I’m often asked to make search engine optimization recommendations during a site’s redesign process. From the clients’ points of view, they’re making a major investment and they need to safeguard their existing SEO success in addition to growing their natural, post-launch search traffic and conversions. However, so many different decisions influence SEO from the conceptual stage through launch that it is very difficult to identify a single best practice for SEO redesign.
Business decisions, technology platform decisions, navigational terminology, content creation, design choices, and coding decisions all play a role in the SEO creation of a successful site. In the earliest stages, the best that can be done is to audit the existing site’s performance (try this 60 second website audit), use its strengths and weaknesses to improve the redesign plans, and educate your team on SEO redesign best practices.
I’ve distilled the best practices into five SEO “mantras.” Repeat these mantras early and often to ensure that SEO best practices are incorporated into your site’s planning and development processes.
SEO Mantra 1: One Page, One URL
Recite this mantra when planning and testing URL and navigation structures: Each unique page of content should have a single, canonical URL.
Some testing and analytics programs append tracking parameters to URLs; and some servers aren’t canonicalized to a single protocol, TLD (top level domain), domain, subdomain, directory or file extension. If you publish a single piece of content in multiple subdomains or subdirectories, your site can suffer from several duplication sources, which can multiply to hundreds or thousands of URLs for the same page of content. The best way to stop content duplication is to ensure that it never starts at the platform and server level.
SEO Mantra 2: Crawlable Links
Links provide the ability to crawl a site, passing link popularity and keyword signals. So, a site that is not crawlable will not index by a search engine, which will produce no organic rankings, which leads to no natural search traffic or conversions.
SEO Mantra 3: Crawlable Text
HTML text on the page confirms the keyword signals provided by links to a page. Many sites rely on images, video, and other visually engaging content to communicate information to human visitors, but that content is not readable by search engine crawlers. If the only crawlable plain text on the page is the navigational header and footer, then every page will send a very similar keyword signal to crawling search engine spiders. Unique text on each page needs to be plain text, formatted as desired with CSS.
SEO Mantra 4: Unique Keyword Theme
Recite this mantra when making content and content management system decisions: Every page must send a unique keyword signal.
Every page has a unique reason to exist. The platform must have the ability to expose unique keyword signals on every page in a unique title tag, meta description and keywords, HTML headings, and permanent body copy.
Every template should be designed to contain at least an H1 heading and one sentence of permanent body copy. For very large sites, each field (except the body copy) should be automatically populated with a formula that places specified text from the database in a specified order. Each field also needs to be manually editable to enable individual optimization.
SEO Mantra 5: Almost Always Use a 301 Redirect
Any time a URL is changed, recite this mantra: Create a permanent 301 redirect.
This mantra is generally abhorred by IT teams, and surprisingly misunderstood overall. But, 301 redirects are the best tool to channel the existing link popularity from old URLs into new URLs. 301 redirects give the site a chance at holding steady and/or growing instead of starting over from scratch, and obeying this mantra is critical to a redesigned site’s SEO success.
302s only redirect, allowing link popularity to wither and legacy URL indexing to remain. 404s can only de-index, which means link popularity withers and neither humans nor bots will receive the desired page. But, 301s can redirect, pass link popularity and de-index legacy URLs.
URL changes can be as small as a single value change in a long parameter string, or as large as static keyword URLs replacing scraggly dynamic URLs. 301 redirects can be done with pattern matching if both the legacy and new URLs follow predictable patterns. If not, determine which URLs have the most link popularity to pass to the new URLs and 301 those directly, while 301-directing everything else to the major category or homepage.
Lastly, be sure to test any 301 redirects with a server header checker. As easy as it sounds in theory, many servers default to 302 redirects, and it can be easy to accidentally implement an incorrect redirect.