There are a number of very good reasons to redesign a website, but it can be a huge undertaking. When businesses launch a website redesign, they’re generally trying to improve their online marketing. However, there are many web designers and developers who are very talented at designing and building websites but are prone to overlooking SEO.
As a result, it’s unfortunately very common for business websites to suffer from a huge drop in organic search ranking after a redesign. While devoting attention to the design and functionality of the website, developers will often make changes that damage the search ranking the site has built up over time.
Redesigns don’t have to be an SEO disaster, however; in fact, if planned well, they can be a major boon to your search ranking. If you’re planning a website redesign for your organization, make sure you follow this guide to ensure that your investment in your website isn’t wasted.
Why do website redesigns cause ranking loss?
For any significant website change, it’s not uncommon to see a temporary loss of search rank and a small drop in traffic (about 5%-7%) as Google crawls the new site structure and reevaluates the score. If everything else is done correctly, most websites bounce back within a few weeks.
But that’s if the website redesign was handled correctly. If it wasn’t, the results can be much more dramatic—sometimes eliminating virtually all of the ranking gains accumulated during the lifespan of the website.
So what causes websites to lose ranking like this? Assuming that the website content is essentially the same and has just been copied to the new site, it usually comes down to carelessness in building the new site structure, such as these common mistakes:
- Changes to site architecture: Google’s algorithm assigns a PageRank value to pages, and these pages can pass value to other pages through links. If you make a major change to the way your website is organized and don’t preserve your internal links, pages that were previously ranking well may suddenly lose a significant amount of PageRank and drop off the Search Engine Results Page (SERP).
- 301 redirects not done or done incorrectly: If old pages are deleted or moved, all of the PageRank (and links) those pages have accumulated will disappear. Fortunately, we’ve been given a way around this with 301 redirects, which will point any old page links to the new pages. If these are not set up correctly, your site’s ranking and traffic will plummet.
Is there a way to redesign websites that won’t kill ranking?
The tragedy of all of this is that ranking loss is usually entirely unnecessary. A proper migration to a redesigned website can actually provide a major SEO boost, if the work is done well and the right steps are followed. If you’re planning a redesign for your website, make sure you consult this guide before starting any work.
Step 1: Analytics & SEO Audit
Before you do anything with your website, you should take stock of where you stand. You need to evaluate how the pages on your website are currently ranking and attracting traffic for keywords that are important to your business.
Conducting a thorough SEO audit of your website will give you information about the strengths and weaknesses of your current site, as well as any opportunities for improvement as you begin planning the redesign. You want to know what your top organic landing pages are, and what search terms people are using to find them. An audit will also let you know what content needs to be migrated and what can be safely left behind. Your SEO audit will be the foundation of your entire website redesign, and it determines where you can go next.
To access best practice tips and examples of how to nail your on-site SEO (along with a template that will help you work through the elements of successful SEO on a page-by-page basis), get your copy of our In-Depth Guide to Implementing An SEO Audit now.
Step 2: Keyword Research
After an SEO audit to determine where you stand now, the next step is doing keyword research to get ideas about where you can go next. A website redesign is a great opportunity to reevaluate your keyword targeting. Your website structure will be based on your keywords, so make sure you’ve chosen the right ones.
Are there keywords you could target that are related to the keywords you’re already ranking for? Is there enough search volume for the keywords you’ve chosen? Is there a way to put more focus on the keywords that have led to the most conversions in the past? Make sure you have a firm grasp on your keyword plan before starting the redesign.
Step 3: Build your website architecture
Now that you’ve selected your keywords, you can begin actually structuring how your redesigned website will be organized. Website redesigns are a great opportunity to use keyword and analytics data to create a sensible, SEO-friendly site and URL structure that is entirely optimized to meet your organic search attraction goals.
It’s a best practice to include your keywords in your URL structure. To borrow an example from Moz, the ideal URL structure looks something like this:
Including your keywords in your URL will help boost your authority in Google’s eyes but, more importantly, it will greatly improve your click-through rate (CTR). Any keywords in your URLs will be highlighted when they’re displayed in search results, and studies have shown that URLs have a very large impact on whether searchers choose to click on any given link.
Another benefit of creating this kind of hierarchical URL structure is that your internal links will naturally pass along PageRank in a beneficial way. Your highest PageRank page will usually be your home page, which can then link out to your main keyword categories, which can then link to keyword subcategories, which can then link to individual keyword-focused pages. This keeps PageRank distributed in a way that will have the greatest impact.
Step 4. On-Page SEO
Pages and pages could be written about how to optimize your content and do on-page SEO, but it basically comes down to two things—making sure that all of your tags and images are optimized for your keywords, and making sure that your pages contain valuable, original, keyword-focused content.
It’s important to use semantic HTML for markup because it tells Google what the content on your site actually means and how it should be prioritized. This helps Google crawl and evaluate your website more accurately, and gives their algorithm a better understanding of your website’s value.
Every page on your website should feature optimized content, images, and tags. Filling in the frame of the URL architecture you’ve built with your on-page SEO and content means that your entire website structure is optimized and working together to attract traffic. All the work you’ve done up until this point means that any SEO-focused content you create now has the greatest possible chance of succeeding.
Step 5. 301 Redirects
The final step in a successful website redesign is mapping out your 301 redirects. 301 redirects tell Google that any link pointing towards a page on your old site should be directed toward a page on your new website instead. This allows you to maintain the PageRank of your old pages and also means any links you’ve earned for those pages will still be helping you build authority on your new site.
The issue most businesses run into here is that they don’t plan out a map of their 301s before they create them. Some will just redirect every page on their old site to the homepage of their new site, or worse, only create 301 redirects for selected pages and neglect the rest.
301 redirects are meant to funnel traffic between pages with similar topics. Every 301 you create on a page on your old site should be pointing at the equivalent page on your new site. If you create 301s that are directing traffic to irrelevant pages, Google will stop passing PageRank and all your work will have been for nothing.
A best practice is to map out the structure of your 301 redirects before actually doing any development or content migration work. That way, you can ensure that every page on your old site is pointing somewhere relevant. A good redirect map will also make it obvious if you’re missing anything important.
Duplicate Content and the Canonical Tag
For one reason or another, sometimes after a website redesign you may want to keep some old pages that have already been reproduced on the new site and so you can’t use a 301 redirect, or you may otherwise end up with multiple pages that have the same content. In SEO circles, this is called duplicate content, and generally results in ranking penalties.
In cases like this, where you can’t use a 301 redirect, you can instead use a canonical tag. This tag allows you to designate one page as the original, canonical piece of content, meaning that this is the only one that should be delivered as a search result. Using the canonical tag lets you keep up multiple pages with the same content without a penalty, and also makes sure that Google only displays the version of the page that you want searchers to see.
What else can I do to increase the search ranking of my website during a redesign?
Taking the above steps during a website redesign will help you avoid the bulk of the ranking penalty that most redesigned websites suffer. However, there are several other things you can do to give your website a boost and, with luck, actually come out of your redesign with INCREASED traffic.
1. Have new keyword-focused blog posts ready to go
Content is one of the primary factors that Google uses to evaluate your website. If you want to make sure that you don’t lose any traffic when you launch your redesigned site, one of the best things you can do is have a bunch of new, keyword-focused content ready to launch with the redesign. For most companies, the simplest way to do that is to have a few high quality blog posts in the pipe, ready to go. The new traffic generated by fresh content can offset traffic that might be lost during the transition.
2. Look for new opportunities to use internal links across the site
A website redesign is an excellent time to look through your content for opportunities to create more internal links. Internal links are the best way to pass PageRank between pages on your website. An effective internal link structure helps Google crawl your site and index your pages, and gives each page the best possible chance of ranking for its keywords.
Go through your old blog posts and see if you can link to relevant content you’ve created since they were published. Use good, descriptive anchor text, and make sure you’re using follow links.
3. Build new sitemaps and submit to Google
Sitemaps help Google understand the structure of your website. As part of the redesign process, you should build XML and HTML sitemaps. Submit these sitemaps to Google once your redesign launches. Using keywords in your sitemaps will also increase those pages’ chances to rank well for those keywords.
4. Watch for URL issues from changing CMSes
If part of your site redesign included a migration from one content management system (CMS) to another (such as switching from DotNetNuke to WordPress), you’ll notice that different platforms often have very different URL structures for blog posts. This means that every one of your blog posts will need to be redirected to the new URL generated by the new CMS. If you’re migrating to WordPress, there are several plugins that will help you manage this process, but you’ll need to be aware of and account for this no matter what CMS you’re using.
5. Watch traffic after launch so you can move quickly to correct errors
Chances are that even with all the precautions you’ve taken, it’s still possible to miss something small. Following the launch of your website redesign, you’ll want to pay very close attention to the traffic your site is getting and compare it to the traffic you were receiving before the redesign.
It’s best to check your traffic daily in the first few weeks after you launch your redesign. If you see any sudden dips in traffic or steady decreases day after day that don’t seem to be reversing course, it’s likely there’s a technical problem somewhere. Keeping an eye on things this way means that you can react quickly and work to repair the damage.
Redesign Your Website And Grow Your Organic Traffic
A well-executed website redesign can be a huge benefit from an SEO and inbound marketing perspective. While many website redesign projects run into serious SEO trouble, these issues can be avoided with a little careful planning. Rather than incurring SEO penalties, a successfully executed website redesign can actually boost the site’s search rank and traffic.
Are you considering a website redesign? Check out our Inbound Website Redesign Guide to discover how to set goals for your redesign and follow a proven plan that will get you there successfully.