For most businesses, website redesigns are frequent and for can be a real nightmare. One of the most common issues is that a redesign may improve one aspect of the site (for instance the design might be better, the conversion might be stronger, your messaging and branding may be tighter) while weakening another (you might see a steep drop in SEO traffic). The concept of incorporating SEO into your redesign before you update your site is something SEOs and online marketers have been preaching for years, and there are a lot of great resources, including:
- How to Avoid SEO Disaster During a Redesign
- SEER Interactive’s SEO Redesign Checklist
- Fathom’s 2015 Redesign Checklist
- HubSpot’s SEO Mistakes to Avoid During a Redesign Guide
- A Step-by-Step Guide to Updating your Website without Destroying SEO
Despite all that information and the emphasis many authors have placed on considering SEO in redesigning your site, there are still many businesses losing traffic post-redesign. In this post I want to walk through five specific mistakes I still see companies make when redesigning their Websites, as well as how to avoid them.
1. Your Dev Site is Indexed or Your Main Site Isn’t
This is a fairly easy one to diagnose and fix, but it still happens more frequently than one might think.
In the case of a dev version of your site, you want to make sure that content is explicitly blocked from appearing in Google’s index. The reason for this is that despite your best efforts, it’s not uncommon for the live version of your site to have a link or two that point to the dev version of specific pages on your site (even if everyone is aware of this being a potential issue, people still sometimes make mistakes). There are actually two fairly simple methodologies for ensuring your dev site won’t show up in search engines:
- A robots directive blocking all of the dev / staging content – More information on robots.txt protocol can be found here.
- A meta noindex tag on each page – More information on that can be found here.
But once you’ve blocked the dev version of your site, it’s extremely important to make sure you don’t block the main version of your site: you need to be sure to remove the nofollow meta tag from the code you’re transferring to your main domain if noindex was the solution you were utilizing. If you did this for your whole site, you’ll likely notice it right away, but I’ve seen sites make this mistake only for a subsection of their site and then wonder why a specific subdomain or their blog suddenly had organic traffic fall off a cliff.
2. Your Analytics Isn’t Installed Properly
This is more of a general marketing and analytics issue, but you’ll also want to be careful that you’re installing your analytics code properly as you redesign your site. A few mistakes to avoid regarding your analytics code:
- Creating a New Profile – In Google Analytics and many analytics providers creating a new profile for a new site will erase your historical site data and frequently causes significant issues in historical tracking.
- Mishandling New Subdomains – If you’re introducing new subdomains (or your first non-www subdomain) you’ll want to be sure you’re tracking subdomains
- Check for the Code – You’ll also want to make sure that the code gets carried over to the new site – beyond just checking your source code to make sure Google Analytics is installed, you can also use Screaming Frog to crawl your site and check for missing GA code or use a tool like GA checker and to spot check specific pages for issues you can use Google’s handy tag assistant plugin
As with other activities on your site, if you’re no longer able to accurately track SEO traffic and goals you’ll be severely hampered in your organic search activities.
3. You Inadvertently Changed Your Link Structure and URLs
This is a major issue that frequently gets overlooked in site redesigns. Changing your URLs or URL structure might mean:
- Moving content from a subfolder to a subdomain (or vise-versa) such as content from http://www.example.com/old-subfolder to http://newsubdomain.example.com
- Changing the name of a subfolder, such as http://www.example.com/old-subfolder/random-page to http://www.example.com/new-subfolder-name/random-page
- Changing the actual page slug in the URL, such as: http://www.example.com/p23432 to http://www.example.com/new-cleaner-url
Some things to keep in mind regarding a change in URLs:
- If you don’t absolutely need to change your URL structure (for strong functionality and/or usability reasons) it’s probably best to keep your URL structure as-is.
- Identify pages with link equity pointed at them (using tools like Open Site Explorer, Ahrefs, or Majestic SEO) and where possible and where there’s a relevant page to redirect those pages to be sure to implement permanent 301 redirects to appropriate pages.
- Subfolders are generally considered preferable to subdomains for SEO, when possible, but be careful to implement any content migration properly.
- Create a great 404 page with links to relevant information and follow SEO best practices regarding 404s and HTTP status codes in general.
This is an issue that can really cost you significant traffic from search for an extended period of time, so Websites should be very careful in moving to different URL structures.
4. You’re Using New Code and New Features
- Trap your site’s crawlable text in images for design reasons
- Change your site’s pagination, which can cause SEO issues
- Change your site’s title tag structure or blowing up unique title tags and meta descriptions for entire sections of your site
- Increase your page’s load time and slow down your pages – this is obviously an important usability and conversion optimization factor as well. You can check for page speed issues with Google Page Speed Insights tool.
- Negatively impact mobile page speed or mobile usability for your site – you can use the Page Speed tool for specific mobile insights and Google’s mobile friendliness tool to check for mobile usability issues (but beware data inconsistencies there).
In some of these instances you may just decide that the improved functionality is worth a dip in search traffic, but understanding the potential impact on your site’s traffic (identify the pages the new functionality impacts and the traffic those pages are getting from search) will help you make an informed decision on how to implement new features (and in most cases you’ll be able to implement the functionality you want in an SEO-friendly way).
5. Your Messaging No Longer Aligns With Your Keyword Strategy
A final issue with site redesigns that frequently have a negative impact on SEO results is when the site’s content changes to fit new messaging, and leaves a previously effective keyword strategy behind. Again, in some of these instances you may ultimately determine that more effective messaging is more valuable for your business than targeting specific terms you had previously targeted, but the key here is to understand the impact changes to title tags and on-page content can have on your site’s search traffic.
On this front, you can look for the pages and sections of the site driving the most traffic from search and also use a wireframe (even a simple spreadsheet) detailing changes to content so that everyone involved (including internal or external SEO resources) understands the changes being made to the site.
In all these instances the intention behind the changes is to help improve your site in some capacity – the trick is knowing what changes to your site may be weakening your ability to rank in search, and coming up with strategies to mitigate any potential SEO risks involved with your redesign.
Screenshots taken 3/13/2015 of www.google.com.