The real story when Ryanair tweaked its back-end and got bitten in search

Last week a Guardian article covered Ryanair dropping out of the top 100 results in Google for search terms related to European flight destinations.

NB: This is an analysis by Martin MacDonald, an online marketing specialist with over a decade’s experience in technical SEO.

The actual situation however isn’t quite as bad as the coverage might have you believe. As with any form of search marketing, the actual impact of changes are calculated not by total yield of keywords where you have decreased in rankings, as a percentage of an arbitrary list of search phrases.

A much better way of measuring any impact in search is looking at the rankings a website has, multiplying the search volume of each term by the click through rate for the position its in.

This method gives the best approximation as to how much any keyword ranking is worth, and is a better way of diagnosing net loss or benefit to changes in SEO. A number of companies index the web, however SearchMetrics maintain the largest dataset, and have indices specific to most major markets, including the UK.

Ryanair SEO Visibility Data

rynanair MM

As you can clearly see, the website did indeed lose a significant chunk of traffic in the past few weeks – although the picture isn’t quite as apocalyptic as the ranking charts used in the Guardian piece. Note the graph scale – the website dropped from a visibility score of ~57,000 to ~43,000, roughly a 25% drop in traffic.

Keyword level analysis

A handy feature in SearchMetrics is the ability to compare weekly ranking reports for a site to discover winners and losers. The week ending 10th of April looked something like this (although its truncated – there were 1000’s of affected keywords):


This type of analysis is particularly important, as we can begin to really break down the issue. In this case the budget airlines site has simply ceased to rank for a large swathe of keywords.

This behaviour isn’t typical of most Google penalties, but more inline with an indexing issue. Luckily we don’t have far to look for the root cause given their transition into a new site design recently along with a probable change in Content Management System (CMS).

CMS migration best practices

It is sometimes necessary to migrate between content management systems. It’s an unfortunate by product of web development and new technologies. That isn’t to say however that you can not mitigate any potential loss, and as a very large proportion of sites may have to do this in their lifetimes, understanding the best route to take is important.

In the ideal scenario, you will simply transition every single page of your old site onto your new CMS, replicating the content, architecture and the URLs exactly. If you can achieve this, then theoretically you should not lose any rankings or traffic.

More often than not however this isn’t possible, as different technologies have unique formats in URLs and content capabilities, so in this more likely scenario there are a few things to look out for.

Preparation is key

Before any site migration you should divide your content up into as many sitemaps as reasonable, and submit them to Google through their webmaster tools service.


 You should also prepare the same sitemaps for your new URL structure, and upon migration submit the new ones as soon as the URLs become available to crawl.

This step does not inherently help too much itself in the migration, but when you encounter problems, having lots of targeted sitemaps and a decent comparison between submitted and indexed pages before and after the switch allows you to very quickly diagnose any potential problems.

The migration

Unless you redirect a page via a “301 redirect” (also known as a permanent redirect), it’s impossible for search engines to predict what you want to do with your rankings. As much as it may appear to be the case, Google does not have a crystal ball – without explicit instructions it can not decipher your intentions with a site migration.

These redirections are absolutely crucial, and should exactly point from the old URL to the new URL, with the pages containing identical content – as much as is possible.

You may argue that it wouldn’t be possible in some circumstances to write hundreds of thousands of redirects, and your web developers may claim its impossible to implement.

IF you are willing to lose your rankings and traffic then that shouldn’t be a problem – but be under no misconceptions here: if you choose not to carry this part of the migration out exactly, then you will certainly lose business because of it.

Once you have established a one to one redirect of the old addresses to the new ones, the pages will appear in search results pretty quickly, although some pages may take weeks or even months to be updated.

Typically, a search engine will try and index the old URL 5 times before it switches them in the results, and this will therefore take longer for pages that are crawled less often.

During this transition period you should maintain both the old and the new sitemap formats within Google Webmaster Tools, as it’s the only easy way of keeping track on the re-indexation progress.

What can Ryanair do to fix the problem?

The answer is pretty simple, they need to analyse the precise landing page URLs where they received traffic before the migration and ensure that each and every one of those pages is redirected to equivalent content on the new site.

In the event that these pages simply do not exist, then at the very least they should redirect them to the closest match, or to the homepage. Allowing the old pages to simply return a 404 response code (which is what seems to have happened), then search engines will attempt to find the pages a handful of times before simply dropping them from the results.

A second consideration to keep as much ranking strength as possible, is to ensure that any pages that had links from other sites pointing at them should be prioritised for a redirect.

While there are important SEO considerations in play, the user experience should always be thought of first: if a user clicks on a link on another website, and is presented with a “page not found” error on your site, they are likely to return to Google and choose a competitors site. Another consideration is the correct flow of PageRank.

NB: This is an analysis by Martin MacDonald, an online marketing specialist with over a decade’s experience in technical SEO. MacDonald is a frequent speaker at international marketing conferences on topics related to search marketing. You can get in touch with him directly on twitter or catch up with his marketing blog covering all aspects of search and online marketing.

NB2: Ryanair image via Shutterstock.

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About the Writer :: Viewpoints

A founding principle of tnooz was a diversity of viewpoints from across the spectrum. Viewpoints are articles by guest contributors from around the travel and hospitality industries. The views expressed are those of the author. and do not necessarily reflect those of the author's employer, or tnooz and its partners.





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  1. Jonny

    Fantastic insight into what went wrong Martin. Still can’t believe a company on this scale would be so lax about their restructure. Like Alec said the cost of doing it right would have been less than what they lost.

    To build on what Ian said, I agree with branded keywords still bringing home the bacon, but with the joe public knowing Ryan-air were amongst the cheapest I think the majority would still expect to see Ryan-air pop up when they type in a location specific keyword and when they didn’t appear they flew with their competitor jet2 or easyjet.

  2. Sean O'Neill

    Sean O'Neill

    Ace article, Martin.

  3. Ian

    Great article Martin and good analysis. I agree that they should look at keyword positioning before and after but the main mistake they have made is changing the structure of the site and as you mention not effectively using 301 redirects to the new pages.

    However what Ryanair have in their favour is that they are an established brand name, so a large % of their traffic base would come via the customer directly entering in their browser or by entering the brand name Ryanair into Google.

    • Martin MacDonald

      Hey Ian,

      thanks for the kind words! In total agreement, the majority of their converting traffic will undoubtedly come in on brand related terms – in part owing also to the awful conversion rate they’d get on non-branded search with the old site.

      Im pretty confident in saying that generic terms would have converted terribly for them!

  4. Alec Kinnear

    Good analysis, Martin. Ryanair and Michael O’Leary are bastards (O’Leary makes me ashamed to be Irish on a bad day) but I can’t be O’Leary was such a penny pincher that he snipped his own vasa deferentia by not putting in proper 301 redirects.

    Should have hired us at least. The programming is relatively easy and would save him the expensive intervention of search and rescue teams like yours. Everyone considering migrating CMS should read your article.

    • Martin MacDonald

      Hey Alec – long time no see! (by the way, as you can see on twitter Im still using your photos for my avatar 🙂 )

      You would have thought that they would have redirected every page, but having dealt with some pretty hefty migrations I’ve certainly run into circumstances where a dev team would balk at the idea of a few million 1:1 redirects, if they couldnt build/apply logic to do them on the fly.

      Point stands though, if they weren’t willing to do it, they were always going to have a % hit in traffic.


      • Alec Kinnear

        Hey Martin, great to see you too.

        Yes, not the easiest coding in the world. Not doing it still cost O’Leary and Ryanair many times in visibility what the programmers would have cost.


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