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!

Charity Stebbins

Published 15 January, 2014 by Charity Stebbins

Charity Stebbins is a content strategist at Conductor and a contributor to Econsultancy. Follow her on TwitterGoogle+, or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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Comments (7)

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Paul North

Paul North, Head of Content and Strategy at Mediarun

A very good checklist, Charity. Site migrations and redesigns are often very painful for companies that have not considered the SEO ramifications or hired specialists to oversee them. Bringing them in afterwards is often too late as well, with site structure or code comprimising search visibility.

If your site makes money via search traffic, do not redesign your site without a quality SEO consultant involved.

over 4 years ago


Nick Stamoulis

TRACK EVERYTHING! Know exactly what URLs, pages, thank you pop up messages, forms, and more exist on the site. Things always slip through the cracks, even if you do your best to keep an eye on them. Cache an old version of the site so you have something to go back to as needed.

over 4 years ago

Charity Stebbins

Charity Stebbins, Content Strategist at Conductor

Thanks Paul! I agree, with stakes as high as the ones in site migration, it's a key time to have expert input.

Nick, so true. You'd be amazed how many times we hear people say that they plan to implement tracking after their site redesign...that can be a crippling misstep.

over 4 years ago



Below is my procedure for migrating the redesign with regards to SEO:

1. Run a full inventory of pages

2. Run inbound link analysis from Google Webmaster Tools

3. Perform 301 redirect sheet for moved pages (if any)

4. Verify robots.txt and Meta tags in dev site

5. Once site is migrated, run a full inventory of pages and verify no 404 errors

6. Once site is migrated, submit entire URL to be indexed in Google Webmaster Tools

The most important takeaway from this article (for me)..

I need to invest adequate time on Bing/Yahoo as well at the time of migration. Too much relying on Google tools is not recommended. And of course the last point, I'm the webmaster (must think like a conductor of an orchestra) - maintaining the tune of symphony (aka everything is in place while migrating a site).

A good read indeed! :-)

over 4 years ago

Charity Stebbins

Charity Stebbins, Content Strategist at Conductor

Partha, great additions here & yes, neglecting Bing and Yahoo amounts to money left on the table in a migration. I love the metaphor, it is just like that :)

over 4 years ago


Lorenzo Reffo

Good article Charity! One thing I would stress about tracking is... do not only track rankings, and most of all do not only track keywords you are already ranking for. During the migration process, it is likely the content has changed - and maybe you shared your opinion and suggested keywords. So keep that into consideration! Sometimes you will see natural search traffic increasing even though you lost some of the previous rankings. This is as valuable as increasing rankings for historic keywords - you actually extend the target your website have. Of course you should appear for the main brand keywords :)

over 4 years ago


roger allen

A nice article. We are increasingly in a world where business people think they know a lot more than they actually do. I saw a recent tweet where a lady said now every business is writing content and consequently there has never been such a plethora of bad content.

This article is a gentle bit of good sense succinctly put over

over 4 years ago

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