How To Avoid SEO Disaster During a Website Redesign – Top Marketer Concerns

Last week I presented at The New Jersey Communications, Advertising and Marketing Association (NJ CAMA) about how to avoid SEO disaster during a website redesign.  Specifically, I covered how to avoid losing a majority of your rankings and organic search traffic when redesigning a website or migrating to a new CMS. During my career, I’ve unfortunately had to help companies who didn’t take the necessary precautions before redesigning their sites, and ended up paying a heavy price. For example, some companies lost 60-70% of their natural search traffic after a redesign or migration. After the presentation, I received a lot of questions about the subject overall, but there were several topics that stood out (and seemed to strike a nerve).

That got me thinking about how many other people were also confused and concerned about those hot topics.  So, I decided to write this post to cover some of the top things you should be doing SEO-wise when redesigning your website.  Since I can’t cover everything that was in my presentation (it was 61 slides), I decided to focus on the topics I received the most questions about from members of the audience.

You Want Scary? I’ve Got Scary.

Before I begin, let’s take a look at a few graphs that will scare the daylights out of any digital marketer. These are actual graphs from companies I’ve helped after redesigns impacted SEO.  They unfortunately didn’t foresee the massive impact a redesign or CMS migration could have on their search engine rankings and subsequent traffic. It’s not pretty when this happens.

A Steep Drop in SEO Traffic after a Website Redesign: SEO Impact of Website Redesign

A Double Whammy, SEO Traffic Dropping Twice After CMS Migration: SEO Traffic Dropping Twice Based on Website Redesign

Website Redesigns and SEO – 9 Hot Topics for Marketers (based on my presentation):

Without further ado, here are nine things you should be doing when working on a website redesign or CMS migration that can save your search engine power, rankings, and traffic.  Again, this subset of topics is based on the top questions I received after my NJ CAMA presentation.

1. Crawl Your Site. Know Your Site.

When you redesign your website, there’s a good chance that URL’s will change.  If URL’s change, you absolutely have to inform the engines where those older URL’s have moved to.  If you don’t, you can destroy your SEO power. All of the equity those old URL’s have built up can be wiped out.  And when that happens, your rankings drop, organic search traffic drops, sales drop, revenue drops, and heads roll.  That’s why understanding all of your current URL’s is critically important.

The good news is that there are several ways to understand your current URL’s.  I highly recommend you crawl your own site, which can reveal many of your current URL’s.  I’ve covered Xenu Link Sleuth in the past here on Search Engine Journal, and it’s a great (and free) tool for completing this step.  You can also use Screaming Frog to crawl your site, which is a paid solution.  Once you crawl your site, export those reports and make sure everyone involved understands the website structure and the URL’s that need to be migrated (or redirected).

Quick Tip: Don’t forget your subdomains. I once performed an audit and found a subdomain with over 500 pages and over 1000 inbound links.  Nobody involved in the project even knew the subdomain was active, and it would have gotten nuked during the migration. Crawling Your Site Using Xenu Link Sleuth: Crawling a Website with Xenu Link Sleuth

2. Perform an Inbound Link Analysis

Inbound links are incredibly important for building SEO power. And, there’s a huge risk in losing those powerful inbound links if you change your URL structure. I highly recommend performing an inbound link analysis to fully understand your link profile.  Know the pages linking to you, and where they are linking. Then make sure your developers understand that those pages must be migrated.  And make sure you utilize 301 redirects when pointing your old URL’s to your new ones.  More on 301’s in the next section of this post. There are several tools you can use to perform an inbound link analysis, including Open Site Explorer and Majestic SEO Tools. Get familiar with them, and don’t skip this step during a redesign or migration.

Analyzing Inbound Links Using Open Site Explorer: Performing an Inbound Link Analysis Using Open Site Explorer

3. The 301 Redirection Plan

This is the heart of your migration from an SEO standpoint. If there is one thing you need to get right during the redesign, it’s this step. As I’ve explained already, you need to make sure all of your older pages 301 redirect to their newer counterparts.  301 redirects will safely pass PageRank from your older pages to the newer ones, and will enable you to maintain your Search Equity. If you fail at this stage, your trending could very well look like the graphs I included earlier. Don’t botch the 301 redirection plan.  You will pay dearly.

Glenn Gabe
Featured SEO Writer for SEJ Glenn Gabe is a digital marketing consultant at G-Squared Interactive and focuses heavily on SEO, SEM, Social Advertising, Social Media Marketing, and Web Analytics. Glenn has over 18 years of experience and has held leadership positions both in-house and at a global interactive agency. During his career, Glenn has helped clients across a wide range of industries including consumer packaged goods (CPG), ecommerce, startups, pharmaceutical, healthcare, military, education, non-profits, online auctions, real-estate, and publishing. You can follow Glenn on Google+ here.

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32 thoughts on “How To Avoid SEO Disaster During a Website Redesign – Top Marketer Concerns

  1. I can’t tell you how many issues would be avoided if site owners remembered to do a 301 redirect! And not just a global 301 redirect, but on a page to page basis. This is so important to avoid disaster! I’ve had clients lose years worth of link building and search engine trust because they didn’t do it right.

    1. ah Nick you sure you don’t mean 302s… that’s a whole bunch of duplicate content that will bit you in the arse if not cleared up quickly… always test a bunch of the redirects if you did them or someone else just incase….

    2. That’s exactly right Nick. 301’s should be page to page (if possible). It’s really unfortunate when you come across a company that didn’t prepare SEO-wise. The trending graphs I included above pretty much tell the story…

  2. Ah i’ve tried to reduce the pain but had so many curve balls over the last year… big one is if they hosting provider doesn’t support 301 redirects… that one really hurts after you have done the whole process and whack roadblock.The biggest curve ball around the GWT is if you are moving domains or rebuilding the whole site, you want to ensure your have multiple ways to authenticate with GWT otherwise you will be locked out with your pants around your ankles halfway along the move.

    FYI I did managed to tank my own site during a recent botched migration process the site has flatlined over the last week and vanished from Google… now it’s slowly coming back but even with almost zero change just 1 week or downtime i got hit hard it is not sure when it feels like coming back….

    1. Great point David about hosting providers (or CMS platforms), not being able to issue 301’s. That can definitely be determined during the vetting process. If a company is moving to a new hosting provider or CMS, and can’t issue 301’s, they are in tough shape…

      I’m sorry to hear about your own migration. Hopefully you recover the lost traffic!

    2. Hi David,

      Could you expand on the point you made about Google Webmaster Tools authentication please? I’m about to move a static HTML site to a WordPress platform (on the same domain name but with new hosting).

      The existing site is currently authenticated with GWT, but I’m not sure what I should do regarding authenticating the new site, without getting locked out of GWT, post migration,

      Should I take the Google authentication file that I uploaded to the root of the old site and make sure it’s sitting on the root of the new site when I make the DNS switchover?

      Thanks for any help,


  3. I’m always surprised when companies do a redesign and change all the urls. In some cases they have a specific reason to change the urls, but in most its just been changed at the whim of a webmaster. The other thing that is common is to find they don’t have a webmaster account. As you point out, its a simple thing to get. These businesses obsess about Google and then don’t take advantage of the opportunity given to them which will reveal a lot of information on their site. And I love your line, “So, for the love of Search, tell Google you are moving domains!” It shows that most of their problems are self-inflicted.

    1. Thanks for your comment Scott. The URL situation is sometimes forced, but like you said, sometimes it’s not… One common reason is to gain descriptive URL’s. The problem is they are losing all of their SEO power when doing that, unless they properly use 301’s. Like I said in my post, having just enough SEO knowledge to be dangerous… can be really dangerous. :)

      Glad you liked me line about telling Google about moving domains. I had that prominently located in one of my presentation slides!

  4. Here’s one, I experienced:

    Relaunched a medicore onlineshop from magento 1.3 to magento 1.6. Even though this change was supposed to be a technical change only, the engineers felt like adding some of their own ideas without consulting the SEO section. So they blatantly chaged content on severel very important pages (including the front page).

    Also, filtecombinations were set to noindex. Never thought this would happen, but these combinations of unique content led to new combinations of new content, killing a whole lot of longtails on it’s way.

    I dont want to rave about all the other things that went wrong, but here’s one more: If you keep your old version of the shop on a seperate domain with a www2 prefix, make SURE and please, please test it every day, that there is a noindex tag or a password on that domain. Otherwise DC problems will slowly kill your conversionrate and credibility…

    1. That’s a great point Ingo. There are times that test servers or backup sites get indexed, which can cause serious duplicate content problems.

      On that note, I have a new post going live today about duplicate content. It’s coming out soon, but you should check it out when it goes live. :)

    1. Thanks for your comment Tudor. That’s a great point. It’s not an SEO issue, but sure could throw people off. That’s something where analyzing bounce rate after the redesign would be very interesting…

  5. you want to ensure your have multiple ways to authenticate with GWT otherwise you will be locked out with your pants around your ankles halfway along the move.

  6. Hi can anybody tell me, if I do re-direct activity after 1 month of redesigning will my lost reputation come back. I have redesign my site and after one month I noticed it dropped down. If I use 301 redirection now then will it help? What else should I do to come back its lost reputation and keywords on Google first page , it was earlier there.

  7. Hi great post. I am looking for an answer to this question. Does text change on page affects seo and PageRank? I want to restyle my website and change the content (text, product discription) on the site. Will that affect my ranking badly and make me lose my PageRank?

    Thank you in advance.


  8. What if you had to rebuild a site on a different CMS? Everything would be the same. Content, images, URLs – Absolutely nothing seems as if it changed. The only thing that would change is your Page Speed at most. Would your page rank, etc still reset?

  9. Thank you for this great resource. I have a question about point 2 – Perform an Inbound Link Analysis. (Linked to) “pages must be migrated.And make sure you utilize 301 redirects when pointing your old URL’s to your new ones.”

    Just to clarify, by “migrate” do you just mean that the pages that have links must be 301’d (to same or similar content) on the new site or does it mean something else?

  10. HI after successful redirection , My new domain got it’s earlier domain ranking but after 2 weeks suddenly i loose almost 90% google traffic any idea ?

  11. Hello, i redesigned my site, it was an old one and I decided to go with wordpress. With the old one i was at the top when the user searched for the product I am selling. Now i cannot even find myself in the results.
    I want to ask if restoring the old one, that i keep on a folder will restore my ranking too.

  12. Gee i wish i saw this 3 weeks ago when i completely re-designed my website (changing many of the URL). We have been wondering why the phone stopped ringing on that day!. Do you have a link to a page that can help on what to do IF you didn’t do the above before changing it over? As Chris (above) says today i restored the old website hoping that would work.

    Would really appreciate your comments.

  13. How quickly will the drop in rankings occur if the site was not redesigned or optimized properly? The company I do marketing for put up their redesigned site in August, rankings maybe fell slightly during first couple of months but remained on the first page of Google. Now in the past 3-4 weeks, for one main keyword they’ve fallen to the third page and the second main keyword is now on the second page. The company that did the redesign was one we used several years ago for optimizing the old site and the rankings were dramatically improved. This same company recently did more on-site optimization on the new site and that is when the rankings started to substantially drop. They’re telling us to be patient, the changes take time to be indexed, etc. but we think they’ve done something very harmful for the rankings to be dropping like they are. Should we upload the copy of the website we made before they did their recent updates or is that going to make things worse? We don’t know what to do at this point? Any suggestions?

  14. @Terri – The rate that the rankings drop will depend on the site, before and after. There are too many factors to consider (without knowing the site) to make any assumptions as to the rate it will drop.
    As far as doing some more on page optimization that caused the site to drop even further – it’s a bit odd. Without knowing the site, etc – my best advice would be to remain patient. They are correct, things do take time to be indexed, it’s never a sprint with SEO.
    If you upload a copy of the old website while the new one is still running, chances are that you’ll make it much worse. Duplicate content can be a huge problem and if any of that content is similar to the new site (text, etc) then you’ll do a significant amount of damage. Reverting back to the old website (replacing the current one) will also not immediately correct anything because again, Google does take some time to recognize changes, etc.

    Without seeing the site makes it nearly impossible to make any actionable recommendation, but I do suggest waiting a little bit. These things do take time. If the new website has lost a significant amount of content based on your keywords, etc – It could just be a matter of building it up again. Don’t freak out yet, you’re agency clearly got you to the 1st page before, I’m sure they’ll do it again. And knowing your previous site and how and why that ranked vs your new one, it’s arguable that they’re more qualified to ‘fix’ this one more than anyone else.

  15. Great article but lack of discussion on what each of you recommend for a simple, fast, secure and custom url for each page of content featured CMS you would recommend for anyone for upgrading to a new site. A lot of web design company in my area don’t mention a thing about keeping old URL as it is for a site that has say one thousand pages and more. I believe if your content is all useful text and images, and you have a good index structure, why bother 301 and crap. There are still users who visit your website not by your domain name but by a single URL you created a long time ago. Changes in URL is like a webdesiger is not an Internet user. Which cms better for those who worry there might be excessive data charges? Please reply.

  16. I made the mistake of using content from an old site then forgot to take the old site down. It took me a good 6 or 7 months to regain ranking in my local market. Lesson learned.

  17. This is an outstanding write-up. After three months struggling with the redesign of my website based on WordPress Twenty Twelve, I learned a lot. If you read this post before I should have saved at least half a month. There are of course many more tips such as Author Box, Breadcome, Plugins…

  18. Adding to my previous reply, I had 8 websites and from my experience, after the redesign CMS websites usually go down in serps for a few weeks or months and then climb up fast or slow depending on your SEO. Do you also notice this?

    One more thing is Google tends to promote new domains and especially when a domain is valid for a long period ahead. This is at least from my experience with a new domain that had a very good search results only after a day or two that I released a website.

  19. I’m about to re-design my site, and not being a techie, I will have to hire someone to do that part of it, but this is all great to know, and to make sure that person knows.

    I’m re-doing my site because it is getting a new name (the focus has shifted since I started it and the new name is much more appropriate for what the site is now) and have bought the domain name (.com). Are you saying to not move the site to the new URL but rather to just change the name and leave it on its current URL? I am afraid of losing traffic and “google status” (currently in the top 5 for my key phrase, which will change with the new name) but it seems like it would be strange to have a url that’s different from the name of the site.

  20. Hi,

    I recently changed a title of one of my main post and I lost all ranking for that post. WP seem to forward the title correctly. Do you have any idea what could cause the lost in ranking?

  21. Hi, thank you for this great article! I am doing a redesign for my client and your checklist will really come in handy. The client had another site redesigned with a CMS and lost SEO ranking and tens of thousands of dollars in sales since. Needless to say, he doesn’t want to make that mistake again.

    My question to you is… his current site uses .asp in the url ( and I plan on redesigning using WordPress CMS platform. Will the SEO get negatively impacted now that the .asp gets dropped? If so, what can I do to preserve the SEO ranking for this scenario?

    I’ve found wordpress to have very good SEO optimization… what do you think?

    Thank you!