How to Keep Your SEO Rankings After a Website Redesign
In today’s digital business landscape, your website is your primary tool to stay competitive. And just as every tool needs occasional sharpening to stay effective, so does your website. Customer expectations evolve over time, and you must learn to change with its ebbs and flows.
Hence, the need to redesign your website every two to three years.
The purpose of website redesign is clear: keep your business right in the line of sight of your target audience to maximize your chances of converting them into paying customers. It is meant to help grow your brand. But if not implemented well, it will do more harm than good. How exactly? By rendering all of your previous SEO efforts ineffective and useless.
You have invested a lot of time, effort, and marketing dollars to gain your current ranking. You must not lose it in the redesigning process. Some companies make the tragic mistake of thinking that one does not affect the other. But in reality, there are specific steps you have to take to ensure that you do not sacrifice your SEO ranking as you transition from the old website to the new.
Perform an Audit of Your Current Site’s SEO
Before making any changes to your current website, it is important to take stock of what you have. This will help you decide what is working and what is not.
- Analyze Your Current Keywords
Find out what keywords or phrases your website is ranking well in. You can use rank checker tools such as Ahrefs and SEMRush. Similarly, you should also check which pages are generating the most organic traffic due to these keywords. Make sure that these pages are included in your new website and that you preserve them as much as possible. This includes migrating the images, videos, metadata, and file names exactly as they are. To keep track of all the components, it would help if you create a spreadsheet where you can put all the relevant data. You can use this for reference and comparison during, and after the redesign, so you don’t lose all your important assets.
- Understand Your Website Architecture
There is a good chance that your URL structure will change slightly when you redesign your website. This is fine as long as the change is incremental, and you inform the search engines of all the changes. This means that once you work out the internal links of your redesigned website, you must submit your updated XML sitemap and make sure that your 301 redirects, navigation links, and page structure are consistent with it. This will help display your new site structure seamlessly and ensure an improved user experience. Site architecture not only refers to how your pages are set up. It also includes navigation and internal linking, as changes in your URL can leave broken internal links in your pages. They have a lot to do with user experience and are, therefore, essential to your website’s SEO ranking, so you must include this in your audit. There are plug-ins designed for this purpose and make this part of the redesign much easier. In addition, you can keep track of your internal link structure with the help of crawl data.
- Audit Your Website’s Backlinks
Backlinks are instrumental in maintaining your SEO ranking, and you must make sure that they are not affected as you make changes to your pages. Review all current links that point to your website. If any of them are linked to a page you are changing or removing, invest some time in contacting the relevant websites and requesting them to update the backlinks. If this proves too difficult or would take a disproportionate amount of your resources, you can create redirects to make sure your redesigned website would still benefit from the traffic that these backlinks generate.
Keep Your Old Website Live
It is not advisable to implement all the changes you want on your live website. Redesigning a website is a lot of work, and you could easily hit some snags along the way. If this were to happen on your live website, it could compromise user experience, or worse, bring your website down altogether. In the end, your efforts to enhance your brand could end up damaging it irreversibly.
The common practice for redesigning websites is keeping the original website intact and live throughout the redesigning process. Having the old website to refer to whenever you encounter some problems while developing the redesigned website could be crucial, saving you tons of time, effort, and financial resources in solving them.
You can keep your old website up and running while redesigning it by generating an exact copy and putting it in a dev subdomain, where all the development and testing processes can be taken care of behind the scenes. However, you must make sure that the dev website cannot be accessed by both the search engine crawlers and internet users, so search engines would not penalize your search rankings, and users would not inadvertently stumble onto your unfinished website.
Crawl Your Old Website
Once you have a copy of the site on a temporary URL, save a crawl of your old website. In doing this, you can easily export all the elements critical to your on-page optimization. This includes your title tags, meta titles, meta descriptions, headers, and alt tags.
Having a crawl of your old site is especially helpful in preserving pages that perform well in search rankings. Also, crawling your old website would be helpful in protecting the dynamic types of content on your website as you move from dev to live site.
It is important to note that, while preserving high-performing pages is imperative, some situations would render this practice useless or impossible. For instance, if your web redesign were compelled by significant changes in your products or services, it would require its own content generation and optimization process.
If It Is Not Broken, Do Not Fix It
The fewer changes you make on your old website, the less likely you are to make mistakes. These mistakes may seem insignificant individually, but taken together, they can make or break your website redesign project.
This approach is especially pronounced when dealing with URLs. Keep as much of the original URL structure and page names as much as possible. Making changes is fine, as long as they are necessary and would ultimately add more value to your brand.
If you have content that is already performing well, it would also serve your best interest to keep it intact. If you feel that it needs tweaking or could use some facelift, you can deal with it once the redesigned website is live and the content has been indexed and ranked. This has been mentioned in passing in a previous section, but is extremely essential and warrants reiterating.
Set Up Your 301 Redirects
Once you have a detailed understanding of which keywords, pages, and inbound links are mostly responsible for your current ranking, you can proceed to set up your redirect plan.
For URLs impacted by your redesign, you need to use 301 redirects. A 301 redirect is applicable if you want to remove an old page and create a new one designed for the same purpose. You can also use it to move pages to different sections of the website without changing the page names.
Finally, a 301 redirect is also suitable in removing subdomains such as blogs or help subdomains while keeping all the components hosted in them under a different section of your website.
It is important to note that you should set up your 301 redirects while the website is still in the staging phase. This will give you the chance to review every page you plan on deleting and not miss redirecting any. You can also crawl the website so you can spot all the pages that have to be redirected. Additionally, you can export the scan data for further review, so once your website transitions from dev to live, everything should be working as designed.
So, what happens if you do not set up a 301 redirect for a URL?
If you fail to use 301 redirects or use them improperly, the page will display the error message “404 not found” when clicked. If someone visits your website and encounters this error instead of being taken to a page on your website, it will diminish user experience and hurt your search rankings as well.
Still, there are times when a 404 error is useful.
For instance, if you have pages that no longer add value to your target audience or your ranking, you can just leave them as a 404 instead of creating another page with similar content or redirecting it to the home page and other pages that are not relevant. Google rewards this course of action over deleting the page or redirecting it to a random page on your website.
While a 301 redirect diverts from one URL to another permanently, it transfers the inbound links as well, and with them, 90% to 99% of the link equity. That is why this type of redirect is a much better option than the temporary 302 redirects.
A 302 redirect is only used when updating a web page, so the user experience is not compromised as you make your changes on that page alone. Still, using 302 redirects can be a bit tricky. In some cases, it may even hurt your SEO ranking. You must be extra careful when using it.
Fix Broken Internal Links
Once you are done deleting pages and setting up your 301 redirects, it is time to fix any defects in your internal linking architecture. All internal links pointing to permanently deleted pages must be removed as well, while links pointing to pages redirected to new URLs must be updated accordingly.
If you do not update the links to the new URLs, users would still be able to reach the desired page due to the redirects. However, this would add unnecessary load to the server, which would affect your page’s load speed. Ultimately, it will reduce your user’s experience and cause you to miss out on the chance to compel them into profitable action.
Aside from reviewing the internal links of your content, it is important to pay attention to your navigational links as well. Simple and decluttered top menus and more functional footers are trending today, which means that redesigning your website may involve removing some elements from your menu and adding or removing new sections. Both could affect your internal linking architecture significantly.
Update Your XML Sitemap
Once you have finalized your 301 redirects, navigation and internal links, and page structure, you can update your XML sitemap and submit it to search engines. Make sure that all elements are consistent in indicating the new site structure, making it easier for the search engines to make sense of the changes made.
Monitor the Results
Once your redesigned website is live, you can now monitor the results to see if the changes you made were effective. While some fluctuations are to be expected initially, an effective web redesign will have you back in your baseline within a month, if not sooner.
Take this opportunity to identify issues right away so they can be resolved before causing much damage. Monitor your performance in the keywords and pages of interest to make sure that you maintained, if not improved, your previous rankings.
A technical site audit would be helpful in giving you actionable information on any existing technical problems. Online tools such as Moz and DeepCrawl are especially helpful in detecting potential issues before they become problems.
Trust the Professionals
Redesigning your website should improve your SEO and increase your conversion. Otherwise, why go through all the trouble? Make sure you sharpen your tool the right way, so to speak, with a well-executed website redesign. Enlist the services of only the most reputable and reliable SEO experts in the industry.