Why Clunky Sites (Often) Punch Above Their Weight in the Local Search Results

By “clunky” I mean a website of which you can say some or all of the following:

  • Doesn’t look smooth.
  • Not mobile-responsive.
  • Built on an old or less-common CMS, or is hand-coded.
  • Doesn’t have an SSL certificate.
  • Has some cruft, like pages with overlapping content, messy URLs, wordy title tags, etc.

At least in my experience, those sites often rank well.  Surprisingly well, and more often than you’d think.  When sniffing out a client’s local market and figuring out who’s up to what, naturally I’ll take a quick look at who’s #1 (and 2 and 3).  Half the time that business’s site is beautiful and seems to check all the boxes, perhaps because of a recent redesign.  But the other 50% of the sites are clunky.

How could that be?  Aren’t the Maps and organic rankings so competitive these days that even slight edges matter?  Why might a clunky site rank well in the local results?  A few possible explanations:

1. In-depth content hasn’t been scrubbed out (“Hey, nobody reads anymore!”) in favor of an “elegant” and more-visual design.

2. The site may have fewer slow-loading graphics, whiz-bang special effects, bloated WordPress plugins (h/t Darren Shaw), and other things that make “slick” sites load slowly. Better to be the Badwater snail than the finicky tropical fish.

3. The SEO person hasn’t wiped out or butchered the title tags.

4. The SEO person hasn’t 301-redirected any or many pages, perhaps losing inbound links in the process.

5. Google has had more time to digest the content on the site, and to evaluate how searchers behave on it. It’s not changing every day, and is more of a known quantity.

6. Most other businesses have sites that are clunky, too, and most of the few who have slick-n’-modern sites probably think that’s all they need to rank well.

7. The business owner doesn’t spend all his or her time on the site, and puts a little effort into other things that matter – like earning links, rustling up reviews, and working up enough recognition that people search for the business by name.

I’m not saying you should try to make your site clunky, or that you should never put work into it or reinvent it.  There’s a time to take it to the barber and the tailor, and there’s a time to take it behind the barn.

All I’m saying is that to rank well in Maps and in the localized organic results (1) your site doesn’t need to be perfect, (2) a redesign may not make it better, (3) the off-site work matters at least as much, and (4) tweaking your site shouldn’t be your nervous twitch when you want to improve your rankings.  Don’t be afraid of a little crust.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/61896505@N04/15267050363/

How well does your clunky site – or redesigned site – do in the local results?

Any first-hand experience that aligns or conflicts with what I’ve described?

Any war stories?

Leave a comment!

How to Migrate or Redesign Your Site and Not Die in the Local Rankings

https://www.flickr.com/photos/pasukaru76/5644507618/in/photostream/

Clients and others often ask me how they can redesign their site or migrate to a new CMS and not end up committing seppuku in the local search results.

I tell them that although there are probably a hundred checklist items they might concern themselves with, only a few really matter.  Do these steps wrong or forget to do them and you will bring great dishonor to your local rankings.

If you’re considering a rebuild, make sure that at the very least you’ve done everything on this 7-point checklist:

1. Do your 301 redirects.

Do them on all pages that (a) you’ll be renaming or relocating (to a different subdirectory, for example) and that (b) have good external links pointing to them.

2.  Keep your title tags the same.

Unless they’re lousy and you want to change them anyway.  Take note of your title tags at least on your most-important / highest-traffic pages, or use Screaming Frog to grab and export all of them.

3.  Keep your content the same.

If you have 5 paragraphs on the old version of a page, make sure the new version has the same 5 paragraphs.  Short of doing that, at least keep the content as similar as possible (unless it just sucks).

4.  Make sure your Google Analytics tracking code doesn’t get butchered.

Just log into Analytics after the upgrade and get worried only if you see a flat line.

Check back again a few days later to make sure data’s still coming in OK.

5.  Remove all noindex tags from your staging site.

(At least from the pages you want Google to index.)

While you’re at it, make sure your robots.txt doesn’t disallow your entire site.

Thanks to Darren for the reminder.

6.  Make sure your local listings still point to the landing page URL you want them to.

If necessary, update those listings to point to the correct URL on your site.

7.  Don’t assume the user-experience is better.

You may like the new look.  Your turtleneck-clad designer may like the new look.  But all of that amounts to nothing in the end if your pages load too slowly or confuse customers.

As I’ve said, the “back” button is the worst enemy of local SEO. Google seems to pay attention to how visitors behave once they’re on the site. Also, all the rankings in the world don’t matter if your site makes people cuss.

Use a tool like CrazyEgg to study where visitors click and scroll – how they use the site – and use that intel to make things easier to find and to use.  Also consider getting some five-second tests, or asking your spouse or a trusty cowpoke for an unvarnished opinion.

Get those basics right and worry about smaller stuff later.  If you’ve got a big site or there’s any ecommerce going on, you’ll probably have more work to do during or after the upgrade.

Any redesign / migration horror stories?

Any tips on how to make the transition easy on your local rankings?

Leave a comment!