Time to Redesign Your Website: How to Avoid an SEO Disaster
Whether you’re going through a complete rebrand or a less radical brand rejuvenation, a website redesign is a great opportunity to give your digital marketing efforts a boost. Everything from your brand image to conversion rates, to SEO can be improved through a solid website overhaul. But SEO is a factor you’ll need to pay special attention to because otherwise, this golden opportunity will easily turn sour. First and foremost, you don’t want to turn your back on all the ranking points and traffic you’ve worked hard to earn on the existing website.
Now, the IT team will be in charge of the technicalities but it’s important that you understand the process and best practices for SEO-friendly website redesign. That way, you can collaborate with them to come up with the best redesign possible – one that will be able to retain and improve on the SEO equity of your old site.
Here’s what you need to pay attention to during a website overhaul in order to ensure a smooth transition that yields positive results.
Crawl your existing site first
The purpose of this is to gain insight into your existing site structure, metadata, and URLs. Without knowing how these look, you’re really just scrambling in the dark and setting yourself up for failure before you’ve even begun.
An SEO crawl will basically give you a roadmap of how your site is laid out. You’ll need this data to help you identify what needs changing, position your redesign goals, and match up your new site to the old one. Screaming Frog is a handy tool to use in this step of the process.
A couple of steps down the line, the sitemap of the existing site will be especially useful to compare against the new sitemap in order to double-check the redesign decisions and to create mappings for URL moves.
Establish goals for the new site based on the existing one
Once you’ve grabbed the data from the crawl, it’s best to perform an actual SEO audit of your old site. Now, I know, this might sound like a completely redundant step to you. But it will certainly help you make strides in the process if you pay attention to what Google likes and doesn’t like about your site.
You can use a tool such as Woorank, which is free, but don’t hesitate to give it a scan manually, with the help of a team member, to dig out the areas you want to improve and the ones that need retraining. For example, it’s worth all your time to sift through your site while paying attention to important UX factors. These are crucial to SEO success – and a successful redesign overall.
Take notes on the different elements, strengths, and weaknesses of your website in regards to SEO and use them to establish your redesign plan. In fact, this is a good piece of advice for all your redesign decisions, including the purely aesthetic ones. Keep in mind the two key goals for an SEO-friendly overhaul: to retain the existing rankings and traffic, and to improve on them.
To give your redesign a push in the right direction and help you stay on track, it’s best to set up a project plan that covers the improvements you want to make in regards to your old site (such as navigation and usability improvements) and establish a timeframe for each step of the process.
Keep on-page elements largely the same
Don’t insist on fixing what isn’t broken just for the sake of a redesign. Your IT team might tell you this, and if they do, don’t push back. That’s essentially why you’ll be crawling and auditing your existing site in the first place – to establish what’s working well and what could use a change.
Unless there are some very obvious improvements to be made, it’s best to largely leave the key on-page elements untouched. This includes headers, page titles, meta-descriptions, etc. You’ll be able to effortlessly export them all to your new site after having crawled the old one. The URL structure holds a special place in this aspect, and we’ll get to that in a moment.
Position your content strategy for the new site
The “Change only what needs changing” rule applies to content as well. Don’t let go of your existing content – especially not the posts that perform well, because that would be ludicrous. For the time being, aim to keep the changes minimal, and you can optimize the keywords and tweak your content once it’s indexed on the new site.
Keeping your content largely the same doesn’t only make things significantly easier when creating URL redirects, but it also helps you maintain authorship and authority in Google’s eyes.
And if you actually don’t even have a blog section on your old site, which most often happens with small local businesses, this is a great opportunity to lay the foundations of your content marketing strategy. Valuable content is a necessary part of local SEO just like it is for global SEO, so take this redesign as an opportunity for a fruitful new project.
Mind the URL structure
You’ll need to make sure that every page from the old site redirects to the appropriate page on the new site, and this should be one of the first jobs on your list. Seamless redirection is crucial to optimizing the user experience. In the more obvious case of product pages, ensuring proper 301 redirections will save you valuable leads and customers.
If possible, maintain the exact same URL structure for the new website because that will make redirecting a no-brainer. If that’s not possible in any way, you’ll just have a lot more work to do because you’ll need to organize your old and new pages by relevance. Once you establish this system of relevance, you’ll make sure that pages on the old site redirect to the appropriate pages on the new site.
A good piece of advice here is to use an Excel spreadsheet to overcome this time-consuming process as smoothly as possible.
Block the new site from search engines until it’s launched
Somehow, this simple step can often be overlooked and that’s when the entire redesign turns into an SEO disaster. When your new site is still in the testing phase, make sure that the person responsible “noindexes” it. This is done in just a few seconds and it means your site is made temporarily invisible to search engines. That way, you won’t end up with duplicate content issues because of pages that are similar to the ones on your old site. Once you shut down the old site and your new site is launched, you’ll reveal it to Google in a simple reverse process.
To ensure a truly successful, SEO-minded redesign, don’t forget all the work that comes along with the launch. Harness the power of social media to announce the overhaul and drive tons of traffic to your new site. Depending on the type of business you’re running, you can build up hype by connecting your website launch with a social media contest. The launch is the fun part, but don’t sit back just yet. Make sure to monitor your new site closely for the next couple of months and analyze its performance.