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

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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 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.

In addition, and this is extremely important, in order to prep for the migration, your developers should become familiar with .htaccess, mod_rewrite, and ISAPI_Rewrite. You will need to understand how to use them in order to issue 301’s, rewrite URL’s, etc.

Quick Tip: If you can keep the same URL structure as your original website when redesigning or migrating a website, do it! It will make your life a lot easier. If the URL’s remain the same, you don’t need to issue 301’s. And for larger sites, this can save you a lot of time and pain.

4. Have an SEO Audit Conducted, Understand What Needs to be Improved

I’ve written extensively about SEO Technical Audits before, and I believe they are the most powerful deliverable in SEO. Having an audit completed prior to a redesign is an extremely smart move. It can help you identify the strengths, weaknesses, risks, and opportunities with the current website.

You can figure out what should be migrated, and what can be left behind. You can find problems that need to be addressed, and risks that can potentially get you penalized down the line. And, most importantly, it can help you build a road map of changes leading up to the redesign (and beyond).

5. Analyze Site Reporting (It’s right under your nose!)

When redesigning or migrating your website, you should absolutely analyze your current site reporting. Specifically, you can focus on the top content, landing pages, and referring sites reports. They will help you gain a solid understanding of which pages are visited most, which are the top landing pages, and which pages are receiving the most referring traffic.

And, by the way, if you have landing pages receiving referring traffic, that means there are external links pointing to those pages. And I already mentioned how important retaining Search Equity is. Once you analyze these reports, make sure you export them from your analytics package so everyone involved knows which pages have to be migrated to the new site.

Analyzing Site Reporting During a Redesign: Analyzing Site Analytics During a Redesign

Quick Tip: Want to export over 500 records from a report, but Google Analytics is limiting your export? Simply edit the query string parameter explorer-table.rowCount%3D50/ to a higher number. Then export your report. You’ll be able to export more than 500 rows. For example, explorer-table.rowCount%3D1000/ would export 1000 rows.

6. Don’t Drop Optimization During the Redesign or Migration

Imagine you have 500 pages of optimized content on your current website. You have strong rankings and traffic, and life is good. Then you redesign your site, and drop most of your on-page optimization when the redesign is launched.

Needless to say, your rankings and traffic could suffer greatly. I wish this was rare, but it’s not. Many times, marketers don’t understand the power of on-page optimization, keyword research performed in the past, uniquely optimized pages, etc. Then the new pages either have the same general optimization across the site, or a scaled down version.

And by the way, your CMS package might force this issue (more on this soon.) So, a redesign is a great time to review your current optimization, document it, and make sure your new pages contain that optimization. You can use several tools to analyze content optimization, including browser plugins like SearchStatus, SEO Site Tools, etc.

You can also view optimization via the crawler tools I mentioned earlier, like Xenu Link Sleuth. Your on-page analysis at this stage is also a great way to find potential optimization issues.

Analyzing On-Page Optimization: Checking On-Page Optimization During a Redesign

7. Set up Webmaster Accounts!

This topic really seemed to get a lot of people jotting down notes during my presentation. I still find many companies don’t have webmaster accounts set up (which is crazy). Both Google and Bing provide webmaster tools, which can be incredibly valuable for webmasters. You can verify ownership of a website, analyze diagnostics for the sites you own, view search queries and click-through data, etc. In addition, you can receive messages directly from the engines. Yes, Google and Bing will send you messages when something is wrong.

But, for redesigns, there is also a very important piece of functionality in Google Webmaster Tools. You can actually tell Google when you are moving domains!

So, for the love of Search, tell Google you are moving domains! 

In addition, using both Google and Bing Webmaster Tools, you can monitor your site prior to, during, and then after a migration. It’s a great way to make sure everything is going well. And if it’s not, you will know, and you can adjust your plan.

Moving Domains in Google Webmaster Tools: Moving Domains in Google Webmaster Tools

8. Vet Content Management Systems (CMS)

Many companies get tired of custom web solutions, static pages, and disjointed internal systems, and subsequently move to a content management system (CMS) to ease the pain. But the promise of efficiency can sometimes turn into a real nightmare SEO-wise. Unfortunately, the wrong CMS platform can absolutely crush your search engine rankings. You might think that the move to a CMS would help, but it could actually cause more problems. The good news is the proof is in the pudding. You need to perform your due diligence when analyzing CMS packages.

I highly recommend auditing websites that are actively running the CMS platforms you are considering. Even a lite SEO audit would produce a wealth of information about how the CMS performs SEO-wise. You should also get references, and several of them. Speak with actual customers that have migrated to the CMS. See how the migration went. Learn what the SEO impact was. And ask what they would do differently. Those conversations could save your own migration.

9. Great Design and Programming Ability Does Not Translate to Great SEO

When planning your new site, don’t fall into the trap of adding the latest technology or functionality when that very technology could hurt your search engine rankings. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some incredible web developers and designers over the years. Some were award-winning creative professionals. But, that didn’t mean they were SEO experts. Actually, I found that knowing enough to be dangerous…was really dangerous.

Make sure your developers understand the impact of what they are crafting. For example, AJAX, JavaScript, forms, robots.txt, the use of the canonical URL tag, meta robots tag, etc. I wrote a post on Search Engine Journal a few months ago explaining how one line of code could destroy your search engine rankings. Once you read that post, you’ll understand how easy it is to damage SEO. Make sure you vet each change and addition to the website prior to the changes going live. Don’t let new technology slip through without SEO approval.

Finding Code Problems That Can Damage SEO: Noindex, Nofollow Code Problem

Summary – Preparing for Redesigns and CMS Migrations is Critically Important

As you can see, there are several important topics to understand while going through a website redesign or CMS migration. Unfortunately, many companies aren’t aware of these items, and subsequently lose SEO power, search engine rankings, natural search traffic, and sales. That said, if you plan accordingly, and get the right players involved from the start, you can be successful.

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  • Nick Stamoulis

    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.

    • David

      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….

    • Glenn Gabe

      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…

  • David

    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….

    • Glenn Gabe

      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!

    • Adrian

      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,


  • Scott Salwolke

    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.

    • Glenn Gabe

      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. πŸ™‚

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

  • Ingo Scheuermann

    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…

    • Glenn Gabe

      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. πŸ™‚

  • Tudor Davies

    Some good tips for keeping track of your site. Do yo think that loss of brand could also be a factor that affects traffic during a redesign?

    • Glenn Gabe

      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…

  • youba

    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.


    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.

  • heero

    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.


  • riy

    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?

  • Seamus

    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?

  • Arun rana

    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 ?

  • Nora

    we want to add a secondary chevy site will this have an impact on our current ranking’s. seo ect.

  • chris

    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.

  • Monique

    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.

  • Teri Wilfong

    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?

  • riyaad

    @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.

  • Ruben

    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.

  • Jesse Payton

    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.

  • Jeremy

    This happened to me… lost a majority of my ranking on top 2 keywords just by forgetting two 301 redirects.

  • Anh Wu

    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…

  • Anh Wu

    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.

  • Cattie

    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.

  • Carol Johnson


    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?

  • site

    Very good post. I’m experiencing some of these issues
    as well..

  • Ed

    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!