Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part series on identifying, assessing, and mitigating the risk of site redesigns on organic search traffic. Part one, “SEO: Identifying the Impact of a Site Redesign,” we published last week.
Launching a redesigned site is filled with potentially high risks and rewards for organic search traffic. Regardless of whether the risks outweigh the rewards in the end, the weeks following a redesign typically produce unstable organic search traffic patterns and may include some nail-biting days. In “SEO: Identifying the Impact of a Site Redesign,” part one of this two-part series, I discussed how to predict which areas of the site were most likely to be impacted in the redesign.
In this second installment, I will focus on how to identify the scale of the risk to organic search traffic as well as how to create a plan to mitigate that risk.
Organic Search Risk and Reward
The scale of the potential risks and rewards depends on the areas of the site impacted, and the organic search traffic that those areas drive today. Some changes, like merging two pages of content in the customer service section, will have very isolated impact to only those pages. Others, however, like navigation and template changes will have far-reaching impacts because one change affects many pages across the site.
For example, let’s say that the header navigation of a men’s clothing site includes links to third-level subcategory pages like this: Home page > Clothing > Sweaters > Cardigans. In the redesigned navigation, the third level subcategories are being removed so that “Cardigans” and any other product subcategories at that level will no longer receive site-wide navigational links. The only pages that will link to “Cardigans” now are other pages in the “Sweaters” subcategory.
As a result, instead of every page in the site linking to “Cardigans” and similar other pages at that third subcategory level, each will receive only a handful of links from its related subcategory pages. This, in turn, reduces the amount of link popularity and authority passed to those third level subcategory pages and pushes them a step lower in the virtual hierarchy of the site, reducing their ability to rank and drive organic search traffic.
Calculating the Risk
This cardigan example identifies a risk. But how large is that risk? The site’s analytics will answer the question for us. For easier manipulation, download the analytics report that shows monthly organic search visits by landing page. Next we tally up the visits, orders and revenue for every third level subcategory URL — not just “Cardigans” but all pages that that level such as “Sweater Vests,” “Business Shirts,” “Flannel Shirts,” “Linen Pants.”
If the combined traffic driven by the third level subcategories is a small percentage of the overall organic search traffic, the risk of this navigational redesign to the SEO program is small and vice versa. Make sure to identify the orders and revenue risk as well. It’s very possible that a portion of pages could drive low traffic but high conversion rate or vice versa.
Because we can’t know ahead of time the extent of the impact, assume the worst-case scenario: a 100 percent loss of that portion of traffic. Let’s say that these third level subcategories drive 20 percent of the site’s organic search traffic, and we’re assuming 100 percent loss of that traffic.
The questions we need to ask are, “Can the business afford to lose 20 percent of its organic search traffic? Does the benefit of this navigational change outweigh the impact to organic search traffic?” The answer may very well be yes, but the decision needs to be made with the data to back it up before the redesign launches.
In other cases, the redesign may affect keyword usage. For example, let’s say that a site has made the brand decision to use the word “apparel” across its site and to remove the word “clothing.” The risk to the site’s organic search traffic in this case can be found by downloading the monthly organic search visits by keyword. Simply tally up the visits, orders and revenue for keywords based on “clothing” to identify which traffic is at risk of being lost.
Depending on the site’s niche, the keyword change may actually be a positive one. To identify the potential upside or downside in demand for search phrases, conduct keyword research at the Google Keyword Tool. I addressed this previously, at “Optimizing a Page for Search Engines, Part 1: Keyword Research,” where I explained how to conduct keyword research.
Mitigating Organic Search Risk
Understanding which areas of the site are most likely to be impacted by a redesign is the first step in creating the plan to mitigate the risk to organic search traffic. Each of the high-value at-risk areas needs a separate plan. But if URLs are changing across the site, a comprehensive plan of 301 redirects will also need to be created.
Starting with the high-risk areas, let’s create a plan for the Cardigans example above that represented a potential 20 percent loss in organic search traffic. In the grand scheme of things, let’s say that the business receives 50 percent of its overall traffic from organic search, which means that a 20 percent loss in organic search would mean a 10 percent loss in the site’s overall traffic. Let’s also say that orders and revenue are roughly on par with those figures. So we’re talking about a 10 percent loss in revenue, as well as a worst-case prediction. There are two options: go ahead with the planned redesign or re-insert the third level subcategory in the site-wide template somewhere. Let’s say that executive management understands the risks and decides to move forward with the redesigned navigation, but we need to put a contingency plan in place to limit the impact to a 5 percent loss of overall site traffic.
The first step is measuring the true impact at launch. We’ll want to monitor overall impact to the organic search traffic and sales post-launch, but we also need to monitor the impact specifically to the at-risk areas so we know when to recommend acting on the contingency plan. Our plan may look like this: “As of one week after the launch date, if the organic search traffic to the third level subcategory pages decreases more than 10 percent and stays at that level for three days in a row, strongly consider re-inserting the third level subcategory pages in the header navigation. If the trend persists for 10 days, immediately re-insert the third level subcategory pages in the header navigation.” The details of how many days to wait and the threshold of change for reverting back to the previous design will vary by the business’s comfort with risk.
301 Redirect Plans
In addition to high-risk areas, URLs that will change or be deleted will need to be 301 redirected to the new URL at launch to harvest their link equity and ensure that customers land on the correct pages.
For SEO, the 301 redirect is critically important in the redesign process because only the 301 permanent redirect accomplishes all three of these goals:
- Redirect the customer;
- Pass link popularity and authority to the new URL;
- Prompt the search engines to de-index the old URL.
By contrast, a 302 temporary redirect only redirects the customer; it does not pass link popularity or prompt de-indexation. Because the launch of a redesign tends to introduce so many brand new URLs with no link popularity or authority, the 301 redirects are critical to passing the link popularity and authority to the new URLs so that they can have the best chance to start life off at a run.
But which URLs to redirect, and where to redirect them? To understand which URLs need redirects we return to the crawl of the production site discussed in part one. Every URL in the crawl of the production site either needs to be crawlable in the redesigned site as well, or needs to be 301 redirected.
In the example above six URLs are staying exactly the same in the redesign, meaning that they are crawlable in both the current production version of the site and the staging version of the redesigned site. One page, marked “DELETED,” was crawlable on production but was not found on staging. That page has been removed and needs to be 301 redirected to the page with the most relevant content on it. In this case it makes sense for the “Cosby Sweaters” page to 301 redirect to its parent subcategory of “Sweaters.” Lastly, one page has been moved to a new URL. The page’s contents are still the same, but the business decided to offer a selection of “Golf” items under its own subcategory, so the “Golf Pants” page was moved from “Pants” to “Golf.” The categorization change caused a URL change as well, so the old “Golf Pants” URL needs to be 301 redirected to the new one.
In reality a 301 redirect plan for a large ecommerce site can be hundreds of rows long. Because each 301 redirect takes a certain amount of time and server resources to execute, the goal on the developers’ side will be to accomplish the 301 redirects with pattern matching. For example, consider the example above in which every mention of the word “clothing” was changed to “apparel.” This change will likely need to be made in the URLs as well, which means redirecting a large portion of the category URLs on the site. Redirecting each individual URL leaves more room for error as well as taking up valuable server resources. The developers will instead want to write pattern-matching redirects that 301 redirect any URI that begins with http://www.domain.com/clothing/ to the same URI at http://www.domain.com/apparel/ as in the example below.
For marketers, it’s less important to know the details of how 301 redirects are written than to know that pattern matching exists and is just fine for SEO needs. However the developers need to write the 301 redirects is fine for SEO, as long as they are truly 301 redirects and not some other redirect type.
The assistance that’s most valuable from the SEO side in the 301 redirect plan is the recommendation of which URLs to 301 redirect and where to redirect those URLs. If in the process we can also notice some patterns that the developers can capitalize on in writing their redirects, such as “this group of URLs just needs to swap the /clothing/ category with the /apparel/ category.” Providing that type of insight, gained by analyzing the crawl reports for the production and staging sites, makes it a little easier for the developers to squeeze the mundane task of writing 301 redirects in with the other demands of preparing for the launch of the redesign.
Closely Measure Afterwards
Last, but not least, be prepared to spend the weeks after the redesign launches tied to the site’s analytics to measure the impact of the redesign on the site’s organic search traffic and sales. Instability in traffic is typical for a short time after launch, but any prolonged downward trend should be cause for concern. Make sure to isolate where the changes are occurring: one type of keywords, one group of URLs, one search engine, and so forth. Look in the areas flagged as high risk first, and investigate more deeply from there.