When exhaustive keyword research and perfect SEO-focused content have put your website on the first page of search results, it is definitely something to be proud of. It takes a lot to achieve this, and there are always significant challenges along the way.
Holding on to your high ranking can be just as challenging.
Some site owners will see their site go from the first page of results to the second or third page and have no clue as to why it has happened. It could be caused by ignoring the latest changes to Google’s search algorithms, or perhaps there’s been a negative SEO attack. All too often, however, a sudden drop in search engine ranking is caused by a recent site redesign.
This article will present a five-step plan to help small business website owners who wish to execute a site overhaul, all the while preserving their stellar SEO ranking.
Before we jump into our action plan, we should take a moment to acknowledge the most critical factor in any site redesign—the user experience. It must be your primary focus when deciding what should change about your website.
If visitors have even the slightest difficulty using your website, they’ll navigate to one that’s easier to use. Keep your site as simple as possible and eliminate any usability problems. Creating a site that will give users a good experience is all about concentrating on what your visitors will want to see and never allowing your redesign goals to stray far from that factor.
Now, with the importance of usability at the forefront of our minds, let’s get into our plan for a website redo that will keep your hard-earned search engine ranking intact.
A 5-Step Website Redesign Action Plan
If you use these steps as a guide, you’ll be able to accomplish your website redesign without hurting your site’s SEO. It all starts with an SEO-sensitive view of your old and new content. Let’s get started!
Step 1: Map out Your Redesign
You should begin with a set of information that will serve as a critical baseline when you’re deciding on content and design changes. That information includes the following:
- A sitemap of your existing website. This will allow you to map old pages to new pages, which helps ensure that you won’t accidentally leave something important out of the new site. The easiest way to get a sitemap is by using a plugin like Yoast SEO, it will crawl your site and give you a properly formatted XML file containing all your URLs.
- SEO stats for each page of your existing site. Use a plugin like JetPack to get your site’s analytics. This will let you know which webpages boost your SEO and which ones don’t.
With this information and your new site design planned out, you can conduct a side-by-side comparison that concentrates on detecting unwanted omissions, avoiding unnecessary structural changes, and making sure that you don’t inadvertently delete a site element that’s crucial to your high search engine rankings.
A major structural change is one of the things that will ring alarm bells for Google the first time it crawls your new site. Limit such changes to those that are only absolutely necessary and will enhance the user experience, preserving as many URLs and page names as possible from the old site.
Use your SEO statistics to determine which of your webpages are responsible for a major portion of your site’s traffic and avoid making significant changes to those pages.
Even what seems like a minor rewrite could remove effective keywords. To avoid unintentionally removing elements that drive traffic to your site, know which keywords are important and ensure that your new webpages feature those keywords in page headers, titles, and meta descriptions.
If a page performs poorly, you may want to improve it as part of your redesign, or you may delete it. If you delete it, be sure to define a 301 redirect that will reroute search engines and visitors to a replacement page on the new site. We’ll discuss redirects more in Step 3.
By paying attention to what worked about your old site design and avoiding unnecessary structural changes, you can proactively optimize your new site at page level before it’s even launched!
Step 2: Stage the New Site and Test It
Fixing broken links, correcting errors, and optimizing custom code are all things that should happen before you launch your new site, not afterward.
In order to create a smooth switch-over from your old site to your new one, initially, you need to deploy your new site on a separate staging server that visitors will not have access to. This will give you the opportunity to fully test the site before going live.
You should use the sitemaps of both your new and old sites to verify that all the correct pages exist on the new site. Make sure that all your internal links—links from one of your pages to another—are working correctly. This is especially important because search engines use your site’s internal links to understand its hierarchy and evaluate the individual pages.
If your redesign results in the changing of any URLs, verify that all internal links have been updated. You can use Google Webmaster Tools or any available link-checking plugin to validate your internal links.
You should also check your new website with a tool that will assess whether it’s mobile-friendly or not. Normally, design changes cause unexpected differences in how the site appears on mobile devices. Pre-launch is the time to catch and resolve such problems.
Use a tool like GTmetrix to identify areas that need to be optimized.
While you’re busy with all that testing, your old site will still be active, not only to continue serving visitors, but as a valuable reference when you’re making sure that the new site has all the intended pages and functionalities.
The easiest approach is to work with your hosting provider to get access to a server that’s separate from your current one. Then, you’ll simply move a copy of your old site to that server, make the planned changes, and begin testing. As you prepare the new site, you’ll have access via a temporary URL, but you should keep it isolated from the internet so that search engines don’t prematurely crawl it.
This is a good time to create a go-live checklist so that you have a record of any changes that can only be done after you activate the new site.
Step 3: Define Redirects so Your Old Links Point to New Pages
Even if you minimize structural changes, you’re bound to have at least a couple of new and changed URLs as part of your redesign.
To have achieved your excellent ranking in search results, you will most likely already have plenty of high-quality backlinks, some of which you’ve placed yourself on your social media profiles, for example. Getting those links updated on the day you launch your new site will be very important.
If you get an SEO boost from a certain page and that page’s URL has changed as part of your site redesign, you’ll lose that boost when links to that page result in a 404 error.
There will also be some backlinks that you won’t be able to change. To avoid having visitors and search engines hit an error page, you need to redirect all URLs from the old site to working URLs on the new site.
Defining 301 redirects doesn’t just keep users from seeing an error, it’s the perfect way to explicitly let search engines know that the URL of a given webpage has been changed. Rather than losing SEO and having to climb your way back to a high ranking, your new page will gain all the SEO power of the page you’re redirecting from.
Compare a sitemap of your old site to one of your new site. For every URL that’s going to change or disappear, map out a 301 redirect. Keep records of all the redirects that need to be created so you don’t miss any. You’ll have a list to test after the new site goes live.
Step 4: Go Live and Conduct an Audit
When it’s time to launch, you’ll probably either modify your domain details so that your staging server becomes the web server for your active site, or you’ll copy your new site to your current web server.
Regardless of how you go live with your new site, you should try to do it at a time when you receive very few visitors. If something is broken, you’ll be able to fix it before anyone notices the problem. Right after launching, you should take the time to run through tests and ensure that everything is working properly.
Here are the main things you should verify in your post-launch audit:
- The new pages load properly and appear as intended.
- All internal links are working correctly.
- The 301 redirects are functioning as desired.
- All custom code and database connections are set up correctly.
- You’ve preserved SEO-critical page elements, ensuring that important keywords are included in page headers, titles, and meta descriptions.
A great time to rerun your performance test is right after launching your site. With the switch-over from your staging server, there could be hosting factors that give you different results from those that you saw on the staging website.
You can also employ a full-featured site audit tool like DeepCrawl, for example, that will help you discover and fix any technical issues that could negatively impact your new site’s SEO.
Once you’re satisfied that your new site is running flawlessly, you should proactively let Google know that it needs to be crawled.
Step 5: Submit Your Sitemap to Google
Unless you disable automated site-crawling, Google and other search engines will find and crawl your new site.
This will usually happen in a matter of days, but why wait?!
It’s very easy to submit your sitemap directly to Google so that your new website gets reindexed immediately.
After you make major changes, a search engine may temporarily lower your ranking in search results because it has not had a chance to reevaluate your site. Significant modifications to your site’s content or structure have the potential to change the SEO value of your pages, so search engines must reassess them in order to properly assign a new ranking.
Be sure you generate a sitemap that includes your entire collection of destination URLs and that every URL navigates to the right page, with no 404 errors. Even if you check all your links on the staging server and after launching your site, you should use your new sitemap as a tool to validate your links one last time.
Name your sitemap XML file “sitemap.xml”, and add it to your webserver’s root directory. Then, submitting the sitemap to Google is easy.
- Navigate to your Google Search Console home page.
- Select Sitemaps from the menu.
- Enter sitemap.xml in the text field at the end of your domain.
- Click Submit.
This will instruct Google to reevaluate your site, giving the search engine a detailed map of all your content so that your ranking will be based on an accurate picture of your new site’s pages.
A Website Overhaul with No Dip in Traffic
After your launch is complete, it will be time to put the SEO stats from your old site to use as a benchmark. By comparing the old site to the new site with a focus on the performance of each individual page, you may discover some critical SEO elements that were overlooked during the redesign.
Now that you know about the most important factors in maintaining your search engine rankings after a site redesign, we’re certain that you can achieve your website overhaul with no unforeseen SEO issues.
Success comes down to just a few manageable factors.
If you plan your redesign with your user’s experience in mind and focus on the core purpose of your site, it will delight visitors. If you identify and preserve SEO-critical page elements; ensure every link, internal and external, is valid; carefully test your new site; and submit your sitemap to Google, you won’t miss a beat when it comes to website traffic.
Plan ahead and follow the steps outlined in this action plan—accomplishing a website overhaul without hurting your SEO will be easy!
Have you ever redesigned your site to find you’ve lost your place in search engine rankings?