Performing a complete website redesign is a lot of work and a daunting process. Whether you want to keep your existing rankings and targeted search engine traffic, or you are using your redesign process to get started on a new SEO campaign, there are a number of best practices to keep in mind.
The situation: changing URLs / navigation / site architecture
Very often during a website redesign, the backend platform and/or content management system (CMS) will be changing. When that happens, it often means that every page of the website will have a new URL. For instance, if you change from a .asp platform to a .php platform, your URLs will now end in .php instead of .asp which in SEO terms means that the search engines will have completely new URLs to index and all the old URLs that are indexed will no longer be valid.
Even if your URLs don’t change, very often a new navigation scheme and/or site architecture is a necessary part of your redesign. This is generally a good thing, as it can enable you to bring important pages a level higher within the website’s hierarchy, but it too can end up causing your URLs to change.
How to manage it
There are a number of ways to manage this situation and minimize the potential loss of search engine traffic that can arise from it. Which method you choose will depend on your situation as well as your team’s technical knowledge, skills and availability.
If it’s just URL extensions that are changing (like in the example above), very often you can keep the same basic page/file name that your old system was using, and continue to use it within your new system, then set up a permanent 301-redirect on your server from any existing .asp page to go to its equivalent .php page. The key is advance planning, so that your new system can be set up this way from the start.
If your new page URLs must be completely different than your old URLs due to your new backend platform, you could redirect each URL manually to its most equivalent new counterpart. This is doable for say 20-50 URLs, but could get quite tedious for more than that, so it’s always best to try to automate it as much as possible.
If you absolutely can’t 301-redirect all of the old URLs to their new counterparts, then at least manually redirect all the top level pages. That is, the pages which were previously in your main navigation. While not ideal, you’ll probably have to rely on a custom 404-not-found page to capture those people who find your site via old URLs. This is definitely not the preferred option, but it’s better than nothing. Be sure to have a sitemap and search box on the 404 page so that people can at least attempt to find what they were originally looking for.
The situation: adding flash
When updating a website, designers often wish to use some Flash elements to provide a snappy new look. While Flash is not the evil entity that some SEOs will have you believe, there are things you have to keep in mind when implementing it on your new website.
How to manage it
Whatever you do, don’t make the entire website one giant Flash presentation. Even though Google has made great strides in being able to supposedly index the information in Flash, it’s not something you want to count on if you’re serious about your search engine traffic. If for some crazy reason you have to have an all Flash website, be sure to provide alternate content for those who don’t have Flash installed (e.g. iPhones and other mobile devices). This will provide the search engines with indexable content as well.
It’s perfectly fine to use Flash at the top of your page or elsewhere as an accent to spruce it up. However, avoid having your navigation contained in the Flash as it could cause the rest of your pages to not be spidered and indexed by the search engines. Also avoid putting important content that describes your site or business within the Flash. The same thing goes for headlines – be sure they are contained in traditional HTML as they typically contain useful, descriptive content that will help the search engines know how to classify your website.
The situation: adding/changing content and tags
If your old site was never optimized for search engine users, then your redesign provides you with the perfect opportunity to perform a full-out on-page SEO campaign including adding keyword-rich copy and tags. But, if you already had a fully optimized website, you’ll need to tread carefully when adding or rewriting your content so as to not lose existing rankings.
How to manage it
Do not simply wipe out all your old optimized content in favor of something else. Unfortunately, this happens more often than you can imagine, and it’s not until the search engine traffic has come to a halt that anyone realizes what happened. If your existing content worked well to bring search engine visitors and convert them into customers, then why change it? It’s fine to test a variety of content via a tool such as Google’s Website Optimizer, but don’t just blindly throw away something that works for something untested.
Along the same lines, be sure to keep previously optimized Title tags intact on each page (or on each page’s new counterpart). As with the content, sometimes it’s not noticed until the website has gone live that the new CMS doesn’t allow for customized Title tags. This function should be non-negotiable with your developers. It’s imperative to have complete control of your Title tags as necessary. You can dynamically generate them as well, but sometimes you need a customized Title tag for best results.
Get it right the first time
These situations are just a few of many you may face as you gear up for your website redesign. Even if you’re not in the market for a full-blown SEO campaign, consulting with an experienced SEO at this stage of the game rather than waiting until your design is complete, could save you quite a lot of money in the long run. They can review your keyword research or provide you with additional research, help you outline your new site architecture and help you rewrite your content and tags so that they keep your existing rankings alive, while providing more conversions.
Jill Whalen, CEO and founder of High Rankings, a search marketing firm outside of Boston, and co-founder of SEMNE, a New England search marketing networking organization, has been performing SEO since 1995. Jill is the host of the High Rankings Advisor search engine marketing newsletter. The 100% Organic column appears Thursdays at Search Engine Land.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.