UPDATE – 2020: While this article was originally published back in 2007, it has been updated in 2020 to more accurately reflect todays SEO landscape. Some topics have been removed or changed from the original version.
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 301 redirects are not a failsafe guaranteed to maintain rankings. Typically when we see sites redesigned and URLs change, rankings are maintained these days, when 301 redirects are properly used, but that does not mean that you should just change URL’s without careful consideration.
It is usually in your best interest to keep all URL’s the same although if changing to a CMS crossing platforms, sometimes URL changes are inevitable.
Advanced sites are another story all together. If your current site has numerous URL strings loaded with extraneous characters, bizarre paths, session ids, etc. you may want to consider changing your URLs to more search friendly versions. During a redesign may be the best time to make this change.
For example, www.domain.com/product/model/color is much more valuable than
While Long URL’s like this can easily be processed by the search engines, indexed, and ranked, cleaning them up offers a better chance of rankings and a cleaner impression to your site user.
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 comes with significant risk. Except in extreme circumstances, we do not recommend this change.
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 existing rankings.
Your main site navigation should be text driving. Use of “hamburger” menus are very common for mobile sites and can be used. These are typically search friendly as well and should not present any problems.
Content Management Systems
Most new websites these days utilize a Content Management System. While there are many systems out there to choose from, the most popular these days is WordPress. WordPress is inherently search engine friendly as are many other platforms.
Assuming your new site will utilize a CMS, be sure that the CMS is fully search friendly. While most are, some are not, so it is best to do a little research before settling down on a system.
Another key to choosing a CMS is knowing if it is flexible and search friendly. Ask if the system can allow for custom code, custom title and meta descriptions, image alt attributes, page layouts, structured data, and more. Again, most systems are a safe bet these days, but not all are.
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 maintain items such as inline text links, heading tags, and images throughout your site.
When designing a new website is also a great time to assess new content opportunities. Having an authority building plan is a great way to discovering content opportunities.
Title Tags & Meta Descriptions
Be sure to copy over your title and description tags from each page to the new versions of those pages. 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 not carry direct value in rankings but can have an influence on the copy used in the search engine listing. Be sure not to lose these tags.
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.