Changing The HTML Source Order Can Damage Search Engine Referrals

What follows is a quick digest of the impacts a web site owner might expect from reordering the HTML source on a web site, in particular what effects it can have on the search engine performance of a web site.

During the month of June, I decided to freshen up the layout of my personal site. When it was complete and without a whole lot of consideration – I published the new design onto my site. I sat back and admired my work for a little while until a few days later when I started to notice a decline in the number of natural search engine referrals. At the time, I didn’t bother to look into it and associated it to random flux on the internet. A few days later I checked the statistics again to confirm that it had recovered, only to find that not only had it not recovered but that it had dropped further.

After investigating the problem, I immediately realised that I had changed the HTML source order within my WordPress template. After the change, the primary content of the site was now placed at the bottom of the HTML document with a large amount of less important content above it. Worst yet, the information listed first within the HTML was identical for the entire site, as it was related to the sidebar which is largely static.

The table below shows the number of Google search engine referrals per month to the site. As you can see, the monthly referrals have been steadily increasing from the start of the year until they started to drop in June. Realising what had happened, I took the hit on the search engine referrals to see just how far it would drop down if it were left for a complete month. The ordering of the HTML was not restored until the beginning of August, as such July represents a complete month with the suboptimal ordering of the HTML.

  Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov
Referrals 9899 10395 13206 13281 13200 10942 8426 10580 12648 12084 12361

The change in the number of natural search engine referrals was caused by what was being listed within Google as the snippet for each page within the site. Ordinarily, the primary content is listed toward the top of the HTML document and as such, it is featured heavily within the snippet. After reorganising the order of the HTML, the snippet within the search engine results was displaying information about the current list of months in the sidebar of the site. As a by product of the snippet not being contextually relevant to the title of the page, the click through rate plummeted.

In an ideal world, a webmaster should be able to change their site layout as frequently as they choose without it impacting their search engine ranking and associated click through rate. In this particular case, changing the layout and unknowingly the HTML source order, had a significant knock on effect as I wasn’t controlling what was being displayed within the search engines specifically via a meta description tag. By not specifying it directly, I was relying on the search engines to automatically generate or choose one on my behalf and after changing the HTML ordering, the choice was suboptimal.