Retaining SEO rankings after a website redesign requires careful planning and consideration of many key elements. Failure to do so can result in severe dips in traffic resulting in a significant loss of business. One of the biggest mistakes we see from both clients and design companies, is focusing only on aesthetics or trends, and ignoring the fundamental principles and best practices that facilitate SEO retention and growth.
Unfortunately, many business owners unknowingly hire web consultants who lack the experience or knowledge needed to execute an effective re-design. The results can be catastrophic, and you probably know someone who has experienced the aftermath. If your website is lucky enough to rank highly in search engines for competitive keywords, resulting in qualified traffic that makes you money, you should be mostly concerned with maintaining the same level of success after you launch your new site.
So, how can SEO rankings be retained after launching a new website?
The first step to minimizing risk is conducting a thorough SEO audit on your existing website. The goal should be to identity elements that need to be either kept in place to retain your current rankings, or be improved in order to beef them up.
There are many handy tools that can be used free of charge to assist with quick and accurate analysis of the state of your current site. Screaming Frog, for example. will generate a list of existing, missing or duplicate elements, such as title tags, pages and headings. You’ll also be provided with details on all inbound/outbound links, anchor text, redirects, follow/no-follow links and image alt text.
Once you’ve compiled a list of elements that are missing or in need of improvement, you can begin to map out the architecture of your new website.
Another invaluable tool that can be used free of charge to assess the state of your current site is Google Analytics. An analytics analysis is a great compliment to an SEO audit, as it can identify things like which pages receive the most traffic, which content keywords are driving the most traffic/conversions and how visitors are navigating your site.
Again, you should take note of what’s working, and what has room for improvement, and incorporate the findings into your website planning efforts.
One of the most common and costly mistakes is forgetting to redirect pages on your site for which the URLs have changed. If your pages have changed locations and search engines can’t find them, it can spell disaster. 301 Redirects will preserve 90-99% of your “link juice” or ranking power. For this reason, it’s always preferable to avoid changing URLs. This can save a tremendous amount of time and headache, especially for sites with a large number of pages.
Reasons for changing URLs on a re-designed site are typically that the overarching domain name is changing (e.g. seomoz.com recently switched to just moz.com), or permalinks are being updated to be more user friendly (e.g. yoursite.com/products-and-service.html is changing to yoursite.com/services).
Regardless of the reason you choose to change URLs, the easiest way to ensure SEO value is passed from the old URL to the new URL, and search engines are taken to the right location, is with a server-side permanent 301 redirect. Redirects can be created by using the .htaccess file on your server, which can be easily populated with scripts that tell search engines to redirect from old URLs to their new counterparts.
If you make changes to your global site navigation, it should be done with purpose and should follow Google Webmaster Tools Guidelines. Search engines prefer a “flat” site architecture that allows users to access any page on the site within a maximum of 3 clicks. They also prefer highly organized site navigation with related content broken down into silos of Categories and Sub-Categories.
If search spiders are accustom to crawling your current site and you serve up a drastically different navigational structure, it will take some time for them re-establish trust. When possible, maintain a consistent navigation and preserve your internal link structure.
Often, re-designs are executed haphazardly, without considering the ways in which on-site SEO factors will contribute to search rankings. All pages should contain the elements deemed important by Google Webmaster Tools guidelines, including proper title and heading tag structure, unique meta descriptions and appropriate use of keywords.
It’s very important to have an SEO expert look over your new site and page structure, to ensure best practices are followed.
An inbound link analysis should be performed in order to identify high quality links that you’ll need to preserve in order to maintain your search rankings. Remember, sites that have linked to you will not automatically update their links to match your new URLs. This is another reason 301 redirects are vital to preserving the health of your search rankings.
Also, if you have pages on the old site that rank well and have a good number of inbound links pointing to them, you’ll want to ensure to retain the pages on the new site.
It’s widely known that Content Management Systems like WordPress have built-in SEO features that provide immense benefit. If you are moving to a new CMS platform, make sure you consult with your SEO and development teams to ensure it is capable of providing the flexibility to easily implement SEO best practices.
If certain pages on your website are ranking well for keywords that are valuable to your business, you’ll want to ensure the majority of the content is kept in tact. If your content changes dramatically, search engines may not honor the previous ranking authority, which will cause your rankings to drop off. For newly created pages, always ensure to follow best practices: don’t keyword stuff, always implement a proper title and heading tag structure, and write user-friendly and unique page descriptions.