In June 2013, we were planning to merge 9th sphere and Convurgency to create a new brand - 9thCO. As you can imagine, this opened up a bunch of questions:
- What plans do we need to make before we take action?
- How will our online presence be affected?
- How will our search engine rankings, links, and number of visitors be impacted?
- How do we avoid losing potential revenue?
If your company is in the process of navigating a rebrand or a merger, this article offers some direction on how to implement a successful re-brand/merger strategy. We’ll explain:
- How we evaluated our three different websites
- The most important factors to consider when merging a website
- The results we achieved
- The pitfalls we encountered – and avoided.
We successfully managed our re-brand/merger and by following a few straightforward steps, you can do the same. We hope our experience can help you make the transition as seamless and as effective as possible.
To successfully merge our company’s two original websites, we detailed our plans for each site, identified the potential risks, and evaluated how we could decrease the impact of these risks (or better yet, prevent them from occurring at all).
We assessed the successes and failures of the company’s two original websites (9th sphere and Convurgency). We asked ourselves:
- Did either site have what it took to represent 9thCO's new brand?
- Would the new company and brand easily fit into the structure of one of the existing sites?
- Should we change the logo on an existing site or create a new one?
- If we were to build a new site, what lessons could we learn from our original sites?
- Strategically, is this a good time to change either site?
- If we change either or both sites, how do we minimize losses in ranking and traffic?
We decided that 9thCO was a unique brand that required a new website (9thCO.com). We started fresh, creating a new website using all the data we were able to glean from the other two sites. Since 9thCO was to offer services similar to the original two companies, and since this project was more of a branding change, we mined historical data from the two sites to create the new one.
It was important for us to prepare clients and visitors for the change. We added messaging to the home pages of both companies’ original websites that announced the merger and linked to a press release.
When we launched 9thCO.com, we monitored how users - as well as Google - evaluated the three websites. Based on the results, our intention was to eventually redirect the two older sites to 9thCO.com, if doing so would contribute to further growth.
To make the right decision, we evaluated website data from 9thsphere.com and Convurgency.com. We evaluated search engine ranking to assess factors that contribute to domain authority, including:
- Domain age
- Quantity and value of links pointing too
- Social predominance
- Depth of site and content
- Existing search ranking
- Any potential search engine penalties
Our benchmark was based on Google Analytics, Google AdWords, Google Webmaster Tools, and search positioning software that revealed the performance of our two original websites. We evaluated how visitors were using the sites based on navigation flow, bounce rate, average time on site, traffic volume, and conversion rates.
We discovered that 9thsphere.com ranked very well for certain keyphrases, while Convurgency.com ranked well for others. We hoped to transfer all the strong rankings to 9thCO.com by amalgamating the two presences.
We then created a list of potential risks, with the plan of mitigating the following:
- Loss of revenue
- Negative effects on ranking
- Loss of ‘link juice’
- Search engine penalties
1. Loss of revenue
Loss of revenue is a major risk during any website merger, but it can be avoided with proper planning. There was a strong possibility that if we moved one site to another without redirecting each page to a new one, Google would identify our new site as providing a poor user experience and assign us a lower ranking. Poor rankings would result in less visibility, which would mean fewer people coming to our site and contacting us.
We already had destination goals in Google Analytics on all three websites to capture any leads (i.e., a visitor who fills out and submits a contact form). To avoid major loss of revenue, we monitored the goals for 9thCO to see if we could maintain similar visitor-to-lead ratios after the merger. If we saw a decline in, or a large loss of incoming leads, we could investigate further or revert to the original sites, if necessary.
2. Negative effects on ranking
Before merging the sites we had numerous double listings in the search results; pages from both sites (or even all three) showed up on the first page of Google based on the same keyphrases. Merging websites would get rid of these double listings, giving us less visibility on some search terms.
However, merging and having more content on a single site would, in theory, solidify rankings and help us rank for new search terms. 9thCO.com already ranked well for some of our target keyphrases, so we knew the site had the potential to rank for more, especially if we redirected the other sites to the new website.
3. Loss of ‘link juice’
According to Google, every link back to your website is considered a ‘vote.’ More high quality ‘votes’ result in a website with more authority. To avoid losing the links and authority that we had already built over the years, we developed a strategy that will be discussed later in this article.
4. Working around a search engine penalty
Google gives a website penalty if they believe any unethical practices are being used to give that site an unnatural/unfair boost in ranking. One of our sites (Convurgency.com) had a penalty based on negative link building. It’s important to be penalty-free since redirecting a website with a penalty to a new domain will pass on that penalty.
The Migration Strategy
Based on the results of the above analysis, we planned to redirect 9thsphere.com to 9thCO.com. We decided to temporarily leave convurgency.com on its own because of the manual search engine penalty. Next, we needed to determine the best way to implement the move.
Moving 9thsphere.com to 9thCO.com
Google recommends using 301 redirects for permanent page moves. In addition to using 301 redirects, we specified the move in Google Webmaster Tools. Search engines cache (remember) live pages, so we didn’t want any prospects to search for us and arrive at either an empty or 404 (“not found”) page.
Instead of forwarding the entire 9thsphere.com site to 9thCO.com, we put together a comprehensive 301 redirect plan that pointed each page on 9thsphere.com to 9thCO.com. The plan contained the initial URL, as well as the new target URL on 9thCO.com.
It is very important for businesses to consider the user experience their website offers. A single 404 page (the error that shows up if a page no longer exists) could potentially result in the loss of a good prospect, since navigating to an error message typically make a prospect leave the website.
We also wanted to let the world know about our changes. During our company merger (before we redirected any sites) we emailed our clients, issued a press release, wrote news articles for each website, and updated our social media profiles so there were no surprises when we finally merged the sites.
Updating external links
Since we had thousands of links pointing to 9thsphere.com, we wanted to update as many of them as possible to point directly to 9thCO.com. Our strategy was to direct the highest quality links (the ones with the most traffic) to 9thCO.com, so that we could preserve as much ‘link juice’ from these links. A 301 permanent redirect passes between 90-99% of ‘link juice’ (ranking power) to the new page. Since it is not passing along 100% of the link juice, there is potential loss of value. While changing all links would be too time consuming, changing only the top links would give us the most value in terms of time investment.
Fixing internal links
The content on 9thsphere.com also had hundreds of internal links (links to pages from our own website to other pages within the same website). By swapping out the 9th sphere links with 9thCO links, we avoided broken links. This process was labour-intensive, but critically important for usability and to avoid crawling errors.
Following the merger, there were extraneous services we no longer offered. We redirected those pages to the parent Services page to avoid 404 errors if those pages were found through Google search.
There aren’t many published case studies dealing with businesses merging and then returning to two or more original companies. As a result, it was hard to predict the results for our companies if we decided to reverse our merger. However, creating an excellent user experience by smoothly redirecting and updating links ensured that the search engines would favourably catalogue the move.
We used Google Analytics, Google Webmaster Tools, and our ranking reporting software to monitor rankings, lead volume, and traffic volume before and after the move. This analysis wasn’t just a one-time event. In fact, we were still finding broken links and redirection issues months after the website merger. As a result, we had to proactively monitor the sites post merger to fix links that we had missed.
Potentially rolling back
If we saw a significant drop in visitors or rankings, we could always remove the page redirects that we had implemented. Fortunately, Google has a helpful video about merging correctly, and it helped us prevent having to roll back changes. In fact, we relied heavily on Google Webmaster Tools during and after the merger to monitor any 404 errors.
The Results of the Website Merge
Days after we merged the sites, we were still seeing rankings for the original site - 9thsphere.com. Slowly, we began to see search results listed for both websites. Within a few weeks, however, 9thCO.com started to rank very high, while the 9thsphere.com listings entirely dropped off.
Below are screenshots and a timeline of the ranking changes.
On October 21, 2014 we redirected the blog content from 9thsphere.com/blog to 9thCO.com/insight (our new blog location). As is pictured below, a direct search for our blog shows that Google didn’t catch the change immediately. However, when the results were clicked, visitors were sent to the relevant 9thCO.com blog page, thanks to the 301 redirects.
On October 23, 2014 we redirected the rest of 9thsphere.com to 9thCO.com. The only content left to be redirected was the news section. Both websites were still cached in Google, as shown below. However, when searches for ‘9th sphere’ were performed, 9thCO.com results were returned. Interestingly, the search results for ‘9th sphere’ did not surface the 9thCO.com home page. Since we were directly external site links, 301ing from 9thsphere.com and the 9thCO home page contained content about 9th sphere, we would of expected Google to show 9thCO.com when conducting a ‘9th sphere’ keyword search.
On October 28th, five days after redirecting all the pages to the new site, a search for ‘9th sphere’ yielded mixed results with content from both 9thsphere.com and 9thCO.com. The results for a 9thCO’ search remained the same:
On October 29th, a search for ‘9th sphere’ still yielded mixed results – both 9th sphere and 9thCO pages were returned. Since fewer links to 9thsphere.com were resulting, however, it was clear that Google was changing their index pages one page at a time, rather than doing a site-wide update.
Finally, on October 30th, nine days after our first page redirection, a search for ‘9th sphere’ showed 9thCO.com as the top result! The 9thCO result finally overtook any other 9thsphere.com page.
In the screenshot above, it’s obvious that there is some lag time between the merger and a complete changeover to the new site. It took nine days for 9thCO.com results to show up when a search for ‘9th sphere’ was done. It is crucial that any business that plans to merge their brands online anticipates and plans for this delay.
Our online merger had amazing results. The graph above shows that within just a few weeks, we experienced massive increases in organic traffic due to new rankings.
The graph below shows a sample of 45 keywords we were tracking. In just one month (from September to October) these results jumped from #51+ (not in the first five pages of Google) to #1-3 and #4-10. The increase in organic traffic and rankings led to many more leads. The domain authority that 9thsphere.com had built was passed to the brand new domain, 9thCO.com.
Having one consolidated website comes with a lot of benefits. We now have more links and authority aimed at one site, and there is a lot less brand confusion for potential prospects.
For our business, having a unified brand on one website just makes sense. It’s easier to update one site and the social media outlets that support it. There is no overlap with the retired brand, and therefore no prospect confusion or frustration. (Side note: many business owners believe it’s advantageous to keep both sites to retain more visibility. Though this is possible, it diminishes brand value, which is the single most important factor in lead conversion online.)
Yes, planning to merge brands and websites can make any seasoned CMO shudder with dread. However, if you do the planning first, pay attention to the details, and keep a close eye on the results, the risks are minimal and the payoff is huge.