In an After Hours Webmaster Hangout, Google’s John Mueller answered multiple questions about what kinds of changes may impact rankings and what kinds of changes will not.
Along the way Mueller explains different scenarios that are harmless and also the kinds of changes that may impact how Google sees the website, including seeing it as a brand new site.
Search Performance Impacted by a Site Revamp
The person asking the question said that the last three sites he had “revamped” had experienced extremely negative ranking changes in Google search.
He noted that had never before happened in previous “revamps” and was trying to find out if this was something on Google’s side as well as to understand what kinds of changes could impact search performance in general.
It must be said that John Mueller did not ask to clarify what the person asking the question meant by a “revamp” of a website.
A revamp could range from a simple redesign to a full SEO update to the content, meta data and profound changes to the site structure.
Google’s John Mueller Discussing Revamping Websites
John Mueller Says it’s not Google…
“In general these kinds of things I would look at on a per website basis.
There is nothing on our side that is kind of saying that …if a website is revamped then we must change its ranking.
…If you’re seeing this with three websites that sounds like maybe you’re doing something unique with the revamp processes and not that there’s something on Google’s side that would be blocking revamps in general.
For revamps there’s sometimes a few things that come together and it’s sometimes tricky to figure out exactly what all is happening.
But the main thing that I would watch out for when you’re doing a revamp is to make sure:
That the URLs stay the same as much as possible so that you don’t change the URL structure.
That the internal linking stays the same as much as possible.
That the content and the layout on the pages stays the same as much as possible.
And if those technical elements are essentially aligned then from our side the only thing that we see is that maybe the website is a little bit faster now because you’re using a faster infrastructure.”
What Causes Google to Treat an Old Site as Brand New
John Mueller listed the kinds of changes that may cause Google to treat a website as being completely new.
“If on the other hand those factors don’t align like:
- If the URLs change
- If the layout changes
- If the content changes
- If you don’t have redirects from the old URLs to the new ones
Then those are essentially aspects that say to use that we have to treat this as a new website because essentially we crawl from the start and there’s completely different content or it’s completely different in setup or it’s a completely different layout or the URLs are completely different.
So that’s… essentially from our side, we would say oh it’s a new website, we will start over and try to understand it again.
So that’s something that I would watch out for there.”
When Website Changes Coincide with Google Updates
Mueller next mentioned that Google is always updating and that changes in rankings might not be related to recent changes to the website.
“The other thing is also that we also make other kinds of ranking changes across the web as well.
And sometimes when you do a revamp you get the timing in such a perfect way that it aligns exactly with when we make a core update or when we make a bigger ranking change.
And then it’s really hard to recognize: Is this issue because of my kind of technical change that I made or is this issue because Google just generally would have understood my website differently anyway.
Trying to figure out like… is it something that you did with the revamp or is it something that Google changed?
I think that’s kind of a good first step and to do some of that it’s really useful to just double check all of the technical details and really kind of link get a map of all of the old URLs and then check them in archive.org and see what they looked like before and confirm what they look like now.
Use the different testing tools to make sure that it’s all crawlable and indexable… all of those things.”
That last bit about crawling a site is excellent information. Always crawl a site before making any changes in order to have a record of what the site looked like before the change.
Once the site is updated the new site can be crawled and any changes between the two states can be compared.
Screaming Frog offers a visual representation style of overview showing the internal link structure with well connected nodes highly visible. Comparing the two views, for example, can give an instant idea of any unintended changes.
If a site URL structure has changed then the crawl of the old site can yield a list of internal pages which can then be fed into Screaming Frog as a list crawl which will show if any pages are orphaned or not redirected as they should be, etc.
Is Changing the Structure of Site Impactful?
The person asking the question thanked Mueller then added that he had changed the structure of the website in order to divide it into multiple sections.
He hadn’t mentioned this before so now Mueller in effect is answering a different question.
Now he’s answering if changing the structure of a site will have an impact on how Google sees the pages in the site.
“It’s something where changing the structure of a website will affect how search looks at it and it can be a positive effect too.
So that might be that the previous revamps that you did if you went from a one page website to a multi-page website, it might be that that was a good change for those websites.
But it might be that the same change for the current website that you’re working on does not make so much sense.”
Does Changing Order of Paragraphs Affect How Google Sees Page?
The person asking the question next asked if changing the orders of paragraphs on the web page could affect how Google views those pages.
“Not usually but it can affect a little bit because we do try to understand the context of the text that you have on the pages and if you move one paragraph from something that is very prominent to an area where it’s like oh this is a side note.
Then that could affect how we see that information.”
Example of a Change Google Would Notice
In response to one more follow up question John offered an example of a change that could get Google to look at the page differently.
“It would be more if you change something from it’s like a heading of a page and you moved it way to the footer or something like that, that’s something where I could imagine our system saying oh it’s not important anymore.”
Will Changing All Images Impact Rankings?
The person asking the question asked one more follow up question, this one asking if Google would change the rankings if the website updated their site with brand new images.
“For normal web search it wouldn’t matter.
For image search, if you want those images in image search and if you’re getting traffic from image search, then of course changing the images would matter.”
Negative Search Changes Should be Investigated
If the changes in search rankings cannot be easily identified then the first step should be a site crawl to identify negative changes that might become apparent from the crawl data.
When there are no apparent causes then it could be a change related to a Google update, which then means a different kind of audit that involves checking the search result to see what has changed in the kinds of web pages Google is ranking.
Changes to a website should be done carefully.
Backups are essential. In the event that something goes horribly wrong the site can quickly be restored to the original state and ranking declines reversed.
Watch John Mueller answer multiple questions about website revamps and drops in ranking, from the 40 second mark of the video.