how very pleased they were with the comprehensiveness of my analysis. They informed me that they also believed it made sense to focus their efforts on one or two sites. Apparently they found it very difficult to prioritize the websites when it came to resources. In fact the client informed me they constantly felt as if they were “spreading themselves to thin.”

The question about the 301 redirects then came from the client, “So we should keep two to perhaps five sites and then 301 redirect 12 websites to the primary site?”

I responded that I did not believe this was the best strategy based on the client’s business goals and explained the following. Implementing a 301 redirect is a permanent redirect. When you implement a 301 redirect, you are informing the search engines that the page or in this case entire website no longer exists and to transfer the link popularity to the new page.

Transferring the link popularity from 12 sites would definitely increase the link popularity of the main site and this would result in slightly higher organic rankings. However, this bump in rankings and traffic would be modest at best.

I further explained that the general strategy of segmentation is a good strategy for the law firm. Where the campaign failed was in the execution of the strategy. The client had attempted to optimize 18 websites at once which is an aggressive approach. I stated that most clients have difficulty gathering enough resources for 1 website, let alone 18 websites and reminded the client about “spreading themselves too thin”.

I stated that having the 18 websites still makes sense from a business perspective as the sites are fully functional, do produce leads and require little maintenance at this point. As a law firm if they produce 1 or 2 cases a year, they pay for themselves many times over in revenue. Furthermore, having 18 sites supports their law firm branding initiatives and act as a proactive reputation management campaign, should something negative ever emerge.

As we concluded the call, the client referenced Shakespeare’s play Hamlet and said “To 301, or not to 301, that is the question,” and we both chuckled. All joking aside, the client was absolutely correct. If you make the wrong decision on a permanent redirect, there is no way back — just as Hamlet realized.

3 COMMENTS

  1. WordPress Guru,

    Thank you and appreciate your feedback. I agree 100% that every case is unique.

    Like most things with SEO, it is best to completely understand the business objectives before recommending a standard “best practice” solution.

    Cheers!

    s/John

    John McCarthy

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