As an SEO I am asked a number of questions covering a broad range of SEO related topics and one question in particular is asked quite often. This question holds answers which, when ignored, could see a once well ranked website spiral into depths of the search engine rankings forever.
“I am in the process of redesigning my site, what should I look out for in
order to maintain the SEO (and rankings)?”
In a word, the answer to this question is relatively straight forward, but depending on the intensity of the redesign, it can become very complex. In most cases there will be specifics for each site, and it is near impossible to cover all scenarios in a single article. With that in mind I will describe the process that would apply in most cases for a site which is currently enjoying great rankings that they do not want to disturb.
If your site has no, or very few rankings, some of this advice may be safely ignored (it really depends on a number of factors). If you currently do not have any rankings, and have very few pages indexed, or if your site has never been properly optimized, you may be able to undergo a redesign with minimal worry. (If you are looking for SEO Friendly Web Design , please view this article.)
However, if your site ranks very well in the search engines, or even has 1 or 2 key positions that you would not want to lose, it’s an entirely different story. The following rules assume that there are current rankings you are trying to watch out for.
The existing structure of your site is in most cases the single most important factor behind a safe redesign. If your structure changes, even just a little, you could easily see your rankings plummet.
With the redesign you will want to do everything in your power to maintain your existing site structure and page file names. The second you move or rename a file you risk losing valuable rankings. (Not only that, but you risk losing existing customers who may have bookmarked the now-moved page). Unless it is absolutely necessary to restructure the file hierarchy, don’t. In cases where it must take place, the use of a 301 redirect is your best friend.
The 301 redirect will save your existing customers from head aches when visiting now-moved pages by seamlessly directing them to the new location. Permanent 301’s will also help you retain your rankings – sometimes.
In theory, when you move a page, the 301 will tell the search engines “Hey, this page moved” and the search engines will re-assign credit. Existing rankings will eventually be transferred over to the new location along with any credit from inbound links.
It is important to note that the 301 is not a wild card that you can play to trump any drop in rankings. In principle this is the effect the 301 should have, although credit is not always transferred and when it is, it is sometimes many months down the road. It is certainly in the best interest of the site owner to not require this approach in the first place. If your redesign can maintain the existing site structure and file names your site will be in much better shape.
Advanced sites are another story all together. If your site suffers from obese URL strings loaded with extraneous characters, bizarre paths, session ids, etc. you may be in better shape to change your URL’s to something much cleaner.
For example, www.domain.com/product/model/color is much more valuable than
Long URL’s like this can usually be processed by the search engines, indexed, and ranked, however cleaning them up offers a better chance of rankings, a cleaner impression to your site user, and an opportunity to incorporate some potential target phrases.
Change in site structure can also include your domain name. If your domain name is the only change you make to your site, the above rule still applies. Even when proper 301 redirects are in place, you can expect to see your rankings drop significantly if not entirely. The 301 should help to reduce the down time, but it is not uncommon to see a sites rankings slip considerably, sometimes indefinitely with a domain change. Changing your domain name can be a complete rankings killer.
If you have implemented the new site to include a new site structure, a valuable tool combination is an XML sitemap combined with an HTML sitemap. For sites with current rankings many will have these two items already in place, but if you don’t they can be your best friend. This is one more way to help Google index the new location of your site pages to ensure an easy and faster recovery from the change.
Be Safe! Even if you move all your files around and implement the appropriate 301 redirects and everything looks all nice and perfect, ensure that you also have a 404 redirect in place. Either direct “page not found” traffic to a custom 404 error page, or to your site’s home page. Displaying to a potential client (or search engine for that matter) a 404 error can be tragic. Customers and search engines can lose confidence in your site. The custom 404 page is your best bet for retaining their attention.
Undoubtedly, navigation is one of the most important aspects of your site contributing to positive site rankings. Drastic changes in the site’s navigation can be fatal to your existing rankings.
Flash With newer design applications and technologies available these days more and more webmasters are incorporating Flash into their designs. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but if used incorrectly it can destroy your rankings. Flash has incredible benefits with site aesthetics. The possibilities for phenomenal design are endless, but it is not search friendly and really, search engines do not like Flash one bit. If you are thinking of introducing an entirely Flash based site to replace your existing one, there is only one circumstance where I would say go for it – if you don’t care about your search engine rankings. (Actually, there is also another exception here. If your site is a very high level authority site, with thousands, if not millions of inbound links, you just may be safe to do whatever you want without jeopardizing your sites rankings).
If introducing a new Flash based site is essential to your master plan, you would be best to offer users, and search engines, a non-flash version of your site.
The best middle ground between Flash developers and SEO’s is use “spot-Flash”. Incorporate pieces of Flash into the html based site. This will allow the search engines all the content they require, while leaving the aesthetics in place for your visitors. This said, your new design should not utilize Flash as the exclusive means of site navigation. In order to retain your existing rankings, you are best to retain the existing means of site navigation. In most cases your optimized site will have some form of textual based navigation. This is here for a reason. While spiders are fully capable of following image based links, as well as a number of dropdown menus, basic text links offer the most ‘bang for your buck’. Basic text links provide an easy path for spiders while also helping with relevant contextualization. The relevance of the link anchor text passes along to the destination page, and along with this, keyphrase value.
The major search engines really have no problems following links contained within images. The problem here is adding relevance to the link. Alt tags help, but the best way to link to main pages is through standard text links. The text helps add key phrase relevance to the linked page. If your current site utilizes text links, ensure that they are carried over to the new design. Even if the new site switches over to image based navigation, be sure to include the text based links somewhere on the page.
Content Management Systems
Many new sites today are utilizing CMS for ease of site updates and new content additions, but many of these systems can destroy your rankings. If you decide to make the switch to a CMS you need to ensure that changed URL’s are properly covered with 301 redirects. Where at all possible retain your existing URL paths. Many Content Management Systems create a site structure with very unfriendly URLs that contain a number of extraneous characters. Do your best to find a system that will offer clean simple URL strings with minimal extra characters. Try to find a system that will still allow you to edit all aspects of a given page. Can each page have unique title and meta tags? Can you adjust alt tags? A good search engine friendly CMS is money well spent, especially if you have existing rankings you wish to maintain.
Chances are if you are redesigning the look of your site, the majority of the content will not be changing. If this is the case ensure that all textual content makes it over to the new site, as it is most likely playing a significant role in your existing rankings. Changing up your content significantly can cause a drop in rankings if not done properly.
If your new site will contain entirely fresh textual content you will want to ensure that keyword densities and focus remain as close as possible to the old copy. Be sure to keep items such as mid-sentence (inline) text links (especially if they link to internal pages on your own site), heading tags, and keyword placement within the top portions of the new site.
If your SEO has implemented text above the header image (often referred to as Search Engine text, or SE text), be sure to keep it in place also. This text was probably placed there to ensure that the search engines saw relevant content immediately when visiting the page, and there is a strong chance this text is contributing to your positive rankings.
Meta / Title tags
Be sure to copy over your title tag, meta keyword tag, and description tag from each page to the new version. The title tag is especially important as there is still significant value placed here. You want to ensure that each page retains its old, optimized title tag.
The description meta tag is also important to carry over to the new design. The description tags do still carry some weight, and also can have an influence on the copy used in the search engine listing. Be sure not to lose these tags.
The meta keyword tag can really go either way. While these days it provides little to no value, if it is optimized and unique for each page, you may as well carry it over. It will provide some value for some of the smaller engines, but really have next to no impact on Google, Yahoo and MSN. Since you’ll be transferring the description tag over anyways, it’s all part of the same cut and paste action to transfer the keyword tag also. If you are switching the entire back end system, and copying over the keyword tag will provide you with an extensive amount of extra work, then you are most likely safe to leave it out.
For images remaining on the site be sure to keep the optimized alt tags in place. In cases where header images and image based navigation is being completely updated be sure to follow the same guide set with the alt tags in the original design. Wherever it makes sense, be sure to have the same alt tags copied over to the replacement images. These alt tags do have some value in your search engine rankings, and removing them entirely could cause a ranking decline.
If your website has rankings in the major search engines, chances are you have spent good money, time, or both on making this happen. This is not something that you want to simply throw away for a newer, fancier looking site. By incorporating the above items into your new design you will stand the best chance for retaining your existing rankings.
I do want to put an important caveat here. Redesigning your site, even when following all the rules, can still result in your site being demoted. You may still find your rankings disappear. Redesigning a ranked website is really a gamble any way you look at it. Your rankings could drop, they could skyrocket, or they could stay exactly where they are. There is no way to know for sure without moving forward.