SEO Horror Story #12

Good Content, Bad SEO: The turnaround of a website


In July, I was brought on at to help them do a redesign of the site. is a site dedicated to the news related to the Default Service Industry. The term default service is also called REO (real estate owned). It refers to properties that have gone into default on their mortgages and are now being services by the banks (real estate owned). The banks or loan services are responsible to cut the grass, change the locks, etc. The site has a number of contributors and published around 12-15 stories a day and has a daily webcast video with daily news highlights.

The words re-write always make me fearful. The reason for this is that many times it just involves a facelift. Real issues such as copy, calls to action, and the underlying code are often overlooked. Objectivity on a site is often lost, when you spend so much time working on it. For these reasons it is important to not jump into a re-write prematurely. Also, it is important to look at the re-write or redesign of a site as the starting line and not the finish line.

After my initial review of, I knew it was in need of a re-write. The page layout and navigation were confusing, but the content was top notch. The design made the content and articles looked like an after thought. Buttons of companion websites drowned out the site’s articles. The main feature on the page was a daily video and breaking news. The news was display in a very small frame that required a lot of scrolling. In a nutshell the content was great, but the design was awful.

The site’s navigation was just as self-serving as the large buttons that dominated the page. They were items like, about us, about me, more about me, and even more about me. There was only one tab out of seven that had anything to do with the news.

I interviewed the editors and got their feedback. They were not very happy with the admin/CMS interface. It was slow, confusing and limited. Talking through their daily workflow and highlighted a couple major areas that could be easily automated to save them 2-3 hours a day.

SEO Problems

So the site had a number of fatal SEO flaws:
• The same title for every page
• Poorly designed URLs, they all went through /index.php/.
• Params were just database keys passed with ids so it would be cat=4 instead of cat=foreclosure.
• No meta-descriptions.
• Relative URLs. This blew me away; when a new story was posted it would change the URLs of past stories relative to the new URL. I couldn’t ever get my head around how it exactly worked and neither could Google.
• Slow, on a shared host.
• The only keyword it showed up for was its domain name.

Half of the traffic the site was receiving was coming directly from the daily email they sent with the day’s top news or referring sites. A quarter of the traffic was from bookmarks or direct type in of the domain. The last quarter was from the search engines, but if you looked at the keywords you would see that DS News or account for 95% of the search volume.

SEO Solutions

When I went to redesign the site I followed the 4 steps I use for setting up a website (clear URLs, up to date sitemap, quality title and meta tags, quality content). Fortunately the site already had great content.

Clear URLs

Before designing anything or writing any code I planned out the major sections of the site:
/ (home)
/cat/ (content matching this cat)
/pro/ (types of readers)

All of these URLs make it easy to see at a glance what the traffic on the site is doing. The old URLs and identical titles made it nearly impossible to surmise what people were doing once they were on the site.

Up to Date Sitemap

Since this is a news site it was important to think about the freshness of our content when designing our sitemap. Since we had 3 years of new archive, which amounted to about 4000 stories, it was not practical to include all these stories in the sitemap. I split the sitemap into two sections news content and non-news content. The newsmap has the last 100 articles in the Google newsmap format. The sitemap has all the non-news content. The population of these sitemaps automated by the CMS.

Quality Title and Meta Tags

I automated the generation of the page title, meta tags and SEO friendly URLs. The editors simply paste the title and body of the story into the CMS and it takes over the rest. It ensures that all the Titles are meaningful and the meta-tags are accurate. They are also able to quickly tag the article with relevant tags, categories and reader types.

Putting it all together

I worked with the companies designer and editorial team to get an agreed upon design. We went with a newspaper feel for the site. We organized all the content by category and reader type. We minimized the non-news part of the site in the navigation such as contact us, about us, etc. We also created a sitemap like footer with lots of helpful information.

The homepage is a busy page, but what news page is not. I made it easy for the editors to change out all the different stories, headlines, and article images. We put a lot of focus on the large image on the homepage. We decide to make it rotate the day’s top stories and decided to also buy quality images on a daily basis to make it really pop. The slider is a highly clicked on area.

I didn’t bother to open the old code to figure out what I could save and what I couldn’t. I just let it go, started over from scratch. Having the URLs already defined it made it easy to know what to do next. I just went down the list of URLs until all the pages were coded.

The Results

The rewrite started on July 1. On August 1 we did a “soft” launch and moved the site to a new dedicated server so the site was also faster than ever. I hit my goal of rewriting the site and not adding a single feature. We were short a couple of features like a search and video archive, but those were not showstoppers. The old site’s version of these features never really worked. These features were added in the weeks to follow.

Google loved our new site and new sitemaps. We started to show up for terms other than DS News. At the end of August, Google news picked us up and the site really took off. This chart shows the growth over the previous month.

Historical Growth
Month Unique Visitors Visits Page Views Email Signups
Sep-09 91% 76% 53% 84%
Aug-09 83% 54% 84% 154%


We have experience a 350% grows in visitors and a 281% increase in page views in the two months since the site was re-launched. The content, which is high quality, is pretty much the same, with the addition of one new writer. The only thing the site was missing was some SEO and good design.

Leave a Reply