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Businesses change over time. The one you started often isn’t the one you’re running years later. It’s common to update a website to showcase services, products and case studies as the business’s target markets and offerings shift.
However, launching a new website or changing content on the site without the input of a search engine marketing company can lead to some unintended consequences.
Website redesigns can affect SEO due to:
- Changing content like text, images, links, or removal of entire pages
- Changing the structure of your website such as moving content categories under different areas of the site
- Adding lots of poorly optimized images, video and animations that slow down the browsing experience
- Changing the URLs of your content which causes them to get recached as new pages and breaks incoming links
- Failure to keep the same page titles and meta descriptions
Before you start redesigning your site, understand the difference between design and content
It’s important to note how design updates affect the content on your site. Some design changes will have little impact on your traffic. If you change the site background from red to orange, expect little change. However, if you decide to remove all your H1 tags on your pages, you may see your search rankings slide.
There is even an overlap with images. For example you may be replacing all your stock photos with new illustrations. Visually, we’re seeing a design difference. But “under the hood” in the code, you need to make sure that the title of the image and the alt tag of the image stays the same as this is important content for search engines.
Common issues affecting search after a website redesign
Here are some major common issues that can affect your search traffic after relaunching your site.
Reducing the amount of text on a page
One way you can kill your search rankings is if you reduce the content drastically on a webpage. For example if you go from a page that has 1,600 words of content to a web page that has 300 words, you will likely lose search rankings in Google and other search engines. This is because the search engines rely on that text to tell them what your web page is about. If you do this to your key, traffic driving pages or enough of your web pages on your site you will see a noticeable drop in your search traffic.
Identify key pages, proceed with caution
When making edits to your website’s content you should keep in mind which pages are driving traffic to your site and prioritize these. Make sure you carefully edit the content as needed. Use a scalpel, not a cleaver.
However, if a page is not sending traffic to your site and it has 1,600 words of text, by all means you should edit this page in order to get Google or other search engines to care about it. Consider consolidating content from poor performing pages to create a cohesive “bigger” post that answers more questions around a topic.
Alternatives to completely removing content
I’ve seen this on some sites when they relaunch their website and are re-targeting their service offerings. They will completely remove entire pages of content. Sometimes, hundreds of pages. This usually happens when a sales team has influence over marketing or when leadership is tired of providing a service that they think is not bringing in a enough revenue. If you remove pages that drive traffic to your site, you’re going to decrease your visits.
Understand how people use your site before cutting content
It’s important to understand how people use your website before making changes. Here’s an example from a past client. I worked with a company that wanted to focus more on high-end audio visual sales. They had a very popular product on their site that they wanted to get rid of. It was for easel rentals, literally pads of paper on stands that would be used during meetings or event conferences. Their sales team decided to remove the easel rentals from their website along with hundreds of other products that they thought were two low-end and we’re not leading to these bigger sales. What do you think happened?
They lost visits and sales for these products, but they also lost bigger sales opportunities. Why? Because they couldn’t upsell this traffic. They couldn’t educate these visitors on their higher level services. If a meeting planner who wanted a $50 easel rental gets educated on the company’s nationwide coverage and bigger services, they may work with the company for those bigger services.
Cross-sell, don’t cut
If you have something that is bringing in traffic that is related to your services and products, it’s best to cross-sell on that page versus completely removing the page. For example on this easel rental page, if they wanted to push people away from paper easels, they could show large-format touch screens. They could show iPads a variety of other devices that solve a similar presentation need.
Changing your important search engine elements
Sometimes a developer will clone content from the site perfectly. Other times, they will forget to carry over the important things. Here’s a short list of items you must copy perfectly:
- Meta title
- Linking within content (most notably, the internal links to your other pages)
- Other headers (H2, H3 most importantly)
- Image titles and alt tags
- Meta description
Change URLs only when absolutely necessary
Another way redesigning or changing your website can affect your search rankings is by changing the URLs. The URL of your web pages is extremely important. This is what Google will cache in a search engine results page. It’s also what contains your internal and inbound link signals.
Let’s take a look at a very common example of a link change during a website redesign:
All we did here was change the “services” category to “our-services.” Not a big deal, right? Wrong! By doing this we just created all these issues:
- Any links pointing to the previous URL are now broken. This means if we had lots of positive inbound links going to that page, they no longer help rank that page or the site. It also means our internal navigation to that page is broken.
- Google is now ranking both results in search. Even though there is just one page of content on our site, that old URL is cached in Google’s results. Most likely, people will click that old result and get a 404 page.
- That page is going to have to get recrawled, cached and signals will have to build up from scratch.
The importance of 301 redirects
In order to prevent all those bad things from happening, we need to use a 301 redirect to point the old URL to the new URL. If you’re on WordPress, a plugin like Redirection is suggested. You can also modify your redirects in your .htaccess file but this is something an experienced developer should handle for you.
When you change your URLs you break any internal links or external links pointing to that URL. This is really bad because if you have good links pointing to a page, those links will no longer increase the ranking potential of this page or your site. Broken links are a major reason for ranking drops during site launches. It is extremely important to work with someone who is knowledgeable about search engine optimization and not just a web development company or designer. Not all designers and developers think about search engine optimization.
Improper migration off a development site
Another reason you may see ranking drops and traffic drops after launching a new website is because the developer did not fully migrate your site off the development server. Most development sites will have the following in place:
- A robots.txt file that blocks all search bots
- Development domain or subdomain (mysite-dev.com or dev.mysite.com for example)
Failure to update the robots.txt file
Sometimes a site will launch without updating the robots.txt file. This prevents your site from being crawled and all pages will drop out of search results. This obviously kills your traffic.
Sometimes a developer will apply the “no-index” tag directly to the <head> section of the site. In this case, this needs to be removed from all pages that you want ranking in search.
This is most common with images and direct linking internally. All links with the development site’s URL should be updated to the live site’s URL. If you’re on WordPress you can use a find and replace plugin or do a SQL query in your database.
Here’s an example of a possible development server subdomain.
Development site: http://dev.mysite.com/services/
Live site: http://www.mysite.com/services/
Here’s an example of a development server using a totally different domain.
Development site: http://www.mysite-devserver.com/services/
Live site: http://www.mysite.com/services/
Leaving the development site up after launch
Sometimes a developer will leave the development site up after launch. This causes a few major issues.
First, if the development site is direct linking to the live site, you will have a ton of links pointing to the live site that look spammy.
Second, you may be linking back to the development site from your live site. Doing this causes search bots to crawl your live site then crawl your development site. This caches the development site in search which makes it look like your site is a complete clone of another site. Use a tool like Screaming Frog to crawl your site and identify these issues.
I hope this has helped you think more carefully about your site migration or redesign. If you have questions please ask us we are also happy to help consult with you on your website changes.