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Don’t Tank Your Rank: Why Website Redesigns & SEO Must Coexist

Website redesigns are a tricky gambit when it comes to SEO. In the exciting rush to realize the vision for a shiny, new brand look, businesses too often fail to invest in the proper planning upfront to avoid cannibalizing their hard-won SEO strategy.

While I’m not here to broadcast doom and gloom, or lament about your organic search rankings’ potential post-redesign swan dive, I’d be ignoring my sworn duty as a strategist by not warning you of a few staple SEO considerations that you can’t afford to ignore.

Spend Time with Your Data

Before you dive in and start hacking away, it’s critical to take a step back and gain some perspective on what’s working and what’s not. Specifically, this is a good opportunity to look at your site’s analytics and existing SEO health, then make informed decisions about how to best approach content restructuring.

A few things to look at:

  • Go to Acquisition > Channels > Organic Search in Google Analytics to view more in-depth data on metrics that should inform your redesign strategy: Top landing pages for search traffic, keywords driving traffic, etc. Use this as an opportunity to benchmark your optimization strategy for the keywords you should be targeting with the new website based on how users are both getting to and interacting with your site.
  • If you’re running Google Adwords, connect Adwords and Google Analytics to view paid search data alongside organic numbers. There are a number of ways to approach using this data: Start by running a queries report (good walkthrough on this from Kiss Metrics) to get data on top-performing keywords from Google Analytics, then run those through the Keyword Planning tool in your Adwords account to gather additional competitive data and expand into new keyword ideas that you can target.
  • Add your site to Google Search Console (if it’s not already) and run crawl reports to get an initial view of any errors that might prevent your site from appearing in search results. Search Console also offers a number of tools to help you benchmark how your site structure should evolve with the redesign to improve SEO.

Create a Detailed Sitemap

A detailed sitemap should be your SEO lifeboat during the redesign. Why? It will ensure important considerations don’t fall through the cracks. The sitemap also will allow you to fully map out how URL structure on your site will change based on pages moving to new sections, new parent pages, new nav, etc.

So, bust out the mad spreadsheet skills and use this exercise as an opportunity to plan how you’ll optimize the new site for SEO. A few critical components:

  • Start with a side-by-side comparison of existing pages in one column and updated or new pages in another to see how the structure might change. This is also step one in planning how you’ll redirect old URLs to new ones (more on that below).
  • Give direction for on-page optimization so that you’re already on point for both copy and your developers: metas, URL slugs for new pages, headlines, body copy, links, alt tags, etc.
  • Create a detailed list of known URLs that will change based on new sitemap. You’ll want to 301 permanent redirect critical URLs to point to relevant pages on the new website to avoid losing referral traffic or existing link juice. Here’s a great primer on 301 redirects from Moz. If you’re using WordPress, consider using the Redirection plugin to implement redirects and monitor 404 errors to catch any URLs you might have missed. 

Important note on redirects: Don’t abuse the privilege, as not every 404 error is a necessary fix (see also, 404 errors often report because of spam bots). First consider whether the 404 is coming from a legitimate referrer (outside link pointing to your website) before you go hog wild on redirects.

Optimize the Design + Code

There are a lot of evolving layers to how Google views responsive web design in regards to rankings, but it’s safe to say that with more than half of web traffic now coming from mobile devices, you need to explore how responsive design affects rankings — and plan your redesign accordingly. Couple that with how bad code can potentially affect how pages on your site are indexed (and how fast), and it’s easy to see why you ignore technical SEO at your own risk.

A few key considerations when it comes to optimizing design and code for search:

  • Know your mobile configurations. Google recommends responsively designing on the same code and serving different experiences to different devices as opposed to creating a separate mobile site that lives on its own URL.
  • Understand the impact of page-load time on search rankings. Google does consider it a ranking factor, so start by benchmarking page-load times to see opportunities to optimize site caching, images, javascript, etc. There are a number of resources on measuring and optimizing page speed, but Google’s PageSpeed insights is a great place to start.
  • Be wary of adding functionality that is resource intensive (see also, excessive use of 3rd party tracking scripts) without first benchmarking its affect on page-load times.
  • Use meta tags like nofollow and noindex judiciously (i.e. know how to apply them where only applicable)
  • Keep your URL structure simple and logical (Google knows best).