A Case Study of a Commentator Inherited a Dumpster Fire of a Website and Made It Work


Please share case studies of how you inherited a dumpster fire of a website and made it work

This is just the norm it seems in every customer facing industry. Might as well get acquainted with it.
Most of us know how to start from scratch via Search Engine Optimization (SEO) checklists and best practices but what about optimizing a wreck?
Please share your personal experiences of making do with what you got despite constraints and other difficulties
29 💬🗨

This is from 10 years ago, but I hope it still counts.
Got an interview for Head of Digital Marketing position for a medium-sized multinational based in a European country. Was asked to present an audit of the website in my interview. I was being interviewed by head of IT and head of Marketing.
It was without a doubt the worst coporate site I'd ever seen – no real content, just "Welcome to our site" on the front page, black pages, slow JS-driven animation, endless navigation holes, no visual brand cohesion, no keywords, no meta info, nothing – so I tore it apart. I showed them how low they ranked for terms that they were the exclusive European distributor for, and revealed competitors in the online world they didn't know they had, showed them how unintuitive the eCommerce part was, how many hoops the users had to jump through even to spend one red cent, etc.
At the end of my presentation, there was silence, then the head of IT said "I designed that site", to which I replied, "I can fix it for you".
I got the job.
I started from zero on a staging server, and built a brand-new site with a lot of light and original imagery (got a pro photographer to photograph staff members interacting, on a white background), I was forced to use SharePoint so was a little limited in what I could do but I created a new template to reflect an upgraded brand and replaced the navigation schema completely. Added pretty URLs, meta tags, featured images. And a multilingual menu too.
Researched competitors, researched keywords, personally rewrote all the content, created XML sitemaps, started Google Search Console (GSC) account. 301 mapped the old URLs (which were query based:?pageid=1234) to the new pretty ones. Also started a blog and requested one article by a board member per week (6 board members meant they only had to produce 1,000 words every 6 weeks).
I set out a model for the User Interface (UI) of the eCommerce part (which was built on custom platform at a subdomain), wireframed everything, created visual templates based on the new brand, and though I improved matters a bit I was never able to persuade them to revise the underlying workflow, so I instead had lots of tooltips to inform customers WTF was going on there.
I also got the content translated into 5 other languages with 1:1 page switching. I then purchased companyname.xx in other countries where we operated, and plotted the URLs to the language versions.
There was a PPC campaign that was spending 80% of its budget on one keyphrase that had a 100% bounce rate because it had another common meaning, so I revised the entire account, and did qualitative research to learn what people searched for when they were looking for something like our product. I also used this to direct the topics in our blog.
The brand and domain had two interesting "features":
• First, the company name was the same name as a hit track by an American rock group. In the Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs), the brand name was way down page 2, buried behind the official website of the band, the Wikipedia article about the track, fan sites, and a Canadian government department with the same name.
• Second, years before the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) had bought a domain name from ".eu.com". He thought that this meant "we are a European company", but in fact it was just a subdomain on a .com address being resold by the owner of eu.com (eeeeeasy money if you can get it!). This was confusing for customer. "companyname.eu.com" did not really mean anything to them and it hurt us a bit in the SERPs. But it was incredibly frustrating for the customer service people who could be heard all day saying "no it's info at companyname-dot-eu-dot-com. You need the EU bit in there. You have to type it otherwise we won't get the email." We lost a lot of inbound email that way.
The actual domain, companyname.com was owned by a seed merchant in Alabama.
So I started an internal campaign with the CEO to emphasize the importance of getting off someone else's subdomain and onto our own domain.
This campaign was given a catalyst after a few months when another customer on a different .eu.com subdomain did something naughty, and the entire eu.com server got blacklisted – so all of our email got spamboxed for a couple of days, costing tens of thousands in lost business.
The seed merchant was extremely suspicious – with good reason – so we got a respectable lawyer to contact his lawyer, drew up a watertight contract, offered a seven-figure price he was happy to sell for, got the funds into escrow, and finally after about 6 months of negotiation got hold of the main domain. I transitioned this over, worked with the head of IT to get the emails to alias, etc.
End result:
• For brand name search in all territories we operated in we got to Google #1, beating out both the rock band and Wikipedia.
• For product name search on the 16 products the company sold, we got a solid 15/16 Google 1-spots (the US-based brand owner beat us on the flagship product because it's very well known, but we achieved the #2 spot globally).
• Increased unique users by 5,000% in the first year post-launch entirely via on-site stuff.
• Decreased bounce rate from 97% to 45%.
• Increased average page views from ~1 to ~3.8.
• Quadrupled efficiency of Pay Per Click (PPC) budget.
• Increased eCommerce revenue by 10,000% in the year after redesign.
• For related keywords the blog started getting traction all over.
Then they fired me.


Then they fired me.

This broke me. So sorry. Damn.

Fundamentally it was a boardroom coup that got rid of the head of Marketing who'd hired me, and her replacement set about getting rid of all her hires one by one. But because it's a European country they can't just fire you for nothing, so I went through a year of them trying to trip me up to get a reason to get rid of me. Eventually they got me because I said the word "f*ck" in a phone conversation that they were recording.

Nice summary and it looks like you did an amazing job there.
Are you a web/developer yourself or more a (digital) marketing guy?
I have a few questions and will really appreciate to hear your answers.
Oh, BTW I kind a knew they will fire you after I read this …" At the end of my presentation, there was silence, then the head of IT said "I designed that site", to which I replied, "I can fix it for you"."
– Why were you forced to use SharePoint?
– How/why did you decide to change navigation schema completely (did you spot some holes, errors)?
– I assume you did 301 mapping and the whole process due to redesign, right?
– What custom eCommerce platform did you use?
– Are you using some special frameworks when analyzing websites or maybe you developed own propitiatory checklist? (I really like the structure of your post)

I'm a marketing guy – started as a copywriter at an advertising agency, then did marketing for large multinationals, ended up getting into web marketing at the very beginning of the commercial web, before the dotcom bubble burst, and have been doing it ever since.

Why were you forced to use SharePoint?

The head of IT only knew Microsoft and didn't trust open source. He had an enforcer who called "security risk!" any time I tried to do anything else and shut me down. He even vetoed a tiny bit of on-page client-side JS I wrote that merely revealed the answers in a quiz.

How/why did you decide to change navigation schema completely (did you spot some holes, errors)?

Because the original one was not fit for purpose. There was no hierarchy, there were dead ends, etc. It just needed to be destroyed.

I assume you did 301 mapping and the whole process due to redesign, right?

Yeah, in IIS web.config (the Microsoft version of .htaccess). In fact it was probably redundant as it had such little traffic or search engine traction,

What custom eCommerce platform did you use?

It was custom-built. The name is irrelevant, and if I told you it you'd know the company I worked for!

Are you using some special frameworks when analyzing websites or maybe you developed own propitiatory checklist?

I have my own checklist I've developed over the years.

Great job on your part…yet no surprise that you got fired.
So, I have to ask. What has happened to that company, and more specifically, their website, since then? Is it back to being a dumpster fire?

I kept in touch with my coworkers – many have become friends – and it continued to be a dumpster fire. It really was the most dysfunctional place I've ever worked. The main product was incredibly profitable, and the rest of the company hemmoraged a lot of that profit via the pet ego projects of the senior management, and those egos constantly clashed, protected their silos, and disabled any kind of growth strategy beyond the distribution network that made the profit.
Another incredible thing is that the head of IT managed to persuade the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) that every single minute put into IT salaries contributed directly to fiscal growth: essentially he made his department "indispensible" by turning all the overheads of his deparment into (what they thought was) equity. Which lasted fine until an independent auditor had a look at the books and was like "what the f*ck do you think you're doing, this company is overvalued by at least 40%".
The person who fired me fired the head of IT a week after I was kicked, then a couple years later managed to get rid of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) too – and became the CEO instead. Not bad work for having started out as a consultant fifteen years before. A true business psychopath.
The delicious news from a couple of years ago is that a few months after the final move in the new CEO's chess game, the company got bought out by their main supplier – and they fired the new CEO. Who hasn't worked since (and has presumably cried all the way to the bank). It's now a regional office of the supplier, lol.


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