The Definitive Guide to Redesigns & SEO
FINE may be best known for brand and digital work that’s rich in visual, content, and experiential elements with obvious sensory appeal. But a lot of work goes into things you don’t see, like ensuring customers can search out your inspiring new website in the first place. Here, our resident SEO guru, Sarah Mackenzie, shares the special search sauce that goes into each FINE site.
First, do no harm. Website redesigns can cause organic traffic to drop. It makes sense when you think about it. When your change or delete content, search engines will react. In a good way, or a bad way. Since most sites get 50% or more of their traffic from organic search, it’s critical to ensure your jaw-dropping new digital rebrand doesn't come with the pain of losing audience. We’ll cover four topics that will help guide the way:
I: TEAM INTEGRATION
II: EXISTING SITE ANALYSIS
III. NEW SITE ANALYSIS
IV. LAUNCH DAY AND POST-LAUNCH
I: TEAM INTEGRATION
SEO should inform every step of the redesign process. This requires close alignment with all associated teams: Project Management, Design, Development, and more. Recognize that SEO advice must also be weighed against equally important considerations of the user experience, branding goals, messaging goals, budgeting goals, and more. It's not about making everyone bow to SEO mantras; it's about making an informed decision. The big win comes from balancing the needs of SEO with the critical nuances of brand and user experience.
One site had an informational section that was driving a fair - but not huge - amount of traffic. The problem? The messaging was tired and the content was stale. It just didn't fit with the new brand vision. The section was retired: traffic adjusted, but eventually recovered. This decision was made knowing that the improved experience on the new website would ultimately result in far better user engagement - and it did.
II: EXISTING SITE ANALYSIS
There’s a separate, extensive blog post about how to complete a website SEO audit. For the sake of brevity, let’s focus here on the elements that pertain the most to redesign needs. Using 4 broad steps we’re trying to answer 2 general questions:
- What elements are currently influencing organic traffic?
- Can we migrate them over to the new website (or not)?
1. Spider The Existing Site
Whether you use Screaming Frog (see above screenshot) or another similar tool, spider the current website. Be sure to also include any blogs, shops, or other subdomains. Export the data into an Excel spreadsheet, and then analyze things like:
- The List: This is basically the big, beautiful list of each and every URL on the current website. Organize it based on the website hierarchy, and make it your mission to understand everything about the current site, so yo can best help translate things to the new one.
- Website Hierarchy: How is the website currently organized in terms of depth and breadth? Does the internal navigation do a nice job in evenly linking out to pages? Or does it bury pages too deep (more than 4 clicks away from the homepage), or create "orphan" pages with barely any other incoming links?
- Url Structure: How are things "named"? Does it look like URL structure could be influencing search engine traffic or user click-through-rates? What might be important to carry over to the new website?
- Duplicate Content / Canonicalization Issues: Similarly, do we see any evidence of canonical tag usage, or duplicate/near-identical content across similar URLs?
- Title Tags: A critical ranking factor. Do pages have unique title tags - and if so, how unique are they? If you see any evidence of handwritten, custom tags, those especially may need to be carried over or replicated on the new site.
- Meta Description Tags: Although not strictly a ranking factor, meta description tags are still important for page differentiation and CTR. If the old website took the time to create custom ones, speak up about how to potentially migrate these to the new site, too.
- Header Tags: A minor ranking factor, but check to see how header tags are currently written. Either way, you'll want to ensure that the new website also uses header tags (H1-H6) as per semantic best practices.
2. Evaluate Organic Traffic in Analytics
Nothing will provide a clearer picture of what influences current organic traffic than your analytics program. Log in and take stock of things like:
Organic Landing Pages: Which landing pages drive the most organic traffic - and why do you think that is? Is it because of their location in the website hierarchy, their subject matter, the amount of on-page text, or something else? Don't only look at individual landing pages, but evaluate traffic by section. Whether there's a section for a client portfolio, a collection of wines, or a list of service offerings, be sure to look at the big picture too.
You want to be able to come back to designers with intel like, "Well, the portfolio section under /work/ has currently driven 20% of organic traffic from over the past year. Maybe let's carry that over."
There are so many other things to look at in analytics, but a few additional suggestions:
- Mobile and Tablet vs. Desktop Traffic: Can we make an argument for switching to responsive?
- Organic Keywords: Once upon a time you could tell a lot more about which keywords drove traffic. Now, not so much (screw you, “Not Provided”) - but it’s still important to check this out, if only to get a read on how much branded versus non-branded traffic the site could be attracting overall.
- Source: Most sites get the most traffic from Google (surprise!), but check for health to see how things currently fare across all engines.
- Conversions: Last but not least - be sure to evaluate which organic traffic drives the most KPIs - usually, that means metrics like filling out a form, downloading a PDF, or completing a sale. If you're lucky, the existing website will already be tracking things like that.
3. Read the Current Website's Text
This may sound like silly, but we also highly recommend that you take some time to browse around the existing website and familiarize yourself with its content and mission. With SEO, what we're most interested in is the content - the indexable text. That's the only thing search engines see. So pour yourself a cup of tea and read it. You'll want to ask questions like:
- How much text and content is there on the homepage?
- How much text and content is there on main landing pages?
- How much text and content is there on detail pages?
- Is any of the text or content contributing to organic traffic?
- Do we need to somehow replicate this on the new site?
- Where is there too much, too little, or the wrong kinds of content from a user perspective?
Imagine a current homepage with a LOT of text that a cheesy SEO crammed into the bottom of the page. It looks awful and the designers hate it. Users probably hate it, too. The problem is, search engines appear to love it.
So if you delete the text, could search traffic go down? The answer here, again, is compromise. No amount of SEO text is worth it if ruins the brand or the user experience. Fluffy, spammy text is never ultimately going to be a good thing.
On the new website, don't delete the text, but do reduce it and rewrite it. It is always possible to find a balance.
4. Check Additional Health & Indexing Factors
Other elements to inspect on the old website include:
- Site Indexing: Are all of the pages being indexed in Google, Bing, and other engines? Doing basic site:domain.com. If possible, see if you can also get access to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools accounts.
- Robots.txt file: Are there any areas of the site being blocked off - and should they be? How could or should this be translated to the new website?
- No index, Nofollow, etc.: Check to see if any pages have been marked with noindex tags, or similarly, if there are any elements that are nofollowed. Oftentimes, we'll see usage of these elements that is unnecessary and simply needs to be cleaned up on the new site.
- Domains: Does the site have one main domain, or do we also have subdomains to deal with? What about www vs non-ww, or http vs https? What's the best plan of action for the new site? Hint: Subdomains aren't the best option for consolidating domain authority, but sometimes, they arethe best option for branding and design needs. Weigh the pros and cons. If the redesign is going to entail a complete change of address, see our post, 10 Recommendations for a Domain Name Change.
- Inbound Links: Use Google Webmaster Tools, Open Site Explorer, or other any other tools you favor to research existing inbound links. If the URL is going to change on the website, in certain cases, you may be able to reach out to the webmaster of the site that's pointing to the old page, and ask them to a reasonable expectation of success, and/or if you're dealing with a domain name change where the stakes are higher.
III. NEW SITE ANALYSIS
1. Wireframes & Sitemaps
One of the first steps in any redesign is mapping out the new website hierarchy. What will all the pages be - and where will they all live?
Work together with designers and information architects, offering feedback from an SEO perspective. Important things to consider include:
- Navigation Depth & Breadth: Search engines evaluate each page's importance based on how other pages link into it. If your website has pages that are buried too many clicks from the homepage, or that other pages barely link to, there's a change they won't get indexed.
- Study the Internal Link Architecture: Ensure that no sections go too deep, and similarly, that you don't have too many "orphan" pages with little other pages linking into them. Wordpress blogs in particular will need a smart network of categories and tags to boost internal link relevance.
- Deletion of Important Content: Check to ensure that the new website didn't delete any important pages. This includes select individual landing pages that drive substantial amounts of traffic, as well as complete website sections that could be up for retirement.
- Compression of Important Content: Check for URL-to-URL correlation too. Sometimes, what might have been 10 URLs on the old site could be compressed into a single, scrolling URL on the new one. So even though content isn't quite being "deleted" here, it's still being reduced and could negatively affect search visibility.
- Potential for NEW Content: What promising content opportunities does the new website present? Now is the time to move past the constraints of the old website, opening up brand-new areas of search relevance.
Ask yourself: What topics does this website need to position on? Is there enough content to help them gain relevance?* Here are some samples/examples to think about:*
Blog: Eminently convenient and flexible, blogs are still a tried-and-true tactic for publishing relevant content.
Content Expansions: Ideas abound here. Add a page for each team member: a page for each industry you serve: detailed client profiles; a new section of case studies: a detail page for each service offering; a robust new project portfolio; and more. For a big list of additional ideas, see our separate post: Building Content for Building Links.
Plus a note about PDFs: Engines can read PDFs, but still don't think very much of them compared to HTML content. When was the last time you saw a lot of PDFs in the Top 10 Results? Also, they're bad for mobile users.
This doesn't mean you have to get rid of them. Instead, consider taking that content and translating it into HTML as well. Let users pick which version they want to view, instead of only offering content within a PDF.
2. Design Iterations
One of the hardest parts in evaluating any new website is looking at preliminary design iterations. Normally, when you want to understand the search-friendly components of a webpage, you will look at the source code. But at this stage in the design, there's no source code to look at yet. There's no development site to spider. Instead, you have to look at images of the potential designs and ask, "What would Google think?"
As you're looking over designs, keep the following in mind: How Does That Link Work Again? Just because a designer is creating an experience users can follow doesn't mean the developer will translate to an experience that engines can follow. You may need to give the development team a heads up to make these types of content search-friendly. Here are a few examples:
- Infinite Scroll: Search engines won't be able to find any items that load after infinite scroll unless you install some pagination under the hood.
- Pop-Up or Modal Windows: Sometimes new "pages" may instead load inside a fancy ajax pop-up window. Make sure engines can also see a clearly linked path to those new pages as well.
- Drop-Down Selection Menus: Does the new design have a drop-down input menu where users have to select an option to get to a new page? There's a chance search engines won't be able to follow those options unless you enable a search-friendly workaround.
- Anything That Looks Fancy: If you see any fancy navigation options that seem to be doing something different than a standard HTML link - bring it up and talk about it.
- I Don't Wanna Read More: Anchor text is important. If your design frequently links to other pages using the words "Click Here" or "Read More", this is like telling engines, "Hey, this page is about Read More!" That's not going to do much to help improve search relevance for that page.
- Room for Onpage Copy: Compare the About page on the new site to the About page on the old site; the Product Detail pages on the new site to the Product Detail pages on the old site; the Category Landing pages on the new site to the Category Landing pages on the old site: in other words, compare the content on all new pages to the old ones.
- Sometimes designers may not be making enough space for important content that needs to be migrated over, and this could really cause traffic to drop.
- The Homepage: Because it's such a critical page on the website, the homepage gets its own letter. Check to ensure your homepage has migrated over any important content that could be contributing to positions, whether it's a nice blocks of text content, clear navigation into important internal pages, or all of the above.
3. Content & Keywords
Besides making sure designers create enough "room" for copy, it's equally important to ensure SEO is involved in the content and copywriting process in general. Most of this should be obvious to any SEO, but a friendly reminder here to:
- Confirm/Identify Project Keywords: If keywords have already been identified for the old website, confirm they're the right ones and plan to migrate keyword goals accordingly over to the new website.
- Copywriting Finesse: Align with the copywriting team! Be informed about any changes they plan to make to on-page copy. If any pages are going to be deleted and/or substantially rewritten, consider how this could affect search relevance. This can include evaluating usage of header tags on each page.
- Title Tags: If the old website had custom-written title tags, ensure a smart plan is in place to migrate over any tags that are critical for retaining search relevance. Craft new titles for important new pages.
- Meta Description Tags: Similarly, migrate over any custom description tags as needed. Craft new description tags for important new pages.
- Alt Text, Etc.: Last but not least, if the old site had highly useful alt text, you might want to evaluate how to migrate that semantic goodness over to the new site as well.
You should already be pretty familiar with the URL structure on the old site, having already created a spreadsheet of all pages. The key here is to ask yourself: should or could any of these URL names be carried over the the new site?
If the old site didn't do such a great job with URL structure, then of course you'll want to rename pages. In fact, it's an exciting opportunity to rewrite everything for the better. In other cases, however, a nicely-named URL can either be carried over in-full or partially. In-full is exactly what it sounds like: the entire URL name is the same, so there's no need to even 301 redirect it.
If you're able to avoid doing any 301s, that can be a huge asset in terms of conserving page authority. However: sometimes there's just no way to carry over the full URL if it's been moved to a new place in the site architecture.
Above all, remember that URLs need to be helpful and intuitive for users. When creating URLs for the new website, name things first for usability and click-through in SERPs. Search-engine goodness is sure to follow.
5. Other SEO Stuff
Last but not least, a few other goodies to keep in mind as you consider the new website:
CMS Vetting: Sometimes you don't just have a new website: you have an entire new CMS. Be sure this one gives you the creative control you need over things like:
Meta Description Tags
XML Sitemap: Believe it or not, these are pretty helpful for engines when discovering new pages. So ensure the new website has one.
Static Sitemap: Even more important than the XML sitemap, ensure the new site has a static sitemap for users. Engines will pay even more attention to that than they will the XML one.
Robots Directives: From the robots.txt file to meta robots tags, ensure you've allowed and/or blocked off what you're supposed to.
Staging Site Crawl: You crawled the old site, but don't forget to crawl the new site too prior to launch. You could discover any number of things that need fixing, from issues with title tags to - gasp! - an entire section of the website that wasn't built out to correctly link to sub-pages as it should.
Website Analytics: Ensure there's a plan in place for migrating over website analytics. Tracking code will need to be correctly deployed on the new website so that there are no gaps in continuity or reporting. Check for any custom installations as well that need extra configurations: custom events, goals, ecommerce sales, and more.
6. 301s, 301s, 301s and 301s
These are so important that they got their own main-heading number. If you're serious about SEO, you need to get serious about 301 redirects. This means URL-to-URL, page-to-page redirects. Page-to-page redirects are not only the powerful way to transfer relevance from new to old website pages, but they're also very helpful for users as well.
Using Excel, Google Docs, or the spreadsheet program of your choice, map out a plan for all 301s:
- old page => new page
- old page => new page
- old page => new page
- And on and on and on.
Our SEO team has worked on 301 redirect projects for sites as little as 50 URLs and as large as 5,000+ URLs. And yes - it’s WORTH IT to redirect pages on a one-to-one basis. If constrained by time or budget, you can also consider redirecting like sections to like sections (e.g.: items in /portfolio all redirect to the new /portfolio landing page), but this isn't as powerful as page-to-page 301s. Try to avoid 301-ing everything to the homepage. This will send all incoming link authority only to the home, instead of to all pages throughout the new website.
For more information check out: Google's Guidelines to Moving a Site With URL Change
IV. LAUNCH DAY THROUGH POST-LAUNCH
You'll want to continue to monitor the following on launch day as well as throughout the weeks and months following launch:
- Website Analytics: How has organic traffic weathered the changes? Inspect overall traffic, landing pages, keywords, traffic sources and more.
- The 301s: Double check these are all working as they should be.
- Google & Bing Webmaster Tools: Verify and check the site in Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools. Look for any website errors, XML sitemap pages indexed, and more.
- Do a Site: Search: Monitor how fast (or slow) new pages are being picked up in engines. Pay attention to cache dates, and check for issues where new pages aren't being picked up or indexed as they should.
- Keyword Positions: Keyword positions definitely are not the most important or even reliable of KPIs, but they can still help paint a useful picture of before/after performance overall.
- Always Be Optimizing: Whether it's adding new pages around a critical topic or just rethinking your approach to a title tag, an SEOs work isn't done just because a new site launched. In fact, you may only be just getting started with a variety of new content strategies and initiative. Best of luck out there.
That’s a lot to take in. But here’s a handy checklist summary for quick reference.
Quick Reference: The Definitive FINE Guide to Redesigns & SEO
I: TEAM INTEGRATION
- Strive for constant communication and cooperation with with designers and developers. Balance SEO considerations with brand and user experience elements.
II: EXISTING SITE ANALYSIS
- Spider The Existing Site
- Export a list of all pages
- Analytics website hierarchy
- Note the URL structure
- Identify any dup content/canonicalization issues
- Check out Title Tags
- Check out Description Tags
- Check out Header Tags & Alt Text
- Evaluate Organic Traffic in Analytics
- Organic Landing Pages
- Mobile and Tablet vs. Desktop Traffic
- Organic Keywords
- Traffic Source
- READ the Current Website’s Text.
What copy do you need to replicate, delete, edit on the new website?
- Check Additional Health & Indexing Factors
- Website Indexing
- Robots.txt file
- Noindex, Nofollow, etc.
- Domains, Subdomains, etc.
- Important inbound Links
III. NEW SITE ANALYSIS
- Wireframes & Sitemaps
- Navigation Depth & Breadth
- Deletion of Important Content
- Compression of Important Content
- Potential for NEW Content: Blog, Content Expansions, PDF Conversions.
- Design Iterations
- How Does That Link Work Again?
Give the development team a heads up to make these types of content search-friendly:
- Infinite Scroll
- Pop-Up or Modal Windows
- Drop-Down Selection Menus
- Anything That Looks Fancy
- Eradicate Tabs & Click To Expand
- Avoid "Read More" Anchor Text
- Ensure Room for Onpage Copy
- Audit the Homepage
- Content & Keywords
- Confirm/Identify Project Keywords
- Copywriting Finesse: Align with the copywriting team.
- Title Tags
- Meta Description Tags
- Alt Text
How could or should URL names be carried over the the new site?
- Other SEO Stuff
- CMS Vetting
- XML Sitemap
- Static Sitemap
- Robots Directives
- Staging Site Crawl
- Website Analytics
- 301s, 301s, 301s and 301
- Invest in page-to-page 301 redirects. Just do it.
IV. LAUNCH DAY THROUGH POST-LAUNCH
- Check analytics
- Check 301s
- Check Google & Bing Webmaster Tools
- Check live site indexing
- Check keyword Positions
- And Always Be Optimizing.