The following are possible events that can occur as part of a site redesign process:
- Changing the web publishing software – for example if you are using Blogger and you switch to WordPress. Or if you are using Joomla and you switch to Drupal, vice versa.
- Changing the URLs of your website – if your website is using query strings (/example.php?id=9) in the URL, you might change them to shorter URLs with keywords in them for a more SEO friendly approach
- Changing the look and feel of your website – this pertains to changing the site themes and layouts.
- Changing the domain name for branding reasons – there are also occasions that your team needs a new domain name for marketing/branding reasons.
- Changing the server side scripting technology of the website. A common example is a migration from ASP.NET/MS SQL server database to PHP/MySQL or vice versa.
- Changing the entire protocol of the website from HTTP to HTTPS or vice versa.
All of these events can affect the SEO status of your website. Most often webmasters/ website owners are not fully aware of the site redesign consequences and as a result it drastically affects their rankings in common search engines such as Google. They lose a lot of traffic after a site redesign which also means lost sales and income.
This tutorial will outline the best practices of doing site redesign in any of the above events. This will ensure that it won’t affect the long term SEO improvements/status of your website.
Mistake #1: Not doing a complete backup before redesign
Forgetting to backup a website is a serious mistake. Suppose you decide to redesign your website and you do not have full backups. What can happen is that you make a serious mistake that could make your website inoperable – your website backup is the last resort to undo the harm you caused.
Correct thing to do: Before doing any site redesign, ensure that you have carefully backed-up all of your website files, content and databases.
Make sure you have tested and double check your backup files. Keep a local copy and make several copies of it as an archive of your past website design.
Mistake #2: Not preparing an exhaustive list of old content URLs
In a major site redesign (such as changing your CMS, layout or web technology), your old URLs can get altered. The main purpose of having a complete list of old content URLs is that you will be going to check these URLs if they are 301 redirected correctly to the new URLs. Without a list, you will fall risk to duplicate content or even 404 pages and broken links on your old content URLs. This results in massive loss of traffic and seriously affects your website SEO status.
Correct thing to do: Run a crawler on your old website before doing any site redesign. The purpose of the crawler is to grab the old URLs. Make sure these are the active and canonical URLs of your website content. Do not include the URLs with session ID as they are not considered canonical URLs by Google.
You can use Xenu crawler: http://home.snafu.de/tilman/xenulink.html to dig your site URLs and export them to an Excel spreadsheet. After the site redesign, your next task is to check if these old URLs are 301 redirected properly to the correct/updated URLs. You can use this bulk server header checker: http://bit.ly/h9MEjO for doing this check.
Mistake #3: Redirecting entire URLs to the homepage of newly designed website
This is another serious mistake because if those old URLs are ranking in Google, the search engine can no longer locate the corresponding new URL. As a result, the ranking will drop due to lack of relevance.
Correct thing to do: You should ensure that each old URL 301 redirects to the corresponding new URLs.
Also it is important that the header status of the new URL is 200 OK header status and should not redirect again to another URL. Common issues found include a never ending redirect loop that can cause serious onsite SEO issues.
Mistake #4: Not checking for broken links and miss-redirection
A broken link is a major problem in a site redesign because of the alteration of the URLs and incomplete files. Miss-redirection is caused by improper server configuration. If left unchecked, this can affect your site SEO because search engine crawlers end up crawling 404 pages, wrong pages, or pages that return an error.
Correct thing to do: Use Xenu crawlers to double check your website URLs and make sure all broken links are fixed.
Mistake #5: Putting more emphasis on site “looks” rather than loading time
One reason why a site has been redesigned is because of the website look; owners hire designers to make it as professional looking as possible. This might sound ok, but you need to draw a balance between “appearance” and “performance”.
Your website performance is equally as important as how your website looks - if not more important.
Correct thing to do: One of the most important website performance parameters that can have significant impact on your website rankings in Google (as well as your sales) is the “website loading time”.
If you are improving your website appearance and design, make sure you do not forget the importance of a fast loading website. Some greatly designed websites that look very professional load very slow because of graphics, flash animations, and other eye-candy elements.
Consider having an initial benchmark of your websites loading time before doing any site redesign. Take note of this data and then after site redesign, re-check if the website loading time is affected by the design. It should be comparable or much better - ideally it should load faster than before the redesign.
You can login to Google webmaster tools, then go to Labs, then “Site performance”. This is your old performance; your newly designed website should not only look better but load faster as well.
Mistake #6: Not putting emphasis on usability and content presentation
One of the biggest SEO mistakes in site redesign is failing to put emphasis on usability and content presentation. Common examples are as follows:
- Site navigation after site redesign is more difficult to navigate.
- Disallowing user to comment the content.
- The content presentation method is poor such as relying on flash technology to display content which takes a lot of time to load or using small font size.
- Forgetting to include “search” function a website
Correct thing to do: Simply plan in advance what is good for your website users. Incorporate those ideas into your site redesign. What works in the old site that relates to SEO and user experience should not be removed in the new site. Make sure the essential elements are there and make your new website very easy to use.
Mistake #7: Forgetting to inform Google of the changes
Google sends the most traffic from search engines to most websites. You should take care of your Google rankings as well as your status in Google. One mistake during a site redesign that involves changing the domain name is that you failed to update your site status in Google webmaster tools. Even though this is not extremely necessary, it is important, since it helps Google to understand your site faster and acknowledge the changes.
Correct thing to do: Login to your Google webmaster tools:
- Go to Site configuration – Change of Address.
- Under “Tell us the URL of your New Domain”, select the new domain from the dropdown menu. Google requires the new domain name be on your verified list.
- Click Submit.
The nice thing about this is that when you are moving to a new domain, both old and new websites are in your Google webmaster tools account. So basically you can check the progress of the transfer by looking at the data. You can also diagnose or troubleshoot site redesign problems using these tools.
Mistake #8: Panicking due to slight traffic drop from search engines
Some website owners do not really understand the expected consequences when doing any website redesign. So if they encounter a slight or moderate drop in traffic after doing these changes to their website, they immediately suspect that something is wrong with the redesign implementations.
Correct thing to do: Due to the 301 redirections in a site redesign involving changing of URLs, you should anticipate a slight drop of traffic that will occur for up to 3 months. This should not be too much of a drop. Carefully review your entire implementation (such as the 301 redirection status) to make sure they were done correctly.
The best way to check for some site related issues is by using Google webmaster tools. If you have a serious drop in traffic, check if the site redesign is introducing some unforeseen crawling issues, indexation problems, etc.
One good rule of thumb in site redesign is avoiding changing the URLs at all if possible. Doing this can take a lot of technical adjustments in your side and to Google.