Redesigning a Site for SEO: an Overview

Many SEOs use a check list when they need to redesign a web site. That helps tremendously, but some aspects of SEO and site redesign defy such a mechanical approach, especially when you’re working with a client. Sometimes it helps to step back and consider the whole picture, as an artist would step back to look at a painting.

Your first step should be considering what you already have to work with. Try to go through the site with fresh eyes. If the site was designed a few years ago, it may have been state of the art at the time, but now looks like it’s fallen behind the times. In truth, it has; visitors may be looking for something more exciting (or at least more interesting) and Google surely wants to see something other than what it saw five years ago!

Don’t look upon a site’s age as all bad, however. Sure, a site that hasn’t been redesigned in a long time looks old, but it has something a newer site doesn’t: trust. Google and the other search engines look at a site that’s been around for several years in the same way that a bank looks at a customer with a very good credit history built up over time. When you combine that status with a great site redesign, you can achieve excellent results.

If you’re the SEO in charge of redesigning your client’s web site, you’ll want to ask lots of questions. Your client may not be able to answer them all off the top of his head. Still, if you want to do a good job, it’s helpful to know as much about the site and your client’s industry as you can. How competitive is the industry? Who are your client’s main rivals? When was the site last redesigned, and by whom? What was done? Do you have a history of the site’s traffic and conversions for at least the last several months? Think of those questions as just your starting point.

You can expect to do a certain amount of education as to the nature of SEO and the kinds of results that can be achieved. You may find yourself gritting your teeth if you encounter one of those clients who expect to reach the top of the SERPs tomorrow. Be polite and courteous; you and your client will see a better site emerge from this job if you’re working as allies than if you’re butting heads. Try to have a clear goal in mind before you start changing the site, whether it’s number of visitors, conversions, position in the SERPs, or what have you. With a project like this, you need to have something to work towards, else how will you know when your work is complete? (Granted, the job of an SEO is never really complete, since SERPs are dynamic, but you get my point).

Okay, you now have a feeling for the site, the site owner’s field and its competitive landscape, and the goals for the redesign. Now what? Well, if it’s an old site, it may not have kept up with the most current trends in the field. You need to know what keywords searchers are using to find whatever your client offers.

I won’t go into how to do keyword research, since there are plenty of articles here on SEO Chat that explain that topic in detail. Depending on the field, however, you might find that you need to be careful with your tools. Richard Hearne discovered that some keyword research tools may deliver skewed results for certain phrases – because “a very large number of the reported searches are going to be executed for the purpose of collecting keyword data.” The SEO/SEM field is notorious for this, with many searchers not interested in hiring services so much as finding out what their competitors are up to.

Obviously, once you have the appropriate keywords, you need to use them in all the right places. That means title tags and site text; meta descriptions are more controversial in the sense that many insist the search engines don’t look at those anymore. Still, there are places where you should include descriptions if they aren’t already there, such as alt tags for images on the site. Avoid keyword stuffing; remember, those tags will be used in ways other than SEO. They get read by site reading software used by the blind, for example. Keep it short and sweet, and use any keywords sensibly.

When you’re changing files and pages and such, make sure you do all the redirects correctly. This would be a good time to check your backlinks, too, and find out who is linking deep into your site. You’ll want to consider building a custom 404 page as well, just in case anyone does get lost. If your folder structure is changing – and chances are it is – you’ll also want to update your robots.txt file. You don’t want your visitors to get lost; you surely don’t want Google to get lost either!

What about the site’s look and feel? You will probably have to make some changes to make sure the site’s navigation works well and visitors flow smoothly through the site. Above and beyond that, you may need to give the site a "face-lift.” What image does the site owner want to project? Browsing a bank’s web site should feel different from browsing a web site that sells homemade dip mixes, for example. Both can (and should) project a certain feeling of professionalism, but they will have different “personalities.”

Choose a color scheme and stick with it; templates can also be a big help here. The site’s new image should fit the industry and the owner. Remember that your client can be a great resource for this. You might get an enormous amount of help from the site owner and have a truly pleasant experience.

For example, one SEO working on redesigning a web site for a client in the real estate business found inspiration for the redesign from a section of the client’s old site. That section showed images from the company’s “home staging” business, where rooms in homes were redone to get the home ready for listing. The SEO worked with his client to make the redesigned site look as tasteful, elegant, and welcoming as those rooms, starting with the color scheme from one of the photos.

Sadly, there’s always the possibility that you and your client will end up with significant areas of disagreement. You might even find that your client is helpful about some things and adamant about others. Your client might be very attached to the site, especially if he designed it himself; it’s his “baby” after all.

So be patient when you explain the changes you want to make; sometimes, when someone knows WHY you’re doing something a certain way, they’re a lot more reasonable about letting you do it. They might also come up with an idea for doing something that accomplishes the same goal in a better way. Always do your best, but remember that there’s a reason for the old saying that “the customer is always right.”

With all the work you’re doing on the site’s redesign, don’t forget your ultimate goal. It runs deeper than the one I mentioned in the first section of this article. It even runs deeper than getting to the first position on Google for all your keywords, though achieving this goal might help you do that too. Your ultimate goal is to be as helpful as possible to your site’s visitors.

What exactly does that mean? Searchers go to Google looking for one thing: content. So your redesigned site needs to have content, relevant content, and lots of it. If you’re working with someone who is truly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his field, this shouldn’t be too difficult to provide. A site for a real estate agent, for instance, might include articles on the advantages of living in the communities he services. The web site of a dentist with a family practice could talk about ways to encourage kids to practice oral hygiene and/or prepare them for their first visit to the dentist. The possibilities are endless.

All of the major search engines, most especially including Google, love fresh content. The easiest way to guarantee that a site will receive fresh content regularly is with a well-maintained blog. It’s an informal way to convey information to your visitors that they’ll find helpful. The key point, though, is that the blog must be maintained. A web site with a blog that hasn’t been updated in a while looks neglected. You do not want to have a web site that conveys that image.

At the same time, however, blogging isn’t for everyone. One SEO says that he looks for three things in a potential blogger: special knowledge, passion for a subject, and good writing skills. However, a good blogger needs one more thing to make it work: time. Having the time to blog is all-important. If the site owner or head of the business does not have the time (or possibly temperament) to blog for the site, the task can be delegated to someone who does. It can even be shared among several employees, as long as their responsibilities are clearly outlined and they all have at least a modicum of the necessary skills and background.

Now that I’ve given you an overview of the web site redesign process, I hope you’ll find it a little less overwhelming. It needn’t be scary. If you have a web site that is not working for you as well as you’d like, a redesign could help unlock its true potential.

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