Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series on identifying, assessing, and mitigating the risk of site redesigns on organic search traffic. Part two, “Launching a Redesigned Site,” we will publish next week.
Site redesigns can create a period of intense instability for organic search traffic. Predicting which areas of the site will be most vulnerable to that instability and creating a search-engine-optimization launch strategy to mitigate the risk in those areas decreases both the length and the intensity of the disruption to organic search traffic.
Why Redesigns Cause Organic Search Instability
When a site redesigns, a number of elements that search engines use to determine the relevance and authority of the pages on a site tend to change. URLs typically change as pages are added and deleted, content is merged or split into new pages. The URLs that existed previously had some amount of authority and link popularity associated with them. When the URLs change, how that change is handled matters a great deal to the search engines, and thus to the organic search traffic the pages will drive after the redesign goes live.
Navigation is another major disruptor when a redesigned site launches. In addition to the URL changes that tend to accompany navigational changes, the flow of link juice throughout the site can be dramatically altered by just a few changes to the links included in the navigation. Categories may be merged together or split apart. Links to subcategory pages may be added or removed based on design constraints. Navigational labels may change so that the anchor text for the navigational links is different, sending different keyword signals across the site post-launch.
Keep in mind that not all navigation is found in the header and footer. Cross-linking features like tagging and related products also serve as navigation. Be sure to analyze changes to these features as well.
Finally, content that was plain text might be reworked into a less indexable format like images or video. Text is a dying component in modern web design, much to the detriment of organic search traffic. Designers and brands prefer the clean look of image-based content where fonts and other design elements can be controlled more easily. Unfortunately, without space in the template for a couple of lines of plain textual content, many sites risk becoming nearly mute in the redesign process, unable to send strong keyword relevance signals.
All of these changes, very common in site redesigns, send extremely disruptive signals to the search engine. The marketing and development teams have been planning the redesign for months, but literally overnight Googlebot and Bingbot are surprised with an entirely new site without any advanced warning. Helping the bots understand the changes quickly is the secret to mitigating the risk to the site’s organic search traffic.
Identifying Critical Areas of Change
Before the SEO launch strategy can be defined, the areas that will be most affected need to be identified. The areas that typically represent the largest degree of change are URLs, navigation and templates, for the reasons mentioned above. SEO should be part of the process from the start to ensure that design and development decisions are compatible with what organic search needs to flourish as well. SEO may not have much input on the front end, but being immersed in the design and development decisions makes identifying the SEO-critical changes far easier when it’s time to create the launch strategy.
Identifying SEO-critical changes is easiest when the redesigned site is in a staging or development environment. Then the existing site in production can be crawled and compared to a crawl of the staging or dev environment, and the differences in URLs immediately illuminates changes in the site’s structure. I addressed the issues involved with crawling a site, in “8 SEO Reasons to Crawl Your Clients’ Sites.” URLs that aren’t present in the crawl of the staging or dev server have either been deleted or may not be crawlable on the redesigned site. These URLs will obviously need a plan so that their link popularity and customer traffic are transferred to the correct place in the redesigned site.
URLs that have not changed between the live site and the staging or dev server might still experience template or navigational changes, but at least their link popularity and customer traffic aren’t in danger of being completely severed by URL changes. Matching the URLs to the pages observed in the browser allows these URLs to be analyzed for template or navigational changes. For large sites, template and navigation changes tend to affect sections of pages. Analyzing a couple of pages in each section, say a subcategory or content area, should be sufficient when it’s not possible to analyze every page on the site.
What to Ask Designers and Developers
Depending on the launch timeline there may not be enough time between staging and launch to form and execute an SEO launch strategy. If this is the case, the wireframes and mock-ups of the redesign’s templates coupled with discussion with the designers and the developers about the URLs, navigation and templates will have to suffice.
Compare the details of what will be in the new header navigation with how the existing live header navigation is designed and coded. Any changes to the pages that are and are not accessible in the navigation represents a change to the flow of link popularity and a potential change to the organic search traffic those pages can drive.
The header navigation is a great place to start, but make sure to do the same with the footer navigation, any right- or left-hand navigation, and other cross-linking elements like related products.
Remember to ask this question frequently in regards to each template, “Will this URL be exactly the same, every single character?”
URL Changes in Redesigns
URLs tend to be the trickiest things to discuss without seeing them on staging. Even a change in the case of a single letter in a URL that otherwise remains exactly the same is a different URL. Search engines are that picky. The reason is that some servers would regard even that small case change as an entirely different URL capable of hosting different content than its otherwise identical brother URL. And because it’s possible to display different content on those URLs, the search engines index them as unique URLs. Which means that they need to be accounted for in the SEO launch plan.
Crawling the live site is still a great place to start, even if the staging or dev site cannot be crawled. Identifying the sections that the URLs belong to can help start the conversation with the developers. For ecommerce sites, URLs typically represent category pages, subcategories, products, customer service pages, reviews, blog or content pages, and perhaps a few other sections. These different URL types also typically correspond to different template types. Knowing the details of URL and template types across the site helps ease the conversation between SEO, design and development.
Frankly, URL changes are sometimes not planned. Platforms tend to spew out URLs that were not intended as byproducts of the way they’re designed. Consequently, a discussion about which URLs will be available on the redesigned site should be treated as the ideal case as opposed to hard reality. If the redesigned site can’t be crawled in staging or production, get as much information as you can on the planned URL changes for the SEO launch plan. But plan to crawl the redesigned site when it launches to identify the reality of the URLs that have just launched and devise any stopgap tactics to address changes that weren’t planned.
Stay tuned for part two, “Creating a Launch Strategy,” which will explain how to analyze the organic search traffic impact of the redesign analysis and how to create a strategy that will mitigate the SEO risks of launching a redesign.
To read more about SEO and redesigns, see “Five SEO Mantras for Website Redesign,” my previous article on that topic. It was written three years ago, but like all good mantras its information still holds true today.
See part two: “SEO: Launching a Redesigned Site.”