SEO Friendly Website Redesign: Dos and Don'ts
To redesign or not to redesign?
SEO-wise, website redesign is always a pain in the neck. First, the redesign itself a process that requires lots of time and hard work; second, it may (and probably will) bust all your previous SEO efforts if things go wrong.
That's why you need to have a substantial reason to say yes to redesign.
When is it a good idea to redesign your site?
1. Your website's outdated design affects user experience and conversion
Web design trends change fast. Web 2.0, parallax, HTML5 background videos... It's hard to keep your website's look and feel up-to-date. But do you really need to? Only if the improved aesthetics leads to higher conversion rates or a better user experience.
Before you decide to hire a designer just because you believe your site may appear outdated, have a look at the Berkshire Hathaway website.
The interesting thing is, Berkshire Hathaway ranks 4th (!) in the list of Fortune 100 companies.
2. You're updating or changing the website platform anyway
If you are looking to streamline your content management workflow, add new functionality, or enhance your site's security, you might be thinking about shifting to a new content management system or web framework. This may be a good time to redesign since you're taking your site through lots of changes anyway.
But remember that whatever is under the hood of your website, there's always a way to keep the design, layout, content, and URLs intact if that's what you'd rather do.
3. You need to bring your site in line with SEO best practices
A lot of the recent search engine algorithm updates (eg. site speed, mobile friendliness, HTTPS everywhere) require significant changes on your website. If your site is lagging behind these latest search trends, tackling those before it's too late is a good idea — for SEO purposes alone.
Since these changes are likely to affect both your site's design and the underlying platform, redesigning at this point would require less effort than it normally does, saving you lots of time and hassle.
Alright, you've got your reasons and are ready to redesign, but where do you start? In fact, you need to start even before starting.
Stage 1: Before you start
It's surprising how often websites are redesigned without proper prior testing. Redesigning just because somebody thinks the new design would work better or look fancier is a recipe for disaster. Whenever possible, make sure that all changes you make on your site are data driven.
Run a series of A/B tests to find out which layout, color palettes, or images make users spend more time on your site, lead to better conversion rates, or work for any other metrics you're tracking.
1. Identify the pages you will be running the tests for. For example, if you run an e-commerce site, here are the pages you'd probably want to test first:
- The home page;
- Product category pages;
- Product pages;
- The Contact Us page;
- The checkout page.
As a rule of thumb, you should be testing the pages that are part of the conversion funnel on your website.
To get results faster, it's a good idea to run the tests on pages that enjoy more traffic.
2. Prepare a set of alternative designs for each page. It's better to test one thing at a time, (eg. variations in the layout or the color of your CTA button). Changing too much at once makes it hard to determine the impact of individual factors on conversion and user behavior.
3. Choose the testing tool to run the experiment. There're a selection of tools available; here are our top 4:
4. Run the tests and pick the winners.
At this point, you need to determine which pages are important to your site and which ones you can get rid of safely. You can easily get this list with Google Search Console, Google Analytics, or Rank Tracker.
1. Go to Search traffic > Search Analytics.
2. Click the Pages radio button, check the Clicks box, select 90 days in the date range menu, and sort the list in descending order.
3. Copy the URLs of the pages that get a substantial number of clicks (eg. >50) to a spreadsheet.
1. Click Add segment and apply a custom segment to display organic traffic only.
2. Go to Behavior > Site content > Landing pages.
3. Set a date range (eg. 3 or 4 months).
4. Sort the report by the number of sessions.
5. Copy the URLs of the pages that get a substantial number of traffic to a spreadsheet.
1. Create a project for your site and specify your target keywords.
2. Click Check Rankings and check your site's positions in Google.
3. Go to the Rankings details workspace.
4. Click on the header of the Google Rank column to sort keywords by it.
5. From the Google URL Found column, copy the URLs of the high ranking pages to a spreadsheet.
Now you've got a list of URLs that bring most organic traffic to your site. The raw list could include duplicate URLs. To remove the duplicates in Microsoft Excel, select the column with the URLs and click on Data > Remove duplicates.
You don't want to lose any of the valuable backlinks, do you? To make sure your site doesn't lose any link juice, create a separate spreadsheet for your site's pages that have inbound links pointing to them. You can get a list of these pages from Google Search Console or SEO SpyGlass.
1. Go to Search Traffic > Links to your site.
2. In Your most linked content section click on the More link.
3. Copy or export the URLs to a spreadsheet.
1. Create a project for your site.
2. Click Statistics and go to the Anchor URL tab.
3. Copy the URLs to your spreadsheet.
If your website has been around for a couple of years, chances are many of its pages have grown outdated or useless. Look for old promotions, content that is no longer relevant, etc. and compile a list of pages to delete.
Stage 2: Redesign
Designers and web developers rarely care about SEO or marketing. Before they get started with their part of the redesign job, arrange a short meeting to educate them and work out a common strategy regarding the site's SEO.
While you're working on the new version of your site, you wouldn't want it to be available to search engines. First, while the work is still in progress, the new version may be buggy and non-functional. Second, if it gets indexed while the old website is also live, you will end up with lots of duplicate pages in search indexes. This could have your site severely penalized by search engines.
To be on the safe side, it's better to work on a test server that is not accessible to unauthorized users and search engines.
If you can't set things up on a separate server, you can deploy the new version of your site in a subfolder or subdomain of the existing site (eg. http://mywebsite.com/new-design or http://new.mywebsite.com). If you go with this option, make sure that this folder or subdomain is blocked from indexing in robots.txt.
When possible, try to keep the URLs of your pages unchanged. If some URLs do change, use a 301 redirect to make sure the old URLs take users to the new ones.
Before you remove any pages, look them up in the list of URLs with inbound links (see Step 3 at Stage 1). If there are valuable links pointing to the old URLs, it's a good idea to set up a 301 redirect to the most relevant page.
Before your newly designed website goes live, you need to audit it to make sure no technical or SEO problems can affect your site's performance in search results. You can easily do that with Website Auditor.
1. Create a project for your site, and hang on a minute while the software runs the audit.
2. For every error or warning the software finds, switch to the Recommendation tab for instructions on how to fix it.
Pay particular attention to broken links and missing, empty, or duplicate titles and meta descriptions, especially if these occur on high traffic pages.
If you make changes to the content of any of the high traffic pages, remember to audit these pages individually.
1. In your WebSite Auditor project, go to Content Analysis —> Page Audit.
2. Select the page you made changes to.
3. Check if the page is free from errors and still includes target keywords, particularly in the title, H1, and body text. Make sure keyword density has not significantly changed compared to the page's old version.
It's recommended that you update your sitemap.xml whenever you add/remove any pages or change any URLs on your site. It's important that your sitemap doesn't include any 404 pages or URLs with 301 redirects. You can generate or edit your sitemap right in Website Auditor.
1. In your WebSite Auditor project, go to the Pages module and hit the Sitemap button.
2. Review your sitemap. For any pages you don't want included in it, uncheck the Include into Sitemap box.
3. Hit Next and proceed with uploading the updated sitemap to your site or saving it to your computer.
Stage 3: After the launch
Here are the crucial things to check after the redesigned website goes live.
Make sure that your website's content is available to search engines, and none of the important pages are blocked from indexing. There's an easy way to do that with Website Auditor.
1. Open your Website Auditor project.
2. Hit Rebuild Project.
3. Under Indexing and crawlability, select Pages restricted from indexing, and review the list of restricted URLs.
Make sure that none of your site's important pages is lost or unavailable after the redesign.
1. In your Website Auditor project, go to the Pages tab.
2. Click on the header of the HTTP Status Code column to sort pages by their status code.
3. Review the URLs of any pages that do not return a 200 code.
Common redesign mistakes
Last but not least, here are the common redesign mistakes that can negatively impact your website's performance in search engines' listings:
- Cutting the number of the site's pages significantly.
- Substantially reducing the amount of content on the website's pages.
- Ignoring keyword usage when changing the site's content.
- Increasing pages' load time.
- Changing URLs without proper redirects.
- Removing pages with the most valuable inbound links.
- Blocking the site or part of it from indexing.
That's it! Now that you have a solid idea on how to redesign your site the SEO friendly way, your new, better-looking website is sure to only change your ranking and traffic stats for the better. Good luck!