Last year, home improvement company HomeAdvisor.com underwent a monumental rebranding effort that included switching more than 10 million URLS from their previous company name to their new brand.
With over $200 million in revenue at risk and thirteen years worth of online brand equity, HomeAdvisor.com’s CEO Chris Terrill and CTO Brandon Ridenour understood switching the site’s URL would be a major undertaking, but necessary to establish the best foundation for building a stronger online brand presence.
“We needed to narrow our brand’s focus,” said Terrill, “We know it’s the strongest brands that are going to survive on Google.”
After a thorough amount of research, the company determined its former name ‘ServiceMagic’ did not resonate well with homeowners, nor did it offer a lot of value when it came to their SEO efforts. The company needed their brand’s focus to be on home maintenance, improvement and repairs. According to their findings, HomeAdvisor.com won in four separate research tests.
Once Terrill and Ridenour committed to the rebrand, Ridenour researched a number of case studies on companies that had performed URL switchovers, and discovered one of the most common mistakes was executing the site redesign and URL switch all at once.
“It takes time for Google to index 10 million pages,” said Ridenour. According to the CTO, HomeAdvisor.com’s new website went live last September, but the company waited three months before switching to their new URL, isolating the URL change from site’s redesign.
“The less the search engines have to digest, the better chance they quickly and clearly associate your new domain with your old domain, and transfer associated domain strength and history accordingly,” says Ridenour.
With more than a year’s worth of planning, Terrill and Ridenour say it took the new URL five months to fully recover and gain back their previous domain’s rankings. Now that they have survived the URL switchover, the two are offering their insight on what it takes to lead a successful online rebranding effort.
5 Questions with HomeAdvisor.com’s CEO Chris Terrill and CTO Brandon Ridenour
Amy Gesenhues: What was the primary reason HomeAdvisor.com elected to switch their URL, and, once the decision was made, what did the project entail?
Chris Terrill: The change of our URL was the final piece of a much broader overall brand change. We launched several large quantitative brand surveys and tests to determine if ServiceMagic was the best name for our new narrowed focus on the home repair/maintenance space. In all four tests, HomeAdvisor significantly beat ServiceMagic and was consistently the top choice amongst homeowners, so the decision was driven by consumer preference.
I certainly wouldn’t recommend that anyone casually change their brand and would suggest not doing so unless it is part of a bigger strategic initiative to position yourself in a new or existing market. As the Internet space matures, I think you will see more online brand changes (no different than the brand changes that have always occurred offline), but effectively managing SEO during a brand switch creates a wrinkle that is unique to online focused brands.
Brandon Ridenour: The URL switch was combined with a corporate rebranding effort, and the entire process took about a year. We began planning the URL cut-over aspect and associated search engine impacts from the very beginning. The core team that focused on the URL switch numbered less than 10, while the broader rebranding effort probably numbered closer to 100. The execution was done in two phases with a redesign and rebrand coming first, and a final URL cut-over following a few months later. The idea was to allow the search engines time to digest the new design, and to isolate the URL change as much as possible.
Amy Gesenhues: What was the worst “Oh no – we didn’t expect that to happen!” moment during the project, and what could you have done differently to avoid it?
Brandon Ridenour: The biggest “Oh no” moment was a Friday morning when our site completely disappeared from the Google index. Even searching for our brand directly didn’t yield a result for our homepage nor for our site. This Google “outage” lasted four days, and it’s fair to say those were four of the longest days of the year. Technically, we were still in the Google index, but there were no searches that would return us as a result. The problem self-resolved on the fifth day, and according to Google, we did not receive any penalty.
Amy Gesenhues: Can you tell us more about your organic SEO results before and after you switched URLs, e.g. where did you rank prior to the switchover and how far did the site drop before it recovered?
Chris Terrill: We had 13 years of SEO equity in the ServiceMagic domain and ranked highly for organic search. We estimated a 30 to 50 percent range in loss of traffic, and we generally stayed within that range both in terms of the lower levels of the drop and the overall recovery time. The biggest challenge in terms of looking at pre and post change SEO positioning is due to the broader changes Google made to their local listings during that same period. In some areas we are as strong or stronger, and in other areas, Google’s local listings have reduced our positions.
Amy Gesenhues: During the project, were there any scenarios you feared that ended up not being a problem, or any unexpected setbacks you that proved more difficult than planned?
Brandon Ridenour: Other than the disappearance of our site from Google for those four days, the process largely went as we expected. The depth and duration of the traffic loss from the search engines tilted toward the more severe end of our forecasts, which was unfortunate, but was within the range of our expectations. At the same time, largely every challenge we expected to face did, in fact, play out as we expected.
Amy Gesenhues: Now that the project is complete, how is HomeAdvisor.com performing, and what is the best advice you can offer another brand considering switching their URL?
Brandon Ridenour: About five months after our initial URL switch, we saw very nearly a full organic traffic recovery from the main search engines. Most of the recovery occurred in three or four large steps, with the last 30 percent or so happening essentially overnight in the fifth month. At this point, I would say we are roughly at 90 percent strength versus our old domain.
Chris Terrill: [I would advise] a rigorous plan that is realistic, well staged and meticulously managed. A haphazard change that is bundled into a broader site redesign is a recipe for disaster, particularly for a more well established site with solid SEO equity. While the technology team will bear the brunt of the actual domain switch, the entire organization needs to be on board, buttoned up and have eyes wide open relative to what it takes to make a successful transition. There are as many sound reasons not to make any changes as there are to make a change, so any CEO thinking about going down this path needs to have the entire team fully on board.
Brandon Ridenour: In terms of advice, for any company with a very broad web presence (e.g. millions of pages) and heavy reliance on SEO, I would suggest not underestimating the costs and duration required to successfully switch to a new URL, as we believe those costs are largely unavoidable. In our case, as is common with rebrands, we largely understood these costs and considered them in the overall rationale and business case for the rebrand itself.
In terms of execution, following Google guidelines for moving your website to a new URL and other best practices are key. Most importantly, we also believe it is crucial to isolate the URL change apart in time from any web design or structural site architecture changes.