I made a mistake.
I was so excited about our new Squarespace website that I let my guard down. I assumed Google wouldn't care. I was wrong, and I should have known better.
Here's the back story.
In addition to working with my wife, Brittany, on ModSquare Design, I am a marketing manager at a local custom software development company.
We were redesigning one of our websites in Squarespace for the first time.
Over the course of two months, I worked with our sales team to polish and refine the site. We edited and tweaked the images and copy until we were happy. Euphoric in fact!
And then we went LIVE!
It is important to know that I am passionate about SEO. It is an unhealthy obsession. I know it. I enjoy it far too much, and I track and obsess over the sites that are under my control. I use several tools to track our position in Google for several keywords.
Approximately two weeks after our new website went live, I noticed that we suddenly stopped ranking in the top 3 positions for 30 to 40% of our keywords. One day we were there and the next day we were gone. Vanished. Nowhere to be found in the top 300 spots.
I performed a manual search for one of these keywords. When the results appeared my heart sank.
I had failed to protect our site from Google's "eyes" during development with a password. My temporary Squarespace domain was now ranking where my actual website should have been.
The worst part was that I knew better! I let my excitement of a new website cloud my judgment. I assumed that since no one was linking to this temporary domain, Google would not index it. Wrong. I assumed we'd be quick enough that Google would not even find it before we were ready to go live. Wrong again.
There sat my temporary domain in the search results, staring back at me from where my website should have been.
Why Is This An Issue?
So, why was this an issue? In my case, this presented several problems. For one, my built-in Squarespace domain had my personal name it in which looked pretty unprofessional for a website selling software under a corporate name and that cost many thousands of dollars per license.
Second, Google was already confused about which site to display in the search results. They were showing one site for some searches and the built-in domain for others.
Third, Google doesn't like to see duplicated content. The Google algorithms takes into account many quality factors on websites and having the same content on two different domains was not a small issue. While this was an honest mistake, the last thing I needed was Google assuming that I was trying to manipulate ranking by building multiple sites with the same content.
Three excellent reasons why I could not just leave the situation alone.
What Are Your Options?
If you host your website, you usually have control at the web server level to put in a site-wide redirect. Or, if I had DNS control over the built-in domain, I could simply forward that traffic to the correct URL. However, neither of those is an option with Squarespace since they host the site and you do not have control over the squarespace.com domain name's DNS settings.
I decided to contact Squarespace directly to see if they had a simple solution to my issue. The technician I chatted with was extremely attentive and offered several explanations and suggestions. However, ultimately they recommended that we simply give Google time to sort things out. Google will see all of the inbound links and traffic pointing to the primary domain and will eventually understand which one is the correct site.
While that is true, I was not satisfied with just waiting and hoping. I needed to fix my mistake.
Option 1: Change your Built-in Domain Name
I did a Google search and found two interesting suggestions within one blog post.
The first suggestion was to change the name of your built-in domain name. Squarespace gives you the ability to set your built-in domain name from within your admin area. The idea is that if you change your integrated sub-domain, the URLs that Google has indexed will not be valid anymore. When someone clicks on those, it will return a 404 page not found error. Eventually, Google will see that and remove that page from their index.
My issue with this method was simply the time factor. Google would eventually discard those entries but it could take months for that to happen. Also, what would prevent the new built-in domain from being indexed again by accident?
Option 2: Using Google Search Console
In the comments of that post, someone else mentioned trying Google Search Console's ability to request removal of URLs from domains you control.
For those unfamiliar with Google Search Console (formerly known as Google Webmaster Tools), it is a free service that Google provides to give you some insight into how Google sees your website. They also give you a few tools to help you control how Google indexes your site.
Setting up a Google Search Console account is a critical step for every website owner who cares about SEO and wants to control how Google sees their site. I had already set-up an account for the final domain name.
I knew that the temporary squarespace.com subdomain was not a domain that I owned. However, you do not need to OWN a domain to connect it to Google Search Console. You only need to CONTROL the content on that domain. Bingo.
Resolution: Use A Google Search Console Account to Remove These URLs
So I set-up a second Google Search Console account for the Squarespace built-in domain.
If you never have set-up a Google Search Console account before, here is a detailed step-by-step process you can follow, straight from Squarespace:
I was able to verify and validate the account by adding some code to the header of the website. Within minutes, I had a working Search Console account connected to this Squarespace subdomain.
Once that was working, the last step was a simple one. Google offers a feature to remove URLs from a domain from their index. So I simply had to ask Google to remove all URLs from this domain from their index.
Here's how I did it.
Step 1 - Create a Google Search Console Account
Begin by setting up a new Google Search Console account. If you already have an account for another website, many times you can add another site to the same management account.
Step 2 - Add The Squarespace Built-in Domain
Once you have an account set-up and are logged-in, the next step is to insert the built-in domain to the account. On the home screen, click the red "Add A Property" button in the upper right corner.
Clicking this button will open a pop-up where you can add your Squarespace built-in domain. Type out the domain and click the continue button.
Step 3 - Select Verification Method
The next screen will provide several options to prove to Google that you have control over this domain. They have a recommended method and several alternative methods.
The recommended method will not be possible with the way Squarespace is set-up. So click the "Alternate methods" tab at the top and you will see four options.
Click the "HTML tag" radio button.
A box with a line of code opens that we will need to copy and add to Squarespace.
Step 4 - Copy Verification Code to Squarespace
Copy this code to your clipboard and then go to your Squarespace admin console. Go to SETTINGS > ADVANCED > CODE INJECTION
The code displayed in the top box is injected into the page header. Paste the code that we copied from Google Search Console, into this box on a new line.
Step 5 - Verify in Google Search Console
Go back to the Google Search Console screen and click the VERIFY button. Google will now look to see if they can find the code you added. You should see a green checkmark, indicating that the verification is successful.
You have now verified control over this domain. Click the CONTINUE button and you will now see the dashboard.
Step 6 - Ask Google To hide URLs
The next step is to ask Google to remove all of these URLs. On the left side of the screen, click on "Google Index" and go to "Remove URLs."
Click the "Temporarily Hide" button.
A box appears, asking you to enter the URL that you would like to remove. Don't enter anything here and then click the CONTINUE button.
Google is going to warn you that what you are asking them to do is to remove your entire website from their index.
The text offers a couple of suggestions on how to permanently remove this site. However, Squarespace's infrastructure and set-up do not allow you to follow through with either of these options.
Click the "Submit Request" button.
So What Were My Results?
Within hours, the URLs from that temporary domain disappeared, and the correct domain name reappeared in the search results in the same spots where they were before.
It has been 2 to 3 months since then, and everything is still running correctly. Our keywords are climbing, and the old temporary domain name has not reappeared.
Warnings, Words of Caution and Explanations
A couple of caveats. First, Google Search Console says that the setting to remove all URLs from a website from their index is valid for 90 days. So every three months I will likely need to check and make sure that the setting has not changed. Google does not comment on how many times you can do this. I will keep everyone posted on what I find.
Second, another commenter on that original blog post mentioned that this reason might not satisfy Google as a legitimate reasons to use this de-index tool. Google indicates that you should use this tool when you accidentally post information and need it removed quickly. However, I would argue that my personal name should not be tied so directly to a website that is a corporate site and not a personal one.
Third, Google notes that they may not honor all removal requests. The fact that it worked so quickly in my case leads me to believe that it does not a involve a manual approval on Google's side.
Lastly, Google also says that this tool should not be used to remove the wrong version of a website in an attempt to get the right one displayed. Their examples were for sites that are changing from HTTP to HTTPS or www vs. non-www versions of the same website on the SAME domain. The reason is that Google could accidentally remove valid pages on both sides that you might want to keep. In our case, the same site was appearing for DIFFERENT domains.
So how did Google find my website during development? Google has a lot of methods available to them to find new pages on the internet to index them. My best guess in this case is the Google Chrome browser. We know that Google utilizes the data gathered through Chrome for many purposes, and I am confident that this was the way they found that site.
Ideally, Squarespace should provide a way to set your integrated subdomain's robots.txt file to "no-index, no-follow" or to allow you to redirect all traffic from the temporary domain to your permanent one.
In summary, it is best to keep Squarespace development sites away from Google's "eyes" by utilizing the functionality to require a password or CAPTCHA entry before accessing the website. However, if Google sneaks their indexing spiders past you and does manage to index your temporary domain, give this process a try.
Comments or ideas? Have another method I haven't mentioned here? Share them in the comments below!