Website redesign: How to maintain (and boost) your SEO ranking!
The aim or a website redesign could be to improve the appearance of your current website, to add new functionalities, to improve the user experience, or to boost its conversion rate. However, a website redesign comes with some inherent risks that you should not fail to take into account: your SEO ranking and your level of traffic may be permanently affected. Since we know that 93% of online experiences start from a search engine (Imforza), it may even result in a serious monetary loss.
A complete overhaul of your website will necessarily affect your search engine optimisation in one way or another. Which is why minimising the nature and the duration of these effects as much as possible is of the essence. In addition, you may view this process as an opportunity to make way for significant SEO improvements down the line.
Not only should you not want to throw away all your (very) long-term SEO efforts which likely cost you time and money; but your ambition through this website redesign is certainly to optimise your results in terms of visibility, traffic, and conversion.
Here is everything you should keep in mind to prevent your freshly rebranded website from falling off the search engines’ radar … starting with preparing properly for every single step of the process!
What Is a Website Redesign?
A common misconception is to think that redesigning a website means giving it a new look. Although this type of project is most commonly associated with a change in graphics, this is far from the only reason why website owners choose to redesign their pages. A redesign could aim to modify URLs, to merge contents or entire websites (following a merger between two businesses, for instance), to change the architecture (to add new categories, new types of products, etc.), to start using a different domain name and/or a new host, to migrate from HTTP to HTTPS…
THE STEPS OF A WEBSITE REDESIGN
Whatever the reason for the redesign, the process needs to follow a specific number of steps – which are almost identical to those you need to take for the creation of a website.
The correct order involves…
- Defining objectives for your website redesign project, including the goals you are hoping to reach through your new site. These targets depend on the nature of the redesign project. Some call this step the expression of your “operational needs”.
- Planning for the redesign. As for any project of significant magnitude, planning is an essential step. Migrating a website is all the more complex when it sits on a long-standing, content-rich platform (with long-established SEO ranks). The task can easily take months and require the participation of multiple people.
- Write down your project specification. This formal document is essential to carry out a website redesign and allows you to carefully select (and to work in close collaboration with) the provider in charge of the project. It consists in formalising the frame of the future website by asking the right questions (What graphic identity? How many pages? What type of hosting? Do we need a mobile version?)
- Selecting a CMS/Framework and a host/server. Since a website redesign project is often driven by a change of platform, the choice of CMS or framework turns out to be essential and should be made as early on as possible. The same goes for your host if you decide to switch.
- Carrying out audits. These allow you to create a situational analysis of the existing site, to identify its strengths and weaknesses, and to plan for the changes you wish to make in terms of functionalities, SEO, and technical improvements.
- Rolling out pre-production. The pre-production stage is simply inevitable when developing a new website based on an existing one, as live modifications are out of the question. Hosted on a pre-production server (typically the one that will host the finished site), such as “preprod.eskimoz.fr”, this work in progress makes it possible to modify any elements you desire, to test for bugs prelaunch, to adjust the SEO strategy and, broadly, to validate the overall redesign prior to publishing it.
- Testing and launching. Launching is like leaping into the void: Best to cover your bases before showing off your new site to the entire world.
- Optimising your new site (SEO). Once everything is ready (prior to or after launching, depending), all that remains to do is work on the website’s SEO, enhancing whatever needs to be based on the results of the search engine optimisation audit carried out beforehand.
CMS OR FRAMEWORK?
Let us take a moment to examine one of the most crucial questions in any website redesign: Should you opt for a CMS (and if so, which one) or for a framework? This matter is especially important because many redesign projects include a change of platform. To answer it, one needs to have a clear idea of the difference between both solutions.
- A CMS is a Content Management System and typically takes the shape of a platform. It allows you to create and publish content without any HTML knowledge, thus saving you time all while giving you access to advanced functionalities and immense flexibility (particularly when it comes changing the structure and design of a website very quickly). WordPress is the most widely used CMS, as well as the most flexible. Other less flexible – albeit more specialised – options are available too (Drupal for large web portals with a complex architecture, Prestashop for e-commerce platforms…). A CMS can also be adapted to address specific needs by amending the code or developing tailored plug-ins (webservices, XML gateways…).
- A framework is an environment dedicated to web development which features a set of functionalities and tools. It acts as a “blank page” of sorts, from which a developer can work freely. This type of platform should be favoured when developing unique, bespoke functionalities for a company. In short, this is the ideal solution for tailored website development, when one wants to connect to a pre-existing data system, for instance.
Several factors should influence your choice between these two solutions, and between the various tools available: your budget (developing a website is more expensive on Drupal than it is on WordPress, and more expensive using a framework than it is using a CMS, etc.), the functionalities you need, the number of administrators/users, whether or not you need a private space (customer section, for instance), a multilingual website, upgradeability, the users’ current level of training (if everyone knows WordPress off by heart, it may be best to stick to this CMS rather than to disrupt everything), etc.
THE IMPORTANCE OF AUDITS
We must insist upon the importance of audits in the website redesign process, as these provide solid foundations on which to build your future new site.
There exist four main categories of audits:
- A navigation audit consists in assessing the website’s ability to guide your visitors towards the pages they are interested in directly, through menus and internal functionalities (such as an integrated search engine).
- A conversion audit measures the website’s performance in terms of traffic and lead generation, as well as conversion – in other words, its ability to meet your sales targets (service or product sales, creation of new customer accounts, number of forms filled out, newsletter registrations, etc.).
- A technical audit aims to test a website’s technical performance, be it how long it takes for the pages to be displayed, compatibility with mobile devices, or security (HTTPS protocol).
- An SEO audit looks at the website’s optimisation and ranking for a set of targeted keywords (more on that later).
Now, let’s move on to what matters the most to us: how to make sure that your website redesign won’t destroy your SEO efforts?
Website Redesign: What Are the Risks for Your SEO?
Most Google users (95% of them, according to Digital Synopsis) don’t scroll past the first page when looking at the search results. SEO is therefore mandatory for any website wanting to see its pages rank among the first results and to be visible to these users. This also happens to be a long-term labour, and time greatly reinforces its benefits.
It would be a pity to lose everything due to a lack of preparation when redesigning your site! This process could indeed lead you to modify some structural elements essential to SEO, such as the domain name, subdomains, on-site optimisation, URLs, technical elements, or content. Each one of these changes could affect how your pages rank and reduce the traffic they generate significantly – in the best-case scenario.
And, in the worst-case scenario? You might completely ruin the ranking you worked so hard to achieve. Because all your pages have been duplicated, you incur immediate sanction on the part of Google – which does not welcome duplicate content, to say the least, even if you are the author of the duplicate entries. Or because you have erased all your content in order to replace it (which was well intentioned), thus suppressing your existing pages’ current ranking and forcing you to start all over again. These are two situations you’ll want to avoid at all costs, as starting from scratch would be a serious waste of time and money!
In short, a website redesign is something that you would gain a lot by thinking through. First, by carrying out an audit. Then, by boosting your website’s performance and testing the effects of each modification meticulously.
Preparing for a Website Redesign: Carrying Out an SEO Audit
The SEO aspect should be taken into account as soon as the website redesign project is initiated. To that end, a search engine optimisation audit should be carried out, and the conclusion drawn from it will drive your strategic decisions in the right direction.
What elements should be assessed?
HOW YOUR PAGES RANK FOR KEY WEB QUERIES
Start by figuring out which pages benefit from the best rankings in the SERPs, and for which keywords. Then, make a list of the ones that generate the most traffic and which, for that reason, should be treated with the utmost vigilance when redirecting.
Take this opportunity to analyse the scope of the semantic field covered by your content and to identify any topics, themes, or keywords that could potentially be broadened. Pay attention to where the generated traffic comes from and to how customer acquisition typically happens.
In short, you need to assess how your pages rank on the search results and to determine what remains to be done. This will help you preserve your current assets and prepare your SEO strategy going forward.
OPTIMISING YOUR PAGES
Take stock of how well optimised your pages are and sort through which elements should be preserved (because they are effective from an SEO standpoint), which ones should be modified or entirely replaced, and which ones had not been implemented yet and should be included in the new version of the site. Pay close attention to HTML tags (headers, image “Alt” attributes, title, meta description).
Create a list of external links to your pages and assess the quality of the domains they emanate from, as well as the congruence of the corresponding anchors.
Certain backlinks may be detrimental to the ranking of your pages; your website redesign process should provide the opportunity to sort through them, to maintain the best-performing ones and to get rid of the ones that have a negative impact on your SEO.
STATIC PAGE CONTENT
There is a good chance that redesigning your site will affect the content of your static pages. This is especially the case for your home page and for those pages dedicated to products/services, whose existing content may not match your new design.
The issue is that search engines tend to penalise such drastic changes by modifying ranking. To keep the risks to a minimum, try and preserve as many elements from the original pages as possible and, if you change most of the content, try to at least provide a similar number of words.
Your pages’ ability to display all their elements correctly on mobile devices is non-negotiable when it comes to guaranteeing SEO performance. Not only because Internet users are increasingly accessing content on the go (in France alone, there were 41.9 million Internet users in 2019, 88% of whom used mobile Internet on an almost-daily basis – France Num)[APM1] , but because Google now prioritises results optimised for mobile searches.
Similarly, if some of your pages are already optimised for mobile use, you will need to make sure you don’t lose this benefit during the website redesign process.
WEBSITE ARCHITECTURE AND SITEMAP
When redesigning a website, one often deeply modifies the architecture in order to improve the user experience and to reduce the bounce rate.
Yet, these changes, as well as any new pages added, will make the robots’/crawlers’ job more complicated when the time comes to index your site, and will also complicate the task when you have to redirect pages. When poorly executed, these changes can have serious consequences on your SEO ranks. It is therefore crucial to make your current website architecture perfectly explicit and to visualise what it will look like once the redesign is complete.
There are two goals to this audit: measuring your website’s current SEO performance in order to preserve it; and identifying the actions you can take to boost your performance when redesigning the site. In short, you’ll be killing two birds with one stone!
PREPARING FOR A WEBSITE REDESIGN: DEFINING YOUR SPECIFICATIONS AND PLANNING REDIRECTS
Before you start the actual process of redesigning your site, you will need to get two fundamental elements ready.
First, your SEO specifications. This should use the same template as your overall website redesign project specification document. It consists in listing all the SEO functionalities you wish to implement in your new website, as well as the requirements and constraints that will need to be taken into account.
Next, you need to organise redirects. This is absolutely key to a successful website redesign from an SEO standpoint: it involves bringing up all existing website URLs and identifying redirects already in effect before planning for all the additional redirects that will be necessary once the new site comes into operation.
Launching Your New Website: Areas of Focus
Once your website redesign it complete, it is time to leave the testing environment and to launch your brand-new site. This phase is called the “launch” and constitutes a very important step. You will need to…
- Change the website’s target directory to the /preprod directory.
- Use a plug-in (such as Velvet Blues Update) to replace your preprod URLs with the corresponding URLs for the live domain name.
- Test the site to make sure everything is working correctly (and, if need be, turn off “maintenance mode”).
Another point pertaining to the launch of your website which should be considered is the importance of tracking. This involves implementing the right code to allow your new website’s performance to be measured accurately, to follow any interesting events based on the indicators of your choice (for instance, the number of page views or content downloaded, drop-out rates on a form page, etc.), and to assess the performance of your ad campaigns (Google Ads tracking code, Facebook pixel, etc.).
Of course, before launching your new site, you need to test it, and to test the new version again to make sure everything is working correctly and according to your needs!
Taking Advantage of a Website Redesign: Boost Your SEO Performance and Test the Results
The website redesign is complete, and the site is now live. There is one thing left to do: use the results from your SEO audit to improve whatever needs it in terms of on-site optimisation. This will have a positive impact on your ranking. Here are the main avenues worth exploring to optimise new pages and monitor the results of your operations.
OPTIMISE YOUR WEBSITE AND ITS CONTENT
Among the original content that remains once you have redesigned your website, some deserves to be kept as is (because it was popular and ranked well), some should receive an SEO update, and some needs to be completely overhauled. Any new content going forward should be optimised before it is published at all. Such is also the case for any other elements of the site, whose overall performance needs to be ensured.
A few points to pay close attention to when working on your SEO:
- The “title” and “meta description” tags (Google generates these automatically if you don’t write them yourself);
- The Hn headings (which allow search engines to understand the structure of your pages and to identify the information hierarchy);
- The image “Alt” tags (mandatory if you want crawlers to be able to index your pages);
- The canonical tags (essential if your website has pages with similar or identical content: these tags indicate to the robots which pages they should index);
- The URL structure (if the structure of a URL is not changed manually, it is generated automatically from the h1 title);
- The breadcrumb trail (using the Schema.org format to allow Internet users to view the structure of the website);
- The robots.txt file (which provides information to the search engine robots as to which pages they should index first, since they can’t index everything in one go);
- The sitemap.xml file (which provides information to the robots regarding the structure of the website);
- Page loading speed (the longer a page takes to load, the more the bounce rate is likely to go up – which Google definitely doesn’t like);
- Mobile compatibility.
WORK ON YOUR BACKLINKS
Backlinks remain a major popularity indicator that Google uses to rank websites. Once your website redesign is complete, you should therefore sort through the list of incoming links found during your SEO audit. Be sure to…
- Delete bad quality links (published on websites with a questionable reputation or off-topic websites);
- Update good-quality links by asking the webmasters of the sites in question to update the URLs (to avoid redirects, as these are less significant from an SEO perspective).
CREATE AND MANAGE YOUR 301 REDIRECTS
As you redesign our website, you may also be changing the URLs whether you are using a different domain name or modifying existing URLs. When making these changes, you will also need to work on your redirects to let the search engines know that the pages are now permanently located at a different address. The objective is twofold:
- Redirecting Internet users towards the new pages even if they still have the old addresses (otherwise, they will get an “error 404”);
- Ensuring a successful transition between the old and the new pages without losing any SEO benefit.
This is what makes this work so essential. It can’t be done without being perfectly organised and knowing every detail of your website’s architecture (thanks to the SEO audit carried out previously). Ideally, you should aim not to disrupt the existing structure, or your ranking may go down, temporarily or permanently. There are some special tools available to help you carry out this task, but it is generally advised to proceed manually or, at the very least, to double-check every single URL after the fact as these solutions offer no absolute guarantee. This is especially important for the pages that rank the best, for those that drive much traffic volume and/or for those with high-quality incoming links.
Despite all these efforts, you may still notice that a specific page doesn’t rank as well once the redirect is in effect. Sometimes, this is unavoidable, as Google gives more SEO weight to older pages. You will need to be patient and to let time do its work until the page eventually regains its original position.
Important: If you change your website’s domain name, you need to let Google know via the Webmaster Tool. Don’t worry if you don’t do it immediately: indexing new pages can take time.
UPDATE YOUR INTERNAL LINKS
If your website redesign has affected the structure and hierarchy of your pages, or if you have added a large amount of new content, you will also need to update your internal links – which are the connections established between all the different pages of your site. This is especially important for those pages most relevant to SEO, such as the home page, product/service pages, contact page, and any popular content that generates high volumes of traffic. Ideally, you should change the URLs so that the links go to the new pages rather than to redirects. This is the best approach for search engine optimisation.
MONITOR YOUR PAGES’ SEO PERFORMANCE
Once the website redesign is complete, you will need to perform SEO evaluations and to measure the impact of any changes very regularly, making sure to take key performance indicators into account: traffic volume, conversion rate, bounce rate, etc. In any event, the values must remain stable (or show a reasonable, temporary drop, for example due to a redirect) until, ideally, they start to offer a significant improvement.
Keep a close eye on how the situation evolves over the course of the first few months following your website redesign. Then, you can check on it periodically. If you notice your SEO ranking dropping significantly or for a long time and if your traffic starts to fall, you should not ignore these signs: it means that the migration was not done properly!
This may sound paradoxical, but a website redesign is likely to have a negative impact on your SEO ranking and traffic volume. This is why it is paramount to prepare carefully and to make the whole process as painless and as time-limited as possible.
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