Are you planning to update your website? Have you bought a new domain and plan to move your website to that domain? Either way, you will have to plan the project carefully before putting it into motion unless you want to face a major SEO disaster. You may not realize it, but even the simplest website redesign can have a huge impact on SEO. Many companies have seen their natural search traffic drop by as much as 70% after a redesign.
A redesign that involves moving to a new domain carries a higher risk, as it can result in broken links, dissolve your digital footprint, and give users a poor experience that causes them to lose interest in your brand. Consider this: A user clicks on a link to one of your pages from search results or from another site and is taken to a “404 Page Not Found” error page. This happens two or three times. Do you really think that user will go out of his way to keep trying until he finds a link that actually takes him to your new site? He will most likely just continue his search on a competitor’s site.
But, don’t fret. There are ways you can protect your SEO equity, even as you redesign or migrate your website. The key is in proper planning and in keeping these two tips in mind:
- Don’t rush. Deadlines are important because they motivate you to get things done. However, you have to be careful in setting the deadlines for each phase of the redesign process because you could so easily end up rushing through them and missing some crucial steps. The deadlines should only be there as guides, not as a source of pressure. The focus should always be on doing things right, rather than on getting them done RIGHT NOW.
- Make SEO part of your redesign process. Your web developers and designers shouldn’t be made to work exclusively during the redesign/migration process. Rather, they should work hand-in-hand with your SEO team to make sure nothing is overlooked. SEO professionals can provide a different perspective and may see things affecting traffic and search rankings that developers and designers would have missed.
Now that you have the right mindset as regards how to approach a website revamp project, it’s time for you to check out some useful tips on how to protect your SEO equity while redesigning or migrating your site.
Know Your Website
Some of your URLs may change during the redesign process, even if you’re not moving your site to another domain. When this happens, you need to let search engines know where the URLs went. If you fail to inform search engines of URL changes, you could lose page rankings and overall site visibility. Everything you have worked hard to achieve in terms of SEO equity over the years could be wiped out in a matter of days if URL changes aren’t handled properly. This is why you need to fully understand your existing URLs before you effect any change to your website.
How exactly do you gain a full understanding of your current URLs? You can start by crawling your site and making a list of all URLs on the site. Determine which web pages require rerouting with a 301 redirect. Make sure everyone involved in the project understands the structure and the need to redirect some of the pages. It is best to redirect all pages that require a URL change, even those with minimal traffic because not redirecting those pages can still have a negative impact on your new website.
If you have subdomains, then be sure to take those into consideration as well. Your subdomains could have hundreds of pages and thousands of links, and all of those could so easily get dissolved when your website is migrated, thereby wasting all the hard work that went into creating those pages and earning those links. There are several tools you can use to crawl your website. These tools generate reports that help you draw up the URL list and synch them with your new website.
What if your new website has fewer pages than the old one? In this case, you should make sure that each page on the old site is directed to a related page on the new site. It is often a good idea to test each page on your old site to see if they are properly redirected and whether they still appear in search results. And here’s a bonus tip: DO NOT take down your old website unless and until you are ready to launch the new site WITHIN A FEW MINUTES. When a website displays an “under construction” message for days, traffic is likely to decline well before the new site is launched.
Analyze Your Inbound Links
As your URLs change, you risk losing the inbound links that have helped you establish authority for your web pages. This is why, aside from understand your website’s URLs, it is also important for you and your team to fully understand your site’s link profile. Learn which sites and pages link to you and why they do so. This will help you determine which link sources have the highest domain authority and which web pages you need to reclaim. Note that direct links are always preferable to redirect links.
The ideal manner of keeping your inbound links is to contact the respective webmasters hosting those links, inform them of the changes you’re making, and request that they update the URL from their end. If there is no way for you to do this, your best bet would be to establish 301 redirects pointing to the new URLs. If you are buying a URL that previously hosted another site, be sure to inspect and update that URL’s link profile as well.
An SEO audit is necessary because it can help you identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and risks of your existing website. The knowledge that you gain as a result will help ensure that the new site will indeed be better and more successful than the old one. Otherwise, a redesign would be pointless. The knowledge you gain after the SEO audit can serve as your guide in creating a road map for what needs to be retained, what needs to be changed, and what needs to be removed from your old site.
The SEO audit will also tell you where you can make improvements as regards site content and optimization. These improvements may then be implemented during, rather than after, the redesign/migration process. Here are the things you should be looking for when you do an SEO audit:
- Duplicate page titles
- Missing page titles
- Duplicate/multiple H1 tags
- Missing H1 tags
- Page titles that are less than 200 pixels
- Page titles that are more than 500 pixels
- Duplicate Meta descriptions
- Missing Meta descriptions
- Meta descriptions that are more than 923 pixels
- Canonical tags
- Structured markup usage
- Duplicate content
- Image alt text
- URL structure
- Broken links
- XML sitemap
- Site speed/performance
- Pages that are indexed by Google
When your new website is launched, remember to do two things to further ensure that none of your efforts are wasted.
- Remove all robots.txt on the site. This allows the new website to be crawled by Google and other search engines. Make sure that the location of your new sitemap has been specified in your robots.txt.
- Set up a Webmaster account. It’s crazy how many businesses have websites but do not have webmaster accounts. Webmaster tools are provided by both Google and Bing, so there really is no reason for you to skip setting up an account. And if you already have a Webmaster account set up with Google, well, you need to inform the search engine that you now have a new domain! You can do this simply by adding your new sitemap to your Webmaster Tools account.
As soon as the launch of your new website is complete and the site is already getting indexed, another important phase begins: monitoring. You need to keep a very careful eye on your site’s analytics during the first few months of its launch. See if there are sudden 404 spikes, losses in keyword ranking, or unusual drops in traffic. Another plus if you have a Webmaster account is that Google and Bing will inform you via direct messages in case something is wrong.
The website redesign and migration process can indeed be complex, tedious, and time-consuming. But it can also be very helpful to your brand’s continued digital visibility and the growth of your business. The key is for you to plan the project properly and go about the entire process very carefully. By keeping the above tips in mind, getting the right people to work on the project, and making sure every member of the team understands what you are trying to achieve, you should be able to protect your SEO equity while redesigning/migrating your site.