You’re redesigning your website. You’ve got a lot of webpages. Since your content is awesome and people like it, there are tons of backlinks. Your new site design is going to be a major overhaul of the information architecture, not just a simple layout and graphic design change. There’s a little voice in the back of your head whispering about SEO. This post is going to give you a checklist for doing this in a sane manner.
This post includes an in-depth review of the relationships between search engine optimization, web design and information architecture. If you just want the quick checklist, skip to the end. The background material is there because all three of the topics (SEO, design and IA) change with technology and society. It’s good to have a grasp of the foundations so you can adapt to future changes.
It’s usually better to tweak the site you have than to scrap it all and start from scratch. But sometimes a major overhaul is necessary. And getting into the details of that is a whole post unto itself. Let’s assume you’ve done the background work and you know that a major website redesign is needed. You’re switching from a static pile of HTML pages to WordPress, maybe. Or perhaps you’re changing the site architecture to reflect the needs of your customers instead of the internal structure of your organization. Whatever the reason, you’re making a big change to your website and you need to do your best to hold your search rankings.
Changing the design of your website isn’t an issue, changing the information architecture is.
When websites are redesigned usually everyone on the team is very focused on how it looks: the layout, the colors, the design-related images and so on. Changing these things usually doesn’t have a huge impact on search engine optimization. Search engines, being blind, don’t care much about what color your site is. They just read through the HTML and catalog the content.
The aspect of a website redesign that has a large impact on SEO is the site architecture. Site architecture deals with how many pages you have and how those pages are organized. During a website planning phase it’s sometimes drawn as a pseudo flowchart (I’ll hold my harsh comments about that practice for now).
For example, say you have a site with 200 pages organized into seven categories. Your new site is going to rock because it stays totally focused on a specific task. Your major site overhaul will streamline the whole thing into 25 pages with four categories. You’re psyched because the user experience is going to be much simpler and easier to follow.
Unfortunately, the search engines are bummed because they just lost 175 pages of content. Well, they’re not really bummed, search engines are just computers running math. But the point is: when search engines lose content they react–by demoting you in the rankings (if you don’t have content, why should you rank?).
Recap: changing the way your website looks shouldn’t have a big impact on your search rankings but changing the number and organization of pages can have a a big impact on your search rankings.
Onpage SEO and the website redesign
Information architecture is an aspect of onpage search engine optimization. It’s one of the things over which you have direct control. You get to decide how many pages you have on your site.
For your site redesign, another the onpage SEO things to consider is your internal linking structure. This is a fancy way of saying “On your current site, what words do you use to link pages to each other–like in your menu for example.” You’ll want to keep this in mind for your new site’s internal linking structure.
All of the other usual tactics for onpage SEO also apply to your redesign. If your old site had pages with headlines, URLs, paragraph text, image filenames, image alternative text, etc that had your keywords and your new site doesn’t… well that’s asking for trouble.
Offpage SEO and the website redesign
Aspects of SEO that are considered offpage are things like how many other sites link to you or whether people click on your link when they see it in search results. You have very limited to no control over these things. You don’t get to decide who links to your website. You don’t get to decide when people click on your link on the search engine result page.
You can do a few things here to help out. Make sure people people like your page titles and descriptions enough to click on them. How do you know what people like? Testing. Asking. The usual things. No different than normal operating procedure.
Backlinks: the SEO bugbear of the redesigned website
The biggest issue of all in the site redesign, as far as SEO is concerned, is backlinks. People who link to your site are very very unlikely to go through their own sites and update their links to your page.
When you subtract or change the web address of your pages you are potentially losing any traffic and search engine benefit from sources that link to that page. People clicking on links to those changed web addresses or missing pages get the dreaded “404 Not Found” message.
Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a forwarding service for web traffic? Sort of like when you change your mailing address and you go to the post office and say “Hey when you get mail for my old address in South Burlington, VT please forward it to my new address in Burlington, VT.”
There is. It’s called the “301 Permanent Redirect.” And even better, you don’t have to go to the post office to set it up. You just edit a file called .htaccess that resides on the root level of the server that has the old webpages on it (if you’re changing servers or domain names as part of your website redesign, see below). It starts with a period so if you may need to adjust your file browser to let you to view invisible files in order to see it.
A line of 301 redirects looks like this:
redirect 301 /southburlington/webpage http://yourdomain.com/burlington/webpage
Note the structure of this:
redirect 301 OldWebPage NewWebAddress
Voilá. Now all the links going to one page of your site, send traffic to a different page.
You’ll need to do this for everything on your site. Which can be a real pain. Luckily, .htaccess does GREP. So you can say things like “anything that used to be in the generic web design section should now go to the burlington web design page.”
redirect 301 /generic-web-design/* http://yourdomain/burlington-web-design.html
If your head just melted feel free to do this sort of thing the long way, just enter in every old page of your site architecture and manually hook it up to the new page in your website architecture.
Figuring out what pages you currently have on your site can be tricky. You can count them on the server if it’s a static pile of HTML. Or you could use a sitemap.xml tool to make a list. Or you could do an advanced Google search to see what pages are in Google’s index. There’s a lot of ways. No matter what you do you’ll probably miss a few.
For the few that you miss, check your web analytics for the 404 error and try to guess what page they were looking for. This should help you plug a few leaks. Also, Google Webmaster Tools can help you out. Use their “Crawl errors” tool in the “Diagnostics” section to plug up any more holes in your 301 Redirect list.
Changing servers or domain names and SEO impact
If you’re changing from one domain to another (finally giving up that old dot-biz domain and moving to a shiny new dot-com domain, for example) you may want to do a variation on .htaccess method described above. You could just do a GREP that maps everything on the old domain name to the new one and keep both machines running. But why have two domains provisioned if you don’t need to.
Use your domain tools at the DNS to forward all traffic from your old domain to the new domain. Then do all the same things mentioned above in the part on backlinks. What you want to avoid is having the exact same content at www.mygreatdomain.com and at www.mygreatdomain.org. You just want the content to show up in the new domain, and if you type in the old one get automatically redirected to the new domain.
The list for handling your site redesign with care for your SEO
Enough of all that blather. Here’s the list.
- Make a list of all the existing pages on your website.
- If you’re changing domain names, use your DNS or server admin tools to forward the domain.
- Set 301 redirects matching the most relevant new pages with the old pages of your site.
- Make sure your headlines, new images and new content accurately reflect the goals of your organization (just like you should already be doing).
- Same thing with meta-descriptions and page titles–things that get pushed out to other sites and web locations like the Google SERP or Facebook Walls.
- A little bit after launching, identify any 404 traffic that can be redirected to a relevant page.
Some closing thoughts on SEO and redesigning your website
Google and other search engines make their money by sprinkling advertisements around your content, whether it’s your page titles and descriptions on the search engine results page or ads that run in sidebars across the web. That’s their business and how they survive.
When you make changes to your content, it changes their ability to make money. Maybe you’re giving them fewer pages to sprinkle ads on. Maybe you’re giving them more. Maybe you’re taking away content that they just loved because it generated ad clicks for them. Maybe you’re adding new stuff.
When you make a change to your site, you can bet that there will be some evaluations of how that change effects the ability of search engines to make money. This is why there’s a dip or fluctuation after any changes to your content.
Remember that it isn’t personal or anything, it’s just one machine trying to figure out how to make the most money for it’s owners. The machine makes money by serving up results that are accurate enough to attract visitors who then click on ads. Keeping this in mind can be helpful as you try to anticipate and weather changes to your SERP through your redesign process.