Reviving an Old Website
Take a peek into my process on a current project. I'm fixing up an old website that has been neglected for years and no longer earns.
Why Revive an Old Website?
Rather than let it die a peaceful death, I want to use this website as a learning experience and hopefully make some money in the process.
Even though it's idle, the website still has value, which I'll outline below. I'd like to see if I can spiff it up to get it ranking and earning again.
I could then choose to keep the site and enjoy more monthly revenue. However, I plan to sell this site if possible to get it off my plate.
Here's what I'm working with for this website overhaul.
This old website is about a specific type of relationship. It offers dating and relationship tips to a select niche audience.
There are currently about 400 posts on the site. Most articles are under 800 words and written in a blog style.
The vast majority has not been optimized for search engines. While this has hurt rankings it also means there's a lot of "low-hanging fruit", such as posts ready to rank with some quick on-page SEO.
In addition to being quite thin, the biggest issue with the content is a lack of organization. The existing categories are vague and irrelevant, there are over 250 tags, and interlinking is structurally random. One big pile of unorganized content.
Unfortunately, the blog's permalinks contain the categories. From an SEO standpoint, I don't consider changing these aged URLs to be an option, so I won't be updating the categories or moving content between them. Instead, I have a plan to create a new primary taxonomy that doesn't involve the categories at all.
Website Age and History
The website went live about ten years ago, and all the original URLs have been maintained. Age of website and age of URLs are important ranking factors, so I consider this a big positive.
It was launched along with five other blogs, which I wanted to grow in the background while working on other properties. So I hired an editor to liaison with the writers and let the sites run on autopilot.
Eventually, I stopped paying for content on the lower-performing sites, including this old website that I want to revive.
Here's a chart from Google Search Console. It shows organic Google traffic for the year leading up to the start of this case study.
I didn't make any significant changes during this time. The nosedive you see was due to a reporting issue and does not reflect actual traffic at that time. (We moved the site to test a different server and for some reason, GSC data was lost along the way.)
As you can see, this collapse in traffic did not appear in Google Analytics.
Above is a look at the last FIVE years of all organic traffic. The boost in 2020 occurred when some general changes and improvements were made across all my website properties. These improvements included:
- speed optimization for Google's Core Web Vitals
- addition of an "About" page
- replaced All-in-One SEO plugin for Rank Math
- added basic schema site-wide
- noindexed tag and category pages
I also updated and applied on-page SEO to about 10 of the most popular posts.
Combined, these simple changes gave the site a nice little lift in 2020 from less than ten visitors per day to approximately 30.
That's okay but not the revival I'm looking for.
Monetization and Earnings
With limited SEO strategy and content planning, this poor site didn't have much of a chance.
As with all my properties, the site is monetized solely with affiliate offers. I have confidence in these specific offers because I have experience selling them in other campaigns.
But there can be no conversions if there's no traffic to those pages featuring the affiliate offers. I need to bring in more traffic, ensure that traffic has the right intent, and guide visitors toward the solutions they seek - my affiliate offers of course!
Has this old website made ANY money over the years?
After digging through reports I see it's averaging $500 per year over the last 3 years.
Website Revival Goals
Ultimately, I want to fix this old relationship site up so that I can list it for sale. To do that successfully, it's going to need a lot more than 30 visitors per day.
Most websites selling today are priced by multiplying their average monthly earnings by 30x or more. So my primary concern is getting traffic and earnings up, as well as improving the overall quality of the site structure and content.
I also want to create a blueprint to resuscitate and revive other neglected websites in my portfolio. This particular site is very similar in structure to 5 other websites I own, so it's serving as a test run for improvement strategies and procedures.
Keep in mind, that this isn't a how-to on reviving old websites but simply a case study. The site overhaul strategy below is very specific to this particular website. That said, I know some of you are working on your own revitalization projects and facing similar challenges. I hope you'll find this study useful.
The Website Overhaul Plan
Below is the plan I've created to improve this old website. I'm coming at it from every angle, beginning with technical and structural improvements.
Note that I am not in rush with this overhaul. I am implementing my plan in blocks and waiting months in between. It can take time for changes to be reflected in search results, and I want to glean as much information during this process as I can. Going slow allows me to see the impact of changes in isolation and attribute successes to the right strategies.
Part One: Technical Foundation and Site Structure
- Remove Google AMP
- Change Website Theme
- Define Entities and Primary Topics
- Clean Up Existing Structure
- Redefine Primary Taxonomy
- Reflect Taxonomy on Sidebars and Homepage
- Menus and Navigational Elements
Part Two: Content Strategy and Optimization
- Define Topic Clusters and Pillar Pages
- Create Primary Pages and Pillars
- Create a Checklist for Mass Editing
- Delete Articles
- Merge Articles
- Apply On-Page SEO
- Interlink Articles
- Branding and Positioning
Part Three: Monetization
Website Improvement Step by Step
Time to dive in and start implementing the plan above to improve this old website.
1. Remove Google AMP
Google AMP was added to the relationship blog years ago to improve website loading speed on mobile. At that time we were using a bulky theme, and enabling AMP allowed us to quickly improve page speeds. Styling of AMP pages was easily achieved with CSS.
We have since improved the site's Core Web Vitals on all devices and no longer require AMP. This is a relief. Using AMP and having two versions of every page is not only undesirable from a maintenance perspective but also for statistical analysis.
Removing AMP turned out to be easier than expected and head-ache free. We followed Google's documentation on removing AMP pages from our site, and from the search results.
We deactivated the AMP plugin in WordPress and disabled AMP in Rank Math. We then created a redirect rule in the hosting dashboard to ensure any visits to the pre-existing AMP pages would be redirected to the corresponding non-AMP page.
The Google AMP removal was done in early December 2021. I waited 2 months before making any further changes on the live site and noticed no discernable change to traffic or rankings. Success!
2. Change Website Theme
After removing the AMP pages, we created a copy of the site on a development server. We could now change the website's theme privately and push it live after thorough testing.
Changing the theme was an obvious improvement I needed to make. The old theme was bloated and was beginning to show its age.
I love custom design so I often have themes built by my developer or use a website builder like Oxygen to build them myself. But this project is different because the end goal is to sell the site. I want the theme to be streamlined, user-friendly, and among the most popular themes that people use.
After research, testing, and asking around, we settled on the GeneratePress Premium theme.
For the initial live push of the new theme, it was my goal to re-create the original theme in terms of layout, navigational elements, and homepage links. I didn't want to make any improvements beyond the actual theme foundation, in order to see the impact of this change in isolation.
This old website got its shiny new theme pushed live in mid-February 2022. Two weeks later, I began to see a very subtle decline in impressions and clicks. I have heard that fluctuations are common with a theme change and are usually temporary.
3. Define Entities and Primary Topics
With the theme change a success, I was very eager to clean up the topical structure of the website. But in order to organize the existing content, I needed to take a bird's-eye view and determine the overall themes and entities involved. This way, I could organize the content in a way that makes sense to both readers and Google.
If you're unfamiliar with entities, you can read about entity-based SEO over at Search Engine Land.
First I reviewed the existing content and listed what I thought were the main topics and clusters. Then I used Wikipedia to determine which of the topics were considered by Google to be entities. I then set out to combine these entities with the primary topics found on the site to create five or fewer main sections.
This was somewhat challenging for this particular site because there are many slang terms used to describe the website's primary focus. Google recognizes these slang terms as separate entities and doesn't treat them as synonyms in the SERPs. I struggled to create sections that would address the different terms people use while avoiding topical overlap.
I turned to keyword research to predict search volume and help make some final decisions on what the new sections should be named. I settled on three sections that addressed the overarching topics of dating, relationships, and sex, plus two more sections that focus on sub-niche versions of the primary entity that get a lot of traffic.
This step didn't require any changes on-site but prepared me for all the remaining steps needed to revive this website.
4. Clean Up Existing Website Structure
As I mentioned in the website overview, the existing categories weren't really useful. Also, many posts that should be clustered together were in separate categories, and some categories only had one or two posts in them.
I strongly believe in the importance of preserving aged URLs, so changing the URL slug of these categories and moving posts between them wasn't an option. Instead, I opted to switch to a new primary taxonomy to define post organization for both search engines and users - which you'll learn about in the next step.
First, I just wanted to do some light cleanup of the existing categories, even though they will no longer be referenced on-site. I simply deleted any empty categories, then moved and redirected a few articles out of categories with only one or two posts in them. These were the only URLs that would be changed for this website overhaul.
At this time, I also deleted nearly all 250+ tags. As with the categories, they were not being used on-site and weren't helping anyone including myself.
I did not redirect any of the deleted category or tag pages. They had already been set as noindex for years, were not receiving traffic, and did not have any inbound internal links.
5. Creating a new Primary Taxonomy
Implementing this step of redefining the primary taxonomy was fairly quick and easy, but it took me weeks of research and talking with other SEOs to make the plan for it. The question was, how can I create a new way to organize the content without changing any permalinks?
By default, WordPress uses categories as the primary taxonomy. This hierarchy of categories and posts can then be easily reflected in navigational elements such as menus and breadcrumbs. But at this time my categories were toast and I decided to use tags instead.
Here are the steps I took:
- Remember when I redefined my primary topics above? I took those five new topics and made a tag for each one.
- I went through all the website articles and assigned a single tag to each one. I made sure that articles that would end up in a cluster together had the same tag. This step took the longest, but I was able to do it without actually opening each post. I used WordPress's 'quick edit' and bulk editing options.
- I use Rank Math as my SEO plugin, and it has a great option to easily change the primary taxonomy from categories to tags. If I had posts with more than one tag, for whatever reason, there is also an option to choose a primary tag from within the post editor. Rank Math will now use the tags I've set in breadcrumbs both on-page and within the schema.
- I then went back to my tags and created some unique text for the tag pages and optimized the breadcrumb name within the Rank Math tag editor.
- Finally, I want to push this new taxonomy on the search engines so that they'll learn to ignore the old categorization and embrace the new one. To this end, I added breadcrumbs at the top of each post, allowed the 5 tag pages to be indexed, and submitted the tag sitemap to Google.
I'd like to note here that another option for creating a new taxonomy is to use custom fields. I chose tags because of their simplicity; switching the primary taxonomy from categories to tags is built into Rank Math, and tags are easy to bulk edit.
Want to nerd out on website taxonomy? Here's a Guide to Website Taxonomy at SEOptimer.
6. Reflect Taxonomy on Sidebars and Homepage
With the step above, I'm certain Google is going to figure out the new hierarchical organization of this website. But I still needed to reflect the new taxonomy in the way content is displayed on the homepage and in sidebars.
For the homepage, I created a section for each of the five tags. I added search engine optimized H2 for each topic, some unique text about the topic, and then displayed a couple of the best pillar posts from within that tag. Now visitors to the home page can quickly see what the site is about, and navigate into the section of their choice.
The sidebar had previously been displaying the same content site-wide in an effort to feature the most popular, and higher earning, articles. Now it's time to use the sidebar to represent the new hierarchy and deliver more targeted content to visitors.
I used the WP Show Posts plugin to create a list of posts with images for each tag. Then I set up the sidebar to display the list that corresponds with the tag of the currently viewed article. This is essentially displaying 'related posts' that are from the same tag, our new primary taxonomy.
I look at this as sort of a "poor man's cluster". When we cluster content we ensure there are links between the relevant posts.
At this stage, I am not yet editing content and internal links, so having links in the sidebar to other content within the same overall topic is helpful for crawlers and readers. It's certainly not as effective as in-content linking but serves its purpose in the interim.
7. Reflecting Structure in Menus and Navigation
Website organization and hierarchy are not the same thing as navigation, but they often work in tandem. It's common for navigational elements such as menus to reflect the primary taxonomy of a website.
Personally, I don't like linking to tag or category pages from the primary menu. (The menu that is usually in the navigation bar.) While I have allowed Google to index the new tag pages, that is not my objective and they are not the pages I want to emphasize on-site either. There is already a link to them on every article within the breadcrumb links.
So what goes in the primary menu of this old blog? I want to link to the main pillar page of each of my five primary topics. Pillars are great for users and crawlers because they link to many articles within the topic and create an organized overview of the clusters and articles within.
At this time, I was only able to identify two pages that I consider to be good candidates as primary topic pillars. They still need work, but I went ahead and added them to the primary menu. I also added the About and Contact pages to the fly-out menu, and in the footer with the Privacy link.
As I move through Part Two of reviving my website, I'll improve these primary pillar pages, add create others for the remaining tags. Clusters within the primary topics may also have pillars, and it might make sense to add some of these to the menu as well. So I'll have to revisit website navigation again once the actual content has been overhauled.
Steps four to seven above were completed over the last week of March 2022. Now I'll again take my hands off this site and see what effect these changes bring before moving on to improving and consolidating existing content.
Stay tuned for Part Two of my website revival, where I'll be diving deep into content optimization.
Great post, hope to see more similar content on here.
I have one question - You seem to be extremely wary of URL changes and Redirects. I get the impression from this article that you think they are a bad idea but I can't find any other information to support this. Am I missing something?
It's hard to find good information on this topic as most searches lead to discussions on "domain age" rather than "URL age". However, there have been studies that do show that older URLs outrank newer URLs, on average. It could be that older URLs have garnered more backlinks, or have more internal links pointing to them. Exactly how much age alone contributes to ranking is hard to say, as is the case with nearly all ranking factors.
In deciding whether to maintain or overhaul my long-aged URL slugs, I spoke to as many expert SEOs as I could get to discuss the matter with me. In the end I was convinced that maintaining the thousands of URLs on my 10-year-old+ websites was important. It means I won't break any internal or external links, or reset their age and the length of time they've been indexed by Google. I can redefine the taxonomy in an alternate manner, and I can maintain any ranking benefit there is to aged URLs.
Personally, I have seen a "stickiness" with some of my older pages that I can't otherwise explain. Pages that are actually kind of thin and admittedly not the best result, but that persist in the top position for their keyword. Year after year after year. These pages were published nearly ten years ago. Would they still stick if I changed the URL? Maybe, but I'm not ready to take the risk.
The neglected site in this case study was not ranking well and does not have a large number of backlinks. It probably would not have been a big deal to restructure and rename the URLs on this site. The primary reason this revival project seeks to maintain it's old URLs is because I want to apply the strategy and learnings from this project to other websites in my portfolio. Sites that are equally as old, but that do have significant backlinks, organic traffic, and long-standing rankings.
Thank you for your feedback, and my apologies on the lateness of my reply!