This is the sixth installment of my “SEO 201″ series, following:
- “Part 1: Technical Rules”;
- “Part 2: Crawling and Indexing Barriers”;
- “Part 3: Enabling Search-engine Spiders”;
- “Part 4: Architecture Is Key”;
- “Part 5: Evaluating Ecommerce Platforms.”
Site redesigns and migrations to new platforms always change search-engine performance. Whether the change is positive or negative depends on how deeply integrated search engine optimization has been throughout the site design and development process.
Marketing teams tend to focus most heavily on the look and feel of the site during the redesign process. As a result, SEO tends to be an add-on project at the end or after the site has launched, and tends to focus on keywords and title tags. This kind of content optimization is important, no doubt, but the impact of a redesign on SEO performance goes far beyond.
Redesigns, especially when coupled with platform changes, change everything from URLs and templates to the links in navigation and the amount and type of text on each page. All of these changes have an impact on SEO performance, and most of them happen at the platform and information architecture stages of the project.
For example, let’s pretend that Zappos decided to redesign its site. Here’s how the home page looks today.
Listed below are hypothetical changes that Zappos could make to its home page, with an explanation of how those changes could affect SEO.
- Convert header navigation to images in order to use a unique font. The anchor text of a link sends a relevance signal to the page being linked to. Changing that text to images would impact SEO performance for the main landing pages being linked to.
- Change an article on how to determine your shoe size needs to an interactive feature. The amount of text would likely shrink and the wording would change. Some of the text would be embedded within a video or Flash piece, making it unavailable for search engines to index. All of these changes would alter and likely weaken the keyword theme of the page, which would weaken the page’s ability to rank and drive customers.
- Change “Sneakers & Athletic Shoes” link in the left navigation to read, simply, “Athletic Shoes.” The platform would probably change the main landing page URL from http://www.zappos.com/mens-sneakers-athletic-shoes~dA to http://www.zappos.com/mens-athletic-shoes~dA, and would also impact every URL in that category. That would impact SEO performance for every page in the category. It would also weaken the category page’s ability to rank for the keyword “sneakers,” for which it currently ranks 2 in Google.
- Merge the “Girl’s Clothing” and “Boy’s Clothing” categories into a single “Kids’ Clothing” category. Every URL in those two categories would change, impacting SEO performance for every page in those categories. Removing the higher-level gender category pages would also weaken the category page’s ability to rank for “girls clothing” and boys clothing” keywords.
- Change ecommerce platforms. Every technical, architectural and content aspect of SEO would likely change. New templates, new content, new URLs, new navigation, new server settings for things like error pages and redirects, and many other decisions seemingly unrelated to SEO.
The first step in any of these projects would be identifying the level of risk it has to your SEO performance. When resources and timelines are tight, risk analysis can help you prioritize the value of SEO against other business needs. I’ve addressed this previously, at “SEO: Identifying the Impact of a Site Redesign.”
Redesigns Sometimes Necessary
Regardless of the risks, redesigns and platform migrations are sometimes necessary to solve other business issues. Redesigns and migrations can also be used to bake SEO into the core of the site, leapfrogging your SEO performance to new levels. Read “How SEO Integrates into Site Design” for some pointers on integrating SEO more deeply.
One of the most important aspects of a site redesign is the 301 redirect strategy. Nailing 301 redirect implementation when the new site launches transfers as much of your search trust and authority as possible to the pages on the new site and protect your SEO performance. For an in-depth primer on 301 redirects, see “For Redesigns, Protect SEO with 301 Redirect Strategy” and “SEO: How to Create a 301 Redirect Map, for Site Redesigns.”
If you’re considering taking skipping a 301 redirect strategy because development resources are too tight to write the 301 redirects, read “SEO Traffic Changes When URLs Change” for examples of sites that launched with and without a 301 redirect strategy. The pattern of SEO success and failure at launch based on the presence of 301 redirects has proven true time after time.
For the next installment of our “SEO 201″ series, see “Part 7: Using Structured Data.”