Should You Rebuild Your Website?

If your site boasts thousands of pages of content, but no longer attracts the amount of traffic it used to, it may be time to rebuild. That’s especially true if your site has been around for many years without an overhaul. But how can you tell? And where do you begin?

Michael Martinez offers an instructive personal case history on Xenite.org. This science fiction themed website shared a server with some of Martinez’s other websites. When the server reached the end of its service life, Martinez faced the unenviable task of “digging into code and applications that were several years old” and basically obsolete, according to his case study. He would have to upgrade the operating system and the hardware as well.

So Martinez and his partner dived in to do the upgrade – and basically everything broke. Forum functionality, email, you name it; “In fact, the whole server went dark for up to a week,” he recalled. But the bigger problem was that he couldn’t just move everything over easily. Xenite.org includes tens of thousands of HTML pages, all of them hand-coded. With that many pages, “the idea of importing them into a CMS with little to no opportunity to fix problems is not very enticing.”

Martinez started moving the site over in April. By the end of May, with thousands of broken pages and more Perl scripts to fix than he wanted to think about, he realized that he hadn’t touched many of these pages in years…and wondered whether his traffic would even notice if they no longer existed. So he took a quick look at Google Analytics, and discovered “the unmistakable dip of a Panda update in our Google referral traffic beginning around May 9.”

It was then that Martinez decided that he needed to do more than just set the site back up more or less as it had been before. He’d written earlier about getting rid of content that is no longer serving visitors, and letting go of websites that no longer served their purpose. In this case, it meant deleting everything from www.xenite.org, except for a few sub-domains. “The old Xenite has been swept away and I have no intention of ever restoring it to the light of day again. This is precisely the kind of medicine I have been prescribing for people who are suffering from the Panda Syndrome,” Martinez explained.

If you own a problem website, or you’re looking at upgrading or overhauling your site, it’s worth your time to dig deeper to see what’s really going on. How many visitors are you getting? What trends do you see over time? Are there lots of pages that no one has visited in years? Is your site a Panda victim? Then it may be time to wipe the slate clean and consider your options.

Deleting all that content was a bold step, but even Martinez didn’t want to lose his PageRank – or, more importantly, confuse regular visitors. So after getting rid of the content, he created two pages on which he explained what he’d done. One was a new index page, while the other was an “old-pages.html” page to which he redirected all of the old URLs. The pages also linked to several of his other sites as appropriate (such as SF-Fandom).

The next step was to consider his options. Since he’d used Xenite.org to test some theories from time to time (and for various other reasons), rather than sell the domain, Martinez chose to rebuild the site. He chose to resurrect “only the very best content that had remained popular throughout the years.” By the way, that’s a good reason to track your visitors on your website; you’ll know which pages get the most traffic over time. In Martinez’s case, it simplified matters enormously, as only a small percentage of the site’s pages saw a lot of traffic over time.

You’d probably see the same thing with your site’s pages, as this is a fairly typical pattern for a healthy website. So if you do decide to rebuild your website rather than sell it or redirect its URL to another domain, think hard and seriously about what, if anything, is worth saving. Choose only the best things to save; your visitors deserve it.

Rather than going back to hand-coding – and resurrecting those broken scripts — Martinez installed WordPress. He had to make some adjustments in the move, and he experienced “some drawbacks to my choices that I did not anticipate” when setting up the site’s taxonomy. This is another lesson worth noting: when you upgrade, move to something that isn’t going to be painful for you to maintain, but understand that you’ll have to make some changes from the way you did things before and deal with possible quirks.

For example, WordPress apparently doesn’t have a good way to do sidebars, sometimes called “asides.” These are mini-articles embedded within other articles that often highlight a particular point. Martinez worked around this limitation by placing the sidebars in the 40-odd articles he decided to keep in tables at the end of the text of the main articles. This was just one of a number of workarounds he needed to employ.

This of course brings us to the question of how to decide which content to preserve. Martinez chose a combination of the most popular and the easiest to get to, given the various scripts and hand-coding involved in creating the original Xenite.org. That’s not a bad approach; you need to consider what your time is worth, and where you should employ it to get the largest return on investment. If one popular page will take three times as long to recover its content as five other pages that are nearly as popular, you may want to think twice about using it going forward. Ask yourself: is it worth it to you and your visitors? If you really want to include it, would it possibly be quicker to recreate the content from scratch?

So what kind of results has Martinez seen in the short period since rebuilding Xenite.org? Has he been successful in recovering traffic? With relatively little content on the site, he notes that it’s difficult to tell, but he’s already seeing some good signs. He saw sitelinks begin to vanish from Google’s search results shortly after he deleted all of Xenite’s old content, but “as I republish old articles the sitelinks have begun to come back. They are not quite the same sitelinks but at least Xenite still gets sitelinks.”

Another good sign is that, after updating the 301 redirects to point to the URLs for the resurrected content on Xenite, its old rankings came back for several pages. Martinez observed that for “one competitive query (for now, at least) my ranking has even improved.”

If you do decide to go this route with your website, keep in mind that this is a change for the long haul. Martinez figures that it will be months or even years before he can add enough content to the resurrected Xenite to rebuild its traffic. Even so, he notes that “With fewer than 50 articles (out of many thousands of pages) republished, Xenite has regained a significant percentage of its former traffic.” It’s already seeing 250 visitors a day.

Keep in mind, too, that Xenite is a site that Martinez is working on in his spare time, so it was going to take a while in any case. If you’re using a database and a content management system rather than hand-coding everything as he did, you should have an easier, faster time rebuilding your website. Good luck! 

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