How to Redesign Your Website (And Avoid SEO Disaster)

If your business is relying on the traffic, conversions and overall exposure coming from your website, you mustn’t drop your guard down for a second. Even if you didn’t have competitors and market saturation to think about, you have to keep constantly upping your offer for the simple reason that internet abhors stagnation.

Web design trends and audience tastes are changing as quickly as the amount and quality of available UX solutions. New regulations are coming into force. Failing to respond to these changes is not something that you can get away with for too long. Minor updates will sometimes be enough for you to keep up, but occasional extensive site redesigns are an inevitability, regardless of your industry, customers habits, etc. If unsure about what you need to do, take a note from your competitors by examining some of the best web designs recently made, and see what is it that your site might benefit from.

While, depending on their scope, these changes do come with a fair bit of risk, they also come with a great potential for improvements. In other words, even if you just want to rebrand, update a particular feature, or change the appearance of your site, there is a chance you might disrupt the delicate balance of different website elements required for success in organic search. However, you could also use the work you’re doing to assess your current SEO practices and ensure that your new site is better than the old one ever was in this regard.

Keeping Track of the Changes

Before you change a single thing, you have to make sure that you are completely aware of each and every potential consequence of that change. If you rewrite a post, did you keep it roughly the same length? Does it contain the same keywords? How’s its readability score compared to before? Did you change any of the outgoing links? Are you going to change its metadata? Is it still suitable for audiences reaching it through backlinks created for the old version? And this is just one of the more basic site modifications, any major site revamp is going to involve a lot more than that.

That’s why it is essential to map the potential reverberations of the updates you make, and to keep a detailed changelog, recording each of the actions you’ve taken. Aside from allowing you to solve potential problems by having a record leading straight back to their source, this also gives you a great way to try out new strategies or approaches. You could, for instance, do a bit of A/B testing by recording the engagement metrics of a particular landing page, changing a single layout element, and observing the effects.

Preparation Stage

In other words, everything you need to do before making a single change, starting with actions that will ensure those changes are reversible. Along with the mentioned changelog, this also includes creating a site backup, so that if your redesign doesn’t turn out as hoped, you can easily go back to your starting point.

Once that is done you can proceed gathering all the information you’ll need, through what amounts to a detailed SEO audit. Naturally, some redesign needn’t involve all the steps we’ll describe (for instance, you might not be planning on changing your URL structure at all), but this still doesn’t mean you should ignore them. Even if you only intended to change a couple of things, an extensive analysis of your current assets might persuade you otherwise. Here are some of the main aspects of your site’s optimization that you need to examine:

  • Links – all of them, incoming, outgoing and internal. You might want to start this by scraping your website (Screaming Frog’s SEO Spider does a great job of this) and seeing which of your pages are indexed. This list should be expanded with the rest of your pages, retrieved from Google Analytics. Once it holds all the pages of your site, indexed and not, this list will serve as a basis for the rest of your audit.
    You can also use SEO Spider to collect outgoing links from your pages, and a backlink checker, for instance Ahrefs, to find links leading to them.
    Finally, you’ll take note of each of the internal links on each of your pages, along with their do-follow or no-follow status.
    If you do this meticulously enough, once done, you will have a map of the link juice flow through your website. You will be able to observe the influx of link equity to your site through backlinks it is getting from other domains; examine how that equity is then distributed across your site through your internal links, and finally, see how much of it you are dispersing through do-follow outgoing links.
    If you realize that you’re perfectly happy with your linking structure and the redesign itself doesn’t require you to change it; you should make a record of it, and try to keep it intact. However, if your site has been growing over time, with new sections being added where needed, chances are there is room for improvement in this area.
    You have outgoing links in your main navigation? Remove them. Have internal, do-follow links on your homepage, which are leading to insignificant pages? Remove them as well, or at least no-follow them. Some of your pages have hundreds of outgoing links? Unless your site is directory of some kind or something similar, there is not excuse not to trim the fat a little bit. Links from your homepage to your blog posts are do-follow, but those from your posts to your homepage are no-follow? Switch them up. You get the idea, link juice should be directed towards your main pages, and links from those pages should be given out sparingly and wisely, be they internal or outgoing.
  • Keyword mapping – Most of your pages rank for certain keywords. Once you take a note of which keywords your pages are already ranking for, you should also consider your next step. Do you want to keep improving a page’s ranking for those keywords, or should you try pursuing other, more lucrative ones. Are you sure that this refocusing won’t have adverse effect on the ranking of your other pages (page A on your site is linking to page B and ranks extremely well for a particular keyword, making page B relevant for the query as well, so changing A might influence B significantly)? Are there any keyword cannibalization issues – i.e. different pages on your site going after the same keywords?
    This might also be a good time to collect your PPC data (and place any active advertising campaigns you might be running on hold, so you are not wasting your money during the redesign), and to jot down and examine the meta elements of your pages, specifically, meta title and description. Are these in line with your keyword focus? Are they targeting the phrases you want to optimize for, or are they just there for the sake of having them? Finally, are there pages you intended to rank for a particular keyword, but which have backlinks that would make it much easier for them to rank for something else, and should you try to leverage this by changing their focus?
    Some of these decisions don’t have to be made right away, but you need to collect all the data you can, as parts of it may no longer be available after the redesign.

  • Benchmark everything – catch and record every minutest detail regarding how your site is performing. Most of this data can be found in Google analytics, but you may need other tools as well. Since there’s no room here for a complete list, we’ll at least point out some of the more essential metrics you need to keep an eye on.
    – Performance metrics – how much traffic are your individual pages getting, where it’s coming from, how many new users is the page getting on a monthly basis, how often is your site crawled, and of course, rankings.
    – Engagement metrics – MAU, WAU, DAU (Monthly, Weekly and Daily Active users); bounce rates and page viewing times; time to start render and time to start display, time on site, and the reason why you are doing any of this, conversions.
    – Everything else you can get – some will use Moz’ Domain Authority and Page to try and estimate a domain’s or page’s value, others will use Ahrefs’ Domain Rating and URL Rating or Majestic’s Citation and Trust Flow. We won’t try to sway you either way, but it goes without saying that you should stay consistent in your choice, and to remember that changes in these metrics don’t necessarily mean anything has changed with your website, they might just be rescaling their values (as Ahrefs recently did with their DR).
  • Prepare to reconnect everything – Your site uses a number of third party solutions. We mentioned Google Analytics plenty of times, but depending on your site, you might be relying on a number of others, like payment processors, customer communication solutions, different plugins and addons, etc. If the changes you are about to make are likely to sever your site’s connection with these providers, you need to make sure that this connection can later be re-established as smoothly as possible. Some of them allow you to duplicate settings from a different account, some to save and export your preferences, while others you’ll just have to deal with manually.
  • Consider the effects of minor web design changes – even if you just want to make some changes in appearance or layout, without even touching stuff like URL structure or content itself, you can expect some major changes. For instance, visual elements and page layout can have a significant influence on engagement metrics; adding just one image to a page can increase its loading time; removing or relocating a call to action can drastically change your conversion rates, etc.

Launch, Post-Launch

So you’ve made your preparations and now it’s time to pull the cord. Don’t worry, if you’ve been careful so far, most of your work is already completed, and there shouldn’t be anything that you can do that cannot  be undone later.

First of all, you’ll need a secure and isolated environment for working on your website – you can block crawler’s access to the site with the help of your Robots.txt file, or you can move the site to another server.

Once you make all the changes, and the necessary adjustments – for instance, if you’ve been changing your URLs, you need to do 301 redirects for all of them – it’s time to start testing your site and identifying potential issues. Among other things, this should include:

  • Metrics – remember all those benchmarked metrics? It’s almost time to start comparing them with your new site’s performance indicators. Again, depending on the scope of your changes, some of them won’t be of any use to you, as there are other parts of the system that need to become aware of your modifications before they can account for them properly. For instance, if you’ve made changes to the URLs, even with redirects, Google might need some time to index your pages, Ahrefs might need time to allocate a DR to them, etc.
    This is why you shouldn’t be alarmed if some of the columns in your new reports contain only zeros, your metrics simply need some time to settle.
    However, once that adjustment period is over, you should start comparing your old and new metrics and identifying not only those which have dropped, but also the ones that didn’t increase as much as was to be expected, and reacting accordingly.
  • Another scrape – which of your new pages are already indexed and which are not. Do you have any 404s (if you had to redirect pages, chances are that you do)? Has the linking structure been preserved, or have the changes you wanted made it been implemented properly? Scraping your site should provide answers to these questions and more.
  • Test everything – how is your site performing on mobile devices with varied screen sizes? What do Google’s bots see when crawling it? Have all the third party services been connected and set up properly? Have you prevented duplicate content issues by the proper application of the canonical tag? Have you adjusted the Robots.txt file to allow your site to be indexed once again? Don’t get discouraged if you are still discovering errors months after your new site has been live, it happens, but the more effort you place in this initial testing, the better your chances of success.
  • Remind the world of your existence – if you’ve been changing your URL, you also need to submit your site new XML site map and file for a change of address in Google Webmaster Tools. Likewise, you might also want to help Google to index your new pages by creating a couple of fresh backlinks leading to them.

To Sum Up

A site redesign can be as extensive or simple as you want, but even the most miniscule changes can have serious, wide-reaching repercussions. The only way to avoid them is to ensure you take every possible precaution, create every backup available, and test everything once you are done

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