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Site redesign is an inevitable, cyclical part of online business.
It can have thrilling pay offs, and sometimes it’s just plain necessary.
It’s certainly a high-pressure time if you’re an SEO, as site redesigns pose risks as great as their rewards.
Below is a picture of keyword metrics for an ecommerce client of my company. The colours represent search visibility: dark green is the portion of hyper-visible kewords, where the domain appeared in the top three positions, and on the other end of the spectrum gray means unranked. They appeared beyond page ten or not at all.
You can see a dramatic change around September, when the site redesign launched (or, should I say, flailed).
When things went wrong, they went very wrong indeed: at one point, close to 100,000 keywords were returning 404 pages, and the domain disappeared completely from the hyper-traffic positions (1-3). That means this company wasn’t even ranking for branded terms.
The good news is that this site has recovered. Still, it took months, and anyone would cringe to think of the lost revenue.
This happens more often than you might think. There’s a lot to consider as an SEO preparing for a site redesign or migration, but we do notice drastic problems tend to come from the same mistakes over and over again.
We've boiled that down into three crucial areas and corresponding ways to prevent similar site redesign disasters.
1. Take inventory and set up tracking
When our client’s site began to tank, one of the first things they did was add more keywords to track, understandably wanting to optimize more pages in order to regain search visibility.
The problem was that for all those keywords they were suddenly paying attention to, there was no benchmark or context. If a new keyword wasn’t ranking, was it because of a problem caused by the site redesign, or was it something unrelated?
Would the original site have ranked for those keywords? It was impossible to tell.
So, as you prepare for a site relaunch, identify your assets (what pages are already naturally attracting links and social traction?) and record your trends and metrics.
If you go into a restructuring with an established baseline, you’ll be able to recognize that there is a problem much earlier — the patterns foretelling disaster are subtle until, well, you’re not ranking for your own brand.
Knowing your baseline metrics can also help you locate what part of your site is damaged and fix it that much more efficiently.
Here are some key metrics to gather:
- Internal link count for top-performing pages.
- Natural search traffic.
- Search engine rankings on top terms.
- Page load times.
- Number of indexed pages in search engines.
- Number of keywords (use Bing and Yahoo).
- Number of unique landing pages that are driving natural search.
2. Hone your sitemap strategy
Make sure you have a sitemap strategy in place to help the search engines reindex your site. Sitemaps help search engines identify your content (including images and videos).
They also act as a tiebreaker for duplicate content issues and assist in redirects. You should create two sitemaps: one for your old urls, and the other for new.
After you’ve created your sitemaps (templates are available here), make sure you submit it to Google AND Bing. Bing, especially, relies on sitemaps, and failing to submit it there amounts to lost revenue.
3. Redirect with care
Of course, if you don’t have to change your URL structure, that’s ideal. You would save yourself a lot of time, risk, and preserve your social equity (unfortunately social signals like tweets and likes don’t follow from one URL to another).
If you do determine it’s necessary to change your URL structure, make sure you document all of your existing URLs (301s and 302s) before the migration.
Then, establish a 1:1 relationship for all your URLs. Double and triple check that your valuable pages are redirected, so that you don’t lose your PageRank.
Only you can prevent site redesign disaster
Over and over again, we see underprepared sites take a serious hit after a redesign. More often than not, it’s a lack of preparation: inadequate baseline metrics, no sitemap strategy, and sloppy redirects.
It’s a sturdy old adage that applies here: prevention really is the best medicine.
As you can probably guess, there’s a lot more to preparing for a site redesign than just these three major pain points. You’ll want to clean up the original site of old 404s to prepare for the new. You’ll want to prepare marketing messaging to create buzz and earn links and traffic to establish the new site.
You’ll also want to set the expectations of others in your company, especially the leadership team, for the natural fluctuations that occur during and right after a redesign.
For more depth on the topic, check out this site redesign webinar, or of course, start a discussion in the comments!