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NFL.com Fumbles its Website Revamp

NFL.com Fumbles its Website Revamp

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NFL.com silently rolled out a new website revamp two nights ago, May 13. Equipped with a sleek new API, CMS, video CMS, and a re-skin, these major upgrades should have been cause for celebration amongst NFL sports fans.

Instead, the site’s new features unfortunately came at a steep cost to its organic search rankings. As of May 14 at 7pm (~24 hours after the initial launch) I discovered that the site was still in the midst of what SEOs refer to as a “botched website migration”. And per usual, Twitter folks aren’t too happy about it.



Screenshot from 8:00 pm, PST on May 14.


Instead, the site’s new features unfortunately came at a steep cost to its organic search rankings. As of May 14 at 7pm (~24 hours after the initial launch) I discovered that the site was still in the midst of what SEOs refer to as a “botched website migration”. And per usual, Twitter folks aren’t too happy about it.

The good news is that if NFL.com acts fast, it can recover from this SEO fumble and save its VIP pages. Lets review what happened…



Key Areas of Weakness in NFL.com’s Migration


Key areas of weakness I was able to identify in a 15 minute, mini SEO audit included:

  • URL changes to all stat pages, without 301 redirects pointing to the new URL
  • URL changes to all player category pages (i.e., team name or position), without 301 redirects pointing to the new URL
  • Botched redirects to unique player pages themselves

While its not fair to critique NFL.com’s choice to change its URL structures without any background information – it IS best practice to not change URLs unless necessary. And from what I could see, there was no real need to do this.

If URL changes were deemed necessary, URL mapping / 301 redirects is a basic element of SEO compliance.

Because neither of these items were done, the end result was hundreds of 404 page errors in Google search results. Also known as an SEO’s worst nightmare. More details below…



NFL.com’s Stats Pages 404 Errors:


Google the phrase “NFL.com stats”, and you”ll find a list of helpful pages from the site. Except, they all 404.

Screenshot from 8:00 pm, PST on May 14.

Doing some detective work, I discovered that the reason why this is happening is because NFL.com’s SEO vendor failed to implement 301 redirects on its stats pages when they changed over the URLs.



NFL.com’s Player Category Pages 404s:


The same thing happened with NFL.com player category pages. Try Googling the phrase “NFL players” into Google, and you’ll find helpful deep links to pages like player search, search by position, and NFL QBs. Except now, they too serve 404 errors.



Player Name URL Redirect Mapping:

Not only were the “player category” pages 404ing, but there were poorly executed URL redirect mapping for the “player name” pages.

Google “NFL.com Josh Allen” and rather than getting one page listing for the Buffalo QB and another for the Jacksonville Jaguars LB (with the same name), they both both take you to the Jaguars player’s page.

Update: Within ~3 weeks, this issue was corrected by adding numbers at the end of player names.


An Unforgiving Twitter


Perhaps most interesting about NFL.com’s SEO fumble is the Twitter community’s unforgiving attitude toward it. Several sports writers (such as Brad Gagnon from the Bleacher Report) have been dragging them for this mistake. And others still seem to have already cracked their API, hunting for sensitive data.



“Try clicking on an NFL.com link via Google search. LOL that site is such an embarrassment.”

Brad Gagnon, National writer @BleacherReport


“Just on the game page, you’ll find some interesting endpoints–i.e. draft, which has all the picks, plus some qualitative analysis on the pick and team needs. The v1 docs might give a good idea of what’s in V3: https://api.nfl.com/docs/global/endpoints/index.html.”

Robby @greerreNFL




Wanna have a fun experiment?? Google “Josh Allen nfl.com and click on the one that says “QB”… or click on any of them. Be better NFL. Be better.”

@JoeMillerWired


Implications If No Action Is Taken:


It’s important to understand that a botched website migration doesn’t JUST mean temporarily ‘ugly search results’, a knock from a sports reporter, or even a random dude catching wind of NFL draft picks. It can often mean long-standing, negative impacts on the website’s organic traffic and conversions for months to come.

It’s important to understand that a botched website migration doesn’t JUST mean temporarily ‘ugly search results’, a knock from a sports reporter, or even a random dude catching wind of NFL draft picks. It can often mean long-standing, negative impacts on the website’s organic traffic and conversions for months to come.

Take for example just ONE page that was affected by the migration, nfl.com/stats/player. The page ranks on page 1 on Google for nearly 70 keywords – including the coveted position #1 spot for the term “NFL stats”. According to UberSuggest, the keyword “NFL stats” brings in an estimated 100K visits every month to the website. Now that the page is 404ing, it is missing out on 100K organic search visits to the site every month from just THAT keyword on just THAT page.

Update: within ~3 weeks, this issue was resolved and the page now redirects to the following URL: https://www.nfl.com/stats/player-stats/.


What NFL.com’s Migration Vendor Could Have Done Differently & What They Can Do Now


If NFL.com’s SEO vendors had simply kept the already user-friendly URLs as-is, a large percentage of this SEO fumble could have been avoided. Or alternatively, ensured that a URL redirect map was in place – and double and triple checked for accuracy before launch.

The good news is, that if NFL.com acts fast (in the next week) the site’s SEO ranking signals should remain intact and they can recapture any loss of traffic and rankings.

Gary Illyes, Google Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, explains that “if the page was just removed from [Google’s] index for a few days and then reindexed, the signals should still be lingering” and you could probably regain the rankings you had. But, “if the issue persists for weeks or months, you will pretty much start from the bottom”

See Also

“If the page was removed from [Google’s] index for a new days and then is reindexed, the signals should be lingering. If the issue persists for weeks or months, you will pretty much start from the bottom.”

Gary Illyes, Google Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google


Update – Six Months Later

I checked back in on the NFL website six months after its initial website migration to see SEO impact. While I’m obviously unable to view actual web traffic numbers, I can use keyword research tools to gauge keyword visibility impact.



NFL.com underwent a website migration in May, 2020. This is its keyword rankings over time.


From May to June, NFL.com saw a -22% initial decline in keyword rankings.

This decline increased to a -31% by July, -32% decline by August, -34% by September, and finally a -36% total decline in keyword rankings by October. By November (6 months later), the site began recovering.*



A Quick Comparison

Keyword ranking drops happen after website migrations… they just do. But how can you tell if a drop is “normal” or cause for alarm? When it comes to a “successful” website migration, I typically tell clients that they should expect:

  • A sub -15% initial decline in SEO keyword rankings one month out.
  • A final 15-20% decline in SEO keyword rankings up to a period of six months.
  • Keyword ranking recovery taking place between 4-6 months.

These numbers are conservative by design, as there are many factors that play into the impact that a website migration will have on a website –– including the size of the site, the scope of the changes made, and how comprehensive SEO audits are in the initial days post-launch to flag any missed opportunities.

FOX.com underwent a website migration in July 2020. This is its keyword rankings over time.

Above is an example for the website, FOXSports.com. The site went through a similar type of website migration one month after NFL.com in July 2020. By August, the site experienced a -10% initial decline in keyword rankings.

This number increased to -15% in September, and finally a -18% by October from launch. By November (4 months later), the site began recovering.*

*Quick note: The Covid 19 pandemic likely magnified the impact of both websites’ keyword ranking declines over the summer of 2020.



Conclusion


When I originally wrote this post in May 2020, I thought that NFL.com’s high domain authority and loyal audience would save it from any seriously negative SEO impacts. I especially thought this because the UX updates/redesign looked so great. But as my six month update illustrates, even large enterprises aren’t immune to costly, technical SEO mistakes.

When undergoing a significant website change, it’s equal parts important for companies to choose an SEO vendor/consultant that truly knows what they are doing, as well as take great care to follow the recommendations that they make. By doing this, your SEO traffic can remain steady — and your audience base can celebrate with you when you launch!

Deciding what to do next? Check out my free SEO Migration template that I created for FOXSports.com’s Summer 2020. 🙂

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