A new website should be an opportunity to improve SEO, conversion rates and digital marketing as a whole. Unfortunately, it can also be an invitation for disaster — if the right steps aren’t taken to ensure a smooth transition from old website to new, you can damage the SEO equity your site has worked hard to build over the years.
In this article, I take a look at everything you need to consider during a website redesign to ensure you retain and improve your existing search engine rankings and traffic. (As a primer to this column, a good understanding of SEO as it relates to web design is essential.)
A cautionary tale
For many businesses, organic search can be the biggest driver of website traffic. And, in these cases, damage to SEO during a redesign can be catastrophic. During the 19 or so years I have been playing around at this, I have seen some real horror stories, but one in particular has always stuck with me.
The website was for a small multiple sclerosis (MS) charity in which I had some involvement. The charity promoted a diet-based approach to dealing with MS and, as such, was not terribly well-funded. The site had gradually built organic traffic to build awareness over several years but was desperately in need of a visual overhaul.
After a long and protracted website redesign process that involved two companies over 12 months, the new site finally launched. Everyone was super-excited about taking things to the next level. And then this happened:
Organic traffic dropped by over 90 percent… and pretty much stayed there. Excitement turned into panic. After a month of waiting for things to improve and receiving no support from either of the web design agencies involved, we got the call and took it on as a pro bono project.
To try and resolve these issues a month down the line is far from ideal. It’s difficult, and while there are ways and means, we really never want to get into this situation in the first place. This is especially true for a cash-strapped charity or a small business that relies on SEO and organic search for leads.
Fortunately, we were able to mostly resolve these issues over time, but it was painful for all involved. A historic domain was not re-registered, and that could not be recovered. The whole situation could have been easily avoided with some simple planning and consideration for existing organic traffic.
SEO & website redesigns
Maintaining (and ideally improving) your rankings and organic traffic during a redesign has three key components:
- An understanding of what works currently with your SEO.
- Knowledge of common issues that crop up with a redesign.
- A detailed plan of what will change on the new site.
You would ideally seek to understand your SEO weaknesses as well, as this will help you identify areas to make improvements on the new site. Aim not to just maintain but to improve your SEO with your new site.
1. What works currently
If you are running SEO campaigns, you should (hopefully) have a good idea of what is working currently: keywords and topics that rank, pages that bring in organic traffic and so on. Doing this analysis so you know that what works is intelligence that should be fed into the thought process for the new site.
2. Common issues
There are many reasons for a site redesign, and this can be as much to do with branding and technology as it can be with traffic and lead generation. Things that typically can change or be problematic during a redesign include:
- Content can be removed. (It won’t rank if it is not there!)
- Content can be changed.
- Content may move within the site’s hierarchy.
- URLs may change.
- Page-level optimization may change.
- New content can be added.
- New sections can be added to the site.
- New technology or features may be used.
- New technical issues can be introduced.
- Internal link structure could change.
- Domain name may chance.
- Subdomain may change.
- Protocol may change.
Any of the above can cause issues with your rankings and organic traffic. And if there are multiple issues, such as content changing and being moved to a new URL, then it gets harder to diagnose the root cause of issues.
If the domain name changes at the same time as the redesign, then this can be more problematic. I would usually caution against doing both of these steps simultaneously. The more variables we introduce here, the more difficult it can be to diagnose issues if they do crop up. A completely new site with content changes on a brand-new domain that introduces HTTPS, all implemented at once? Not such a good idea.
3. What will change with the redesign?
Armed with a knowledge of what works and what can go wrong, you can sit down and review the goals for the new site. Two key goals should be:
- to preserve the existing rankings and traffic.
- to improve the rankings and traffic.
Ideally, you will have a complete sitemap for the new site that you can use to compare against the existing site and create mappings for URL moves.
Best practices for a trouble-free redesign
Fortunately, with a little preplanning, avoiding SEO disasters and maintaining visibility during a website redesign is fairly straightforward. The following website redesign checklist will help ensure you preserve your precious rankings as you launch your new site.
- ▢ Keep the old site live. If you can, keep the old site live on a temporary web address. Make sure the site can’t be accessed by a crawler. Some HTTP authentication is best, but having the old site to refer to when you hit a snag can be a godsend. Often, some or part of the site will be on the web archive, but having the real thing is way better.
- ▢ Save crawl data. Save a crawl of the old site, even if you have the site on a temp URL. Screaming Frog is great for this, and again, you can load up the old site crawl if you need to do any analysis.
- ▢ Don’t fix what is not broken. Where you can, keep things the same — URLs in particular. If you can keep the URL structure and page names the same, then there is way less that can go wrong. If you have to make changes, so be it — but make sure they are warranted for the greater good and not just done for the heck of it.
- ▢ 301 redirects. Redirecting old URLs to new ones should be the first job on your list. If possible, when redesigning a site, keep content on the same URLs. For instance, a WordPress redesign may be able to keep the same permalink structure. This is desirable. If not, then you will want a spreadsheet of all URLs on the old and new sites so you can implement and test your 301 redirects. When the new site is live, you will want to crawl the old list of URLs (another time that saved crawl comes in handy) to ensure everything 301 redirects correctly.
- ▢ Content. Where you have content that currently performs well, you’ll want to minimize changes (or keep it exactly the same). There will be plenty of opportunities to tweak your content in its new home after it is indexed and ranking, but for now, aim to minimize the variables of change.
- ▢ On-page optimization. Crawling your old site will allow you to easily export all the key on-page elements: page titles, meta descriptions, headers and so forth. Keep this largely the same (unless there are some absolutely obvious improvements that can be made).
- ▢ Update your backlinks. Review sites that send traffic in analytics along with your best backlinks in the typical link index tools. Once you have a list, reach out to the webmasters to update these where possible. You should have a 301 in place, so don’t lose any sleep over this, but updated backlinks can help get the new site indexed and ranking quickly.
- ▢ Internal links. Be mindful of any changes to internal link structure. Again, your crawl data can be useful here. If you have pages that had thousands of internal links previously but are now barely linked, then this can have an impact on the rankings for that page.
- ▢ XML sitemap. Update your XML sitemap and submit it to Google and Bing. We want our 301s, page structure, navigation and XML sitemap to all align and indicate the new site structure to help search engines understand the changes as quickly as possible.
- ▢ Monitor rankings. You can expect some fluctuations, but you would want to be back at a baseline within a month or so of launch (and ideally sooner). If you have issues, investigate them now so you can identify and resolve them. Sometimes, with larger sites, it can take a while longer for deeper pages to be recrawled, so be mindful of this.
- ▢ Monitor organic traffic. You can never rank-track every possible keyword that drives traffic, so also monitor traffic to key pages to ensure you see improvements.
- ▢ Technical site audit. Ideally, use a technical site audit tool to give you proactive information on any technical issues. There are many tools out there (e.g., Moz, Ahrefs), but one that can really help is DeepCrawl, which will also monitor log files, so it can help you spot issues before they become problems. All of these tools can help you quickly identify and resolve any new technical SEO issues that crop up.
- ▢ Use Google Search Console. Google Search Console keeps getting better and will give you diagnostic information directly from Google. Tracking your 301s and 404s here will help ensure these key steps are all working in your favor. The Search Traffic > Search Analytics tab is a treasure trove of information covering clicks, impressions, CTR and average position. If you have issues, then these diagnostics can provide insight.
The key components to maintaining your rankings and SEO during a site redesign are:
- knowing what works on the existing site.
- understanding any areas that could be improved.
- carefully planning the new site.
- 301 redirecting all old URLs to new.
- carefully monitoring the results.
A redesign should be an opportunity to improve your SEO and conversion rates. However, for sites with strong organic search traffic, this should be undertaken with care to preserve your SEO. Following the instructions in this article should ensure you only see positive improvements.
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