StubHub Saves Its Rankings While Opening Up Personalization Possibilities

Digital ticket sales company StubHub recently faced an interesting conundrum: How could the brand optimize for mobile without losing its SEO rankings? To safeguarding rankings while becoming fully mobile-optimized, StubHub had to think creatively and hope for the best.

StubHub has been a top-ranked site for nearly 15 years but in that time, the desktop, mobile site and app have never had a major overhaul. Until recently the brand was managing all those experiences separately, which led to internal confusion as well as user frustration, according to Parag Vaish, head of mobile for StubHub. “We’ve had to migrate quite a bit of our efforts towards mobile as many companies have,” Vaish says.

“That’s not been easy. We were managing a mobile web experience that was separate from our desktop experience, and it was becoming more and more inefficient for us. So we decided to move to a single codebase and responsive design for our browser based experience.”

In the long run, StubHub hopes the new single codebase and responsive design will provide cross-device opportunities that will take the site from a final destination for ticket seekers to an interactive experience, where users can search preference-based suggestions about upcoming events in their cities.

“Part of this migration toward the single codebase is preparing for that future,” Vaish says. “If users experiencing StubHub on our native app give us a couple of indicators of what they like, we can immediately provide recommendations of concerts or upcoming events based on preferences. That’s the first glimpse of our personalization efforts. Those are the things users will start to see on desktop and mobile web in the next couple of months. This is an enabler for the future of StubHub to be much more of a personalization driven company.”

But those updates could have meant a huge hit to revenue if Google and other search engines were slow to associate new updates with the established brand, according to Greg Black, technical SEO lead for StubHub.

“From a technical standpoint, the biggest challenge was moving from an antiquated, monolithic 15-year-old Java stack to a distributed, high-performance architecture based on APIs and service oriented architecture on the server side with java script single page apps (SPA),” Black says. “So the two biggest obstacles were how search engines were going to access the source code to view the various important SEO components and the risks of changing those 15-year-old, highly ranked URLs.”

The key to migrating without impacting rankings was painstaking testing and gradual release of low traffic pages, including snapshot tests of individual pages to make sure Google pulled the new pages as easily as it had the old. StubHub proceeded by researching solutions for rendering the SPA scenarios.

“We began providing a test snapshot of all our pages and then slowly, systematically opened our low traffic pages. We monitored the rankings impact, and once our new pages began replacing our old pages in the search we began releasing other categories until we were at 100 percent,” says Black. 

StubHub also did meticulous experimentation with keyword search, making sure their rankings for popular search terms hadn’t been impacted by the migration. 

“For key terms like “San Francisco Giants tickets” or “Miami Dolphins tickets,” we had to know where we ranking in the eyes of Google before and after,” Vaish says. “If we were number two for these keywords before, the bad scenario is being ranked number twelve for those keywords afterward. A good scenario is being ranked number one, two, or three.”

According to Vaish, there was a very good possibility that Google would no longer recognize StubHub in the rankings. “From the eyes of an algorithm in Google, it could have very well looked like StubHub ceased to exist, and some other startup had popped up and seemed to be doing a lot of the similar things that StubHub is doing,” Vaish says.

However, interestingly enough, as the company tested and measured, the opposite seemed to be true. Google seemed to pick up the company’s signals more rapidly as the conversion continued. “As we progressed through the migration, it took Google less time to recognize our new pages as we moved along,” Black says. “The first week it took about seven days for Google to recognize us, but at the end of the process we were swapping pages in two or three days.”

As more and more companies move to optimize for mobile, the lesson, according to Vaish, seems to be to prepare for the worst to ensure the best.

“All the guidance that we got for this migration was that we were going to drop in rank and it was going to take six months to rebound,” Vaish says. “The SEO efforts were basically over about a four week period. We found that google was picking up our new URLs in this migration in about a week or so.”

After four weeks of testing, StubHub is at about 95 percent in its listings with a minimal drop-off. “That means if we were number two, we might have dropped to number three for a specific term,” Black says.

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