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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

An example of an H1 and H2 tag. The H2 is larger than the H1 in this example. Most designers will use the H1 because it is larger, in reality it should be used for the most important terms of the page.

Most website designers and editors will use the H1 tag to style text to be larger than other text on the page. For SEO purposes, the H1 tag should be the tag that “summarizes” your page content. It’s an important ranking factor and shouldn’t be used just to style text. In this example, the H1 and H2 tags have been used for SEO and not styling. The H2 has been styled using CSS to be larger than the H1 because the H1 tag carries the “money terms” for this web page. This illustrates how design is separate from content and SEO.

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
  • H1
  • 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:

Previous URL:


New URL:


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.

More on those broken links…

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.

Leaving “no-index” tags in

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.

Leaving development links in the new site

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.

Sub-domain example

Here’s an example of a possible development server subdomain.

Development site: http://dev.mysite.com/services/

Live site: http://www.mysite.com/services/


Domain example

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.

Video Transcript

Graham: Hey everyone. This is Graham at GainTap. What I’m going to be doing today is illustrating what can go wrong when a website design is done without taking into consideration the SEO, the Search Engine Optimization of that site.

I’m familiar with this website. I’m going to show you here. We designed and developed it about three years ago. Since then, it’s common for people to redo the look of their site and things like that. I just happen to take a look at the site and I noticed that it had been changed. It got migrated to a whole new platform. A lot of things can happen just during a regular design but when you switch platforms, you can have a lot of big issues.

I’m not trying to call these people out. If this were a screenshot, I would blur the URL but quite honestly I don’t know how to do that with video, especially multiple frames of videos so I am just going to proceed like this.

Let’s take a look at this site. If you look at this site, it’s a nice looking site. It’s clearly a very photography-heavy website but what I want to look at here is when you put that site into software. There’s a lot of different SEO softwares out that can do something similar to this.

When you put it into some software, we can see that it looks like something happened just around this area. You’ve got a lot of links going to your sites.

One of the big things that happens during your redesign is pages get merged or removed altogether or the URLs get changed and links break. That’s just something that happens when it’s done without taking into account the SEO. It looks like maybe a dozen or so pages or domains may have stopped linking to this site. That’s the thing I see initially. You can see I confirmed here. These things on the bottom here are showing your lost domains.

Initially I’m thinking, “Looks like maybe there’s some broken links on this site.” If we click over to the organic search, you can certainly see that they were getting some visits then it’s down to roughly almost none a day. This is more accurate. This shows you the keywords, the volume of keywords that site ranks for. If you see this, something went wrong. You’re showing for 400 and something keywords and now you’re down to 25, 27 maybe? Unless those are extremely high volume keywords that are awesome for your business, that is probably a big problem.

Again you can see here none in the top three, one in the top ten, you’re not getting very much traffic, further illustrated here by this position heat map. The darker colors indicate more keywords in that range. For example zero in the first position, 11 in the 42nd position, which isn’t super helpful. Now you can see essentially you’re looking at zeros and ones and things of that nature.

Here is something we would do to diagnose. Looking at this, hands down, we’ve got a problem. We can confirm that with– There’s tools like that that can actually show you the broken links. These are really your big ranking signals, are good links.

If we take a look at the broken links– Sometimes during a redesign maybe pages get merged and you lose links that don’t really matter much. Sometimes there are links that you lose that are actually really good links.

You can see here, this site is about fashion, style, consulting, wardrobes styling. You look here and what is this? This is about street fashion, women’s wear. It’s an older link. It’s from 2013. I would definitely want this link. This page, you can see, is an older page. I know from this slog and just from experience this is an older WordPress post.

If we go here, it’s a dead link. That link is not carrying anymore value for this website. That is going to not help the rankings. If you get enough of those like you see here, you’ve got other ones here. I’m sure that these are legitimate links and not just spam.

Let’s take another look. Tourism Toronto, this looks fairly legit. If you have links from legitimate pages– Department 34. You can see some of the numbers here. These are higher ranking sites. Rue Magazine. There are people that would kill for these links. This is months, if not a year’s worth of outreach efforts. Especially when you start getting

Graham: Three pages of links. Some of these might be garbage. There’s at least a dozen, maybe six, but half dozen or so of good links. These don’t look like they’re worth very much here. Those initial links look like they were actually really high value.

When it comes to doing a site redesign like that, you really have to think about balancing the new look of your site with the– you can see down here powered by Squarespace.

You have to think about the new look of your site, then your Search Engine Optimization. Now, this might be totally fine for them because they might get all of their business from referrals, they might get all of their business from social media, things of that nature. If we do a search for just their brand name, we’ll see if they show up. They still show up. They might be fine. They might be fine with this if they just show up for their brand and keywords and stuff like that.

It really depends on the business. From someone who looks at Search Engine Optimization and things of that nature, it doesn’t take very much to redirect some of these big money links that were on the first page, this here. Some of those like Rue magazine and things of that nature.You can redirect those other pages and maintain that. On top of removing that content, you’re also removing contextual cues and things like that, they go to Google.

The summary of this is to just tell you, really think about what content you’re removing when you remove it and how that might actually affect your business. If you don’t know, then you should work with an SEO who can help you do that. You should definitely get a little bit of advice, especially if you really rely on your website to drive leads for your business. Just doing a web design to make your site look pretty isn’t a business goal.

If you rely on your website to send leads to your business, you need to be really careful when you do a redesign because there is a lot of stuff behind the scenes that you have to take into account. I hope this has been helpful for you. Maybe giving you a little insight into your own situation, your own business, your own website. If you need anything, feel free to comment or shoot me an email.

Here at GainTap, we find and fix serious issues with your website and marketing
so your business can get back to growing.