Editor’s note: This post continues our weekly primer in SEO, touching on all the foundational aspects. In the end, you’ll be able to practice SEO more confidently and converse about its challenges and opportunities.
Search engine optimization requires change. You can’t optimize something without changing it in some way. All change comes with a performance risk as well as a potential improvement.
This is the 11th installment in my “SEO How-to” series. Previous installments are:
- “Part 1: Why Do You Need It?”;
- “Part 2: Understanding Search Engines”;
- “Part 3: Staffing and Planning for SEO”;
- “Part 4: Keyword Research Concepts”;
- “Part 5: Keyword Research in Action”;
- “Part 6: Optimizing On-page Elements”;
- “Part 7: Mapping Keywords to Content”;
- “Part 8: Architecture and Internal Linking”;
- “Part 9: Diagnosing Crawler Issues”;
- “Part 10: Redesigns, Migrations, URL Changes.”
Risk to natural search performance usually comes in three forms: changes to content, changes to links, and changes in the underlying technology. Mitigating that risk is key to ensuring that your natural search performance continues to improve when routine creative and development changes alter the site you’re working to optimize.
Changing and Removing Content
Even something as simple as changing the words on a page could have a positive or negative impact to the natural search performance of that page. But it’s important to remember that only the performance of the page that you’re changing the words on, and possibly the performance of any pages already ranking for the same phrases targeted, will be affected.
To mitigate risk and improve the chances that your content optimization will improve performance, identify all the pages that rank for the words and phrases in the themes for which you’re planning to optimize. Then assign specific variations on the theme for each page based on the keyword research, and take care not to change to different themes when the pages are already ranking well. This shouldn’t be a difficult step. Every page should have a different variation, because every page should have a separate reason for existing — something unique to say. When you write the content, stick diligently to that theme variation.
Remember, the amount of risk you’re assuming is equal to the amount of traffic the page already receives. It is possible to “optimize” a page and completely halt all the traffic that that page received. The potential reward you’re hoping to receive is likewise represented by the amount of traffic identified as achievable in the keyword research for the targeted phrases.
… the amount of risk you’re assuming is equal to the amount of traffic the page already receives.
Mitigating risk while removing content is somewhat simpler, because you know the traffic coming in to those pages via natural search based on searches for certain keyword phrases will halt. The only upside in this instance is the ability to preserve and redirect any authority those pages might have had to strengthen another part of the site.
Always 301 redirect the URLs from pages that have been removed from your site to another relevant location on your site. Redirection is good for your SEO performance and beneficial to your shoppers, in that they will seamlessly land on a convertible page on which to continue their shopping experience.
Changing Linking Structures
Changes in navigation and other linking structures need to be handled with care. First identify how much is at stake in removing each link by identifying how many natural search visits and sales come to the linked-to page. The higher the number, the higher the risk.
Mitigating that risk is somewhat more difficult and involves discussion with user experience and creative teams. The goal is to determine whether the link needs to change or be removed for a strong business reason, and, if so, where that link can be added instead when it is removed.
For example, if a simplified header navigation is the driving goal based on UX data showing that there could be a 10 percent increase in sales based on the change, then moving a link to the footer may be an option. A change like that carries less risk because the link remains in a cross-site navigational element appearing on all pages of the site. If the footer is too full, perhaps the link could be included in a new drop-down menu in the header or footer to preserve the cleanliness of the first view of the page.
Changes in navigation and other linking structures need to be handled with care.
Think of every link that’s removed as a sagging spot in your roof. You need that roof to stay over your head, just like you need your pages to continue driving natural search traffic and sales. Use any means you have available to prop that roof up with link authority — and if you can use the opportunity to create a new peak in your roof by flowing more link authority there than before, even better.
If links must be removed from the header and footer, regardless of the impact to natural search performance, then can they be strengthened in other places? Perhaps you could create a new article on your site that educates shoppers on how to buy your products or services. Or look for related content that hasn’t been linked to your sagging pages previously.
This could be an excellent time to propose an outreach program to key influencers with blogs to request reviews or guest posts, both of which would encourage new links from their sites into your sagging pages.
In addition to content and linking changes, technical changes can introduce risk to natural search performance. As with content and linking changes, it’s important to understand exactly what the technical change will impact to identify and mitigate the risk.
Unfortunately, technology can change in so many ways and produce so many different avenues of SEO risk that it’s impossible to cover all the different possibilities in one article. Risk could come from changes in the ability for search engine bots to access the content or expansions in levels of duplicate content or any number of other interesting challenges.
The next installment will cover your technical SEO toolbox — a quick primer on the diagnostic tools and technical code elements available to SEOs, from the robots.txt file and structured data to Screaming Frog and The Wayback Machine.
Read the next installment of our “SEO How-to” series: “SEO How-to, Part 12: Your Technical Toolbox.”