How to Restore and Recover an Old Website’s Rankings

Websites fall off and disappear all the time. Sometimes they linger on for years without updates, someone dutifully paying the few bucks every month to keep the domain and hosting alive, but no one caring enough to update the site. Sometimes a business changes hands, sometimes a site takes a back burner while the creators do other things; there are hundreds of reasons for it, but the result is the same. An old website that hasn’t been updated in ages,

There comes a time when you decide you want to turn that old website into something new again. Maybe you bought it because you thought it had potential and wanted to bring it up right. Maybe it’s just a lingering old project and you think its time has finally come. Either way, it’s time to get right down to the details; how do you restore the website to glory and get it ranking again?

Step 1: Audit Everything

The first thing you have to do is figure out what’s worth keeping and what’s holding you down. If your site is old enough – earlier than 2011 – the world of web marketing and SEO was very different. You might have Google penalties lingering on your site, or you might have made old decisions that are now considered detrimental.

Auditing Sitemap

What should you look into?

  • Your site architecture itself. Does it look modern? Does it comply with modern web standards? Is it due for a rebranding, or is everything but the code base fine the way it is? Are you running on out of date architecture? Figure out what needs to be updated and what’s fine the way it is.
  • Your topic. What was your site about, before? This will be important going forward, because it will guide the topics of the rest of your content marketing. It will also help you identify competitors and major industry players you will want to monitor.
  • Your content. Every piece of content on your site is indexed by Google at this point, unless you put a NoIndex flag in there somewhere. That means it’s doing something, good or bad, for your site. Some of it might be causing a penalty. We’ll look into that more in a future step.

You should also examine your site for signs of hacking. Sometimes hackers will compromise a site but do very little; they will add pages but won’t tamper with existing content, so you have a normal site with spam redirects on unnamed subpages you don’t know exist. You’ll only find out when Google starts to blacklist you for spam.

Ideally, you will change up and buff up all of your security. Check to make sure there is nothing compromised in your site. As long as it looks secure, go ahead and change and update all of your passwords. Update software like WordPress and any plugins you may have been using. Make sure your web host has kept their servers up to date as well. All of this makes sure that no hacker will come in and compromise your new site once you’re done fixing it up.

Step 2: Categorize Content

A content audit in broad strokes is part of the first step, but it’s the focus of the second step. See, the way Google has changed over the last few years has made content the primary means of getting ahead. Bad content hurts a site; good content helps it rank. If your site falls below the minimum quality thresholds Google looks for, you’re going to have a lot of work to do either improving your old content or replacing it.

Excel SEO Audit

Depending on the size of your old site, you may have a lot of content to go through. You may also want to use tools like spreadsheets to help you with the whole process. Neil Patel has one method he outlines here, while I like a slightly different method of auditing:

  1. Create a document with the titles and URLs of all of the content on your site. This primarily includes blog posts, but should also list extraneous pages like individual FAQ pages, About and Contact pages, and the like. You can find a list of all of this content in Google Analytics, if you have a lot.
  2. Check the URLs of all of the pages. Are they human-readable? If not, flag them to be changed or removed. Human-readable URLs are very important these days.
  3. Check the titles. Are the titles optimized? Do they sound good? Bad titles or titles that are out of date might not be worth keeping.
  4. Check the meta descriptions for each page. Are they optimized? Flag those that aren’t for later review.
  5. Check for meta keywords. If these exist, flag the article for change; meta keywords are completely valueless today and can be a sign of an out of date spammer.
  6. Check the content itself. There are a few things you’re looking for. First, you want at least 1,000 words, though with modern SEO, 2,500 tends to be the ideal mid-range to aim for. Check to make sure the content is readable, it’s not overly optimized, and it’s not spam. Check to make sure it’s not syndicated, copied, or stolen as well. Duplicate content, both within and outside of your site, is a penalty source.

This is where my process diverges from Neil’s. I like to categorize posts into three types. First you have Good posts. These are fine; they’re perfectly acceptable in terms of length and quality. They’re good to keep, perhaps with some minor changes to meta data. The second are the Fixable posts. These are posts that have nuggets of good information, that might still get some traffic or that have some good links, but that don’t quite meet quality standards. With a little elbow grease that can be made valuable, but as they stand they aren’t. The third are the Trash posts, which are spam, too short, too out of date, or otherwise just garbage. These can be safely deleted without losing anything, and may benefit your site in the process.

At this stage, though, you haven’t actually done anything to your site. You’re still putting together a game plan.

Step 3: Check for Search Penalties

Google has two types of penalties that can hurt your site. One are the actual penalties, called manual actions, that take place when you’ve violated some rule and are being punished for it. They hurt your site or delist it, but are lifted when you fix the issue. The other type are the value penalties. They aren’t listed as penalties, because they’re just changes is how the algorithm views your site. Content penalties like Panda fall in this category; when your content is not seen as valuable enough, your ranking drops. You can’t make one simple change to “lift” this penalty; you need to improve your quality such that Google sees your site in a better light.

Google WMT Penalty

You can check for manual actions easily enough in Webmaster Tools. Just log in and check; Google will tell you if you have any. The algorithmic penalties, like Google Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird, Mobilegeddon, or Pigeon, need more careful checks. You can use some tools to look them up, but they aren’t necessarily reliable. Thankfully, we’ve written about diagnosing and fixing penalties before, so here are some resources.

These should get you 90% of the way through the various penalties you might experience. Depending on how old your site is, it may be hard to track down whether or not you’re hit by them, so just take the steps anyway; chances are you’re at least partially guilty if your site is old enough.

Step 4: Build an Action Plan

At this point you should have all of the information you need to start planning what, exactly, you need to do. It should look a little something like this. Oh, and ideally, you’ll be doing this in a local test environment, rather than on your live site. This is so you can put up a “relaunching soon” landing page and start building hype.

  1. Begin by doing whatever work you need to on the foundation of the site. This means moving to a better branded domain or boosting to a better, more reliable web host. It also means updating and fixing your code base, whether it means installing the newest version of WordPress or hiring a developer to code you a new website.
  2. Continue by implementing any structural changes you need to make. If you need a new URL structure, for example, this is the time to do it. Change to human-readable URLs and redirect the old pages to the new pages with a permanent 301. Ignore any of the pages you plan to delete.
  3. Delete any pages that aren’t worth keeping around. If possible, redirect them to better pages that still exist, though you don’t necessarily need to. As long as you have a good 404 page, you’re good to go.
  4. Make any changes to content you intend to make. This can be done on a rolling basis, because you’re likely going to have a lot of content that needs changing. Start with the best remaining pages and make sure they’re up to par, and work your way to the worst of the pages you intend to keep. Prioritize this before you start trying to build hype for your relaunched site.
  5. Make any final touches you need to make to bring your site up to the modern era. Things like a responsive design and SSL should be taken care of already, but things like new advertising and internal linking can be done now.

Once you’re done with this, you should have a more or less well-finished version of your old site set up in your local testing environment. Hang on to it; you don’t need to make the changes just yet.

Step 5: Build Relaunch Hype

Chances are if you had a mailing list, it’s pretty much dead. You can try to send out a message, but the majority of those users will have dropped you by now. Take to social media – auditing old social profiles is another topic altogether – and start to build hype for your relaunched site.

Start by setting a launch date you know you can keep. Take down your current site and replace it with a countdown timer, possibly with a landing page format with more information as the countdown gets closer to ending. If you take this route, make sure to set a “Temporarily Unavailable” 503 response code.

Include an email opt-in to start rebuilding your mailing list and getting new leads.

Take to the web in general and start promoting yourself. I wouldn’t pay for ads just yet, but you can start by guest posting and including your site’s upcoming relaunch somehow in the content.

Step 6: Set Up New Content

You can’t just put a coat of new polish on an old site and call it good; running a site today is a matter of constant activity.

Wordpress Write New Post

That means you need to thoroughly research your niche to find opportunities for content. Start writing – or paying people to write – that content for you. Ideally, you will have a dozen or so fresh blog posts ready for immediate publication with the rest of your site. You should also have at least two months – and preferably as much as six months – of content in a backlog ready to be posted.

You’re striving to launch with some high quality content, content you can be immensely proud of. Make a good video, a good infographic, maybe even a good slidedeck if you want. Multimedia is great and easy to share upon launch. Every piece of content at launch should be something you can see people sharing on Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest.

Step 7: Launch and Live

Once the countdown hits 0, it’s time to launch. In the week or so prior, you should be uploading your site to make sure everything works as intended. There’s always a chance of an error, and you don’t want to kill the hype train.

Once the site is up, go through the social circles and sites you can market through and inform them all. Send out a message to your mailing list. Get as much immediate traffic and sharing as possible, up to and including paying for an ad campaign at a higher level than you will usually invest.

Once the launch hype dies down, your site should be flourishing. Google should have picked it up – you did submit your site map, didn’t you? – and you should be ranking quite well with your great content. You’ll have to work to keep publishing new content, building links, and making sales to keep running your ads. Tools like a content calendar and an established editorial process will help a lot with this.

From there, you’re good to go. Just avoid the pitfalls that lead to penalties and cause you to start the whole cycle over again, and you should be set for inevitable growth.


  1. Hi Mike, I agree with everything you said. For a site that is not ranking anymore, it needs audit from onsite to offsite. Onsite will check possible penalties and Offsite will check the backlink to your website. The details have to be correct, you may need to include NAP checking and clean up. Great post, thanks for sharing.

  2. Over a period of year I have done all this and more but no recovery. Ultimately I think the site lost too many good back-links due to neglect for over 3 years. Some good websites also added nofollows or 301 redirect chains to their external links to mine.

  3. After changing my domain, my website’s traffic graph looks almost the same as the one on this post. It’s almost 2.5 months and my website is still only about 20% of the original domain’s traffic. I checked my old domain on MOZ and it had really good Domain authority and Page authority scores. The new website has a score of 1 on both DA and PA. So I’ve cancelled the “change of address” request and now have done a 301 redirect back to the old domain hoping to get my website ranking well again in SERP.

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