I have seen it happen time and time again. The decision is made to redesign the company web site. There could be a variety of reasons for this - the site needs a fresh design to bring it up to date, the company is looking to create a more user friendly experience, a new content management system (CMS) is being added or some other reason. However, in he process regard for search engine visibility is not included in the overall plan. The new site is launched and everyone waits for the traffic to pour in but for some reason it doesn’t. In fact, traffic declines. Sales drop. The CEO is demanding answers. What happened and who’s fault is it?
What happened is that no steps were taken to retain traffic from the search engines during the site redesign process. Plenty of effort was put into aesthetics, functionality, the CMS, etc., but somehow, some way, search engine traffic was forgotten. Visibility has all but disappeared and you are perplexed as to what your next move should be. Do quality search referrals have to be sacrificed just because you want to make your web site better? Certainly not! All it takes is a little planning, a little accommodating, a little strategy and a lot of teamwork.
While each web property is unique and will present its own challenges, here is a top ten list I have compiled of things to consider and plan for when redesigning your web site. For each item, I will present a scenario, the problems that the scenario may present and finally some solutions to overcome the problems.
1. File Extension Changes / Replacement of Pages
Scenario – You are moving from a static web site to a content management system so you can manage your web site with more ease. However this will change the file extensions on your current web pages. Formerly your pages used the .html extension but now they will use the .php extension. While you may have the same content, you now have a whole new set of web pages.
Problems – The main problem with changing file name extensions is that many of your old pages may have been ranking well in the search engine results pages (SERPs). Now they will be replaced with a new set of pages. This will cause the old pages to disappear from the search indices which in turn may cause you to miss out on a lot of valuable traffic.
In another scenario, should you decide to leave the old pages up along with the new ones, you now have a situation where duplicate content exists on your site. This puts you in a position where you are vulnerable to a duplicate content penalty.
Solutions – Should you just abandon the idea of incorporating a CMS because your file names will change? Certainly not. If the CMS will help you manage your web site with more ease as well as create a better user experience for your visitors, by all means employ it. There is a way to let the search engines know that your old pages have now been changed into new pages. It is called a 301 permanent redirect. A 301 redirect tells a search engine that a certain page no longer exists and points them to the page that is to replace it. They interpret this information, discarding the old pages while indexing the new pages in their place. Even the link popularity or PageRank that the old pages have earned will be passed on to the new pages.
How do you set up 301 redirects? In a Unix/Linux environment, you would add the redirect code to your .htaccess file. For example, let’s say you are renaming a index.html file into a index.php file. The code would look something like this:
Redirect 301 /index.html http://www.yourdomain.com/index.php
In a Microsoft IIS environment you typically open the control panel, select “Home Directory” and then select “Redirection to a url”.
2. Changes in File Structure
Scenario – Your web site has grown over the years and has now become quite a mess as far as your file structure goes. The decision is made to organize sets of pages into specific directories so as to have a better organized file structure.
Problems – The problem with changing your file structure is very similar to changing file extensions. Pages that may have been ranking well in the SERPs will no longer be in their same location. The result will be a 404 “page not found” error for someone who clicks upon a listing found in the SERPs.
Solutions – The solution for this is the same as changing file names and/or extensions – set up 301 redirects.
Additionally you should make sure you have a custom 404 error page in place to replace that ugly “page not found” page a browser returns when a 404 error is generated. In this way you can retain traffic, keeping them at your site. The ability to set up custom 404 error pages will depend largely on your web hosting provider. Check with them to see if they offer this feature and how to go about setting it up. For our own sites, we simply modify the .htaccess file with the following code:
ErrorDocument 404 /404.html
404.html is the page that is used when a 404 is generated. Keep in mind that you have to have an actual page that will be used in this situation.
3. Re-Branding and Domain Name Changes
Scenario – If your current domain and/or company name are working fine, why change? There could be several reasons. A company or web property has been acquired by another entity, re-branding is necessary to reflect a change in your business plan or a domain you have always wanted finally becomes available.
Problems – What problems may be encountered with this scenario? First and foremost is customer loyalty. Whatever the goals of re-branding may be, you want to maintain existing customers. You certainly do not want to lose a loyal customer base during this transitional period in your business.
Furthermore in changing domain names, the common thing to do would be to put up a new site while keeping the old one online at the same time. This could pose a potential problem of having duplicate content and be viewed by the search engines as a case of domain spamming.
Solutions – If you are only changing the name of your company, then you should encounter very few if any problems. It simply involves finding all occurrences of the old name and replacing them with the new name. In cases of moving the site over to a new domain name, it can be a bit more difficult. In many cases you are working with a new domain and it is common knowledge that new domains may take some time before search engines will allow their content to place well in the SERPs, even if they include the same great content as the old. This is where a 302 redirect can help.
Like the 301 redirect, a 302 tells a search engine that a domain has been moved. However a 302 is a temporary redirect, not a permanent one as is the 301. So the essential idea is to set up the new site and redirect the old domain to the new with a 302. This allows your old domain’s content to still be indexed but lets an engine know that it is temporarily being redirected to the new domain. This allows time for your new domain’s content to be indexed. It also allows time to build up some inbound links, whether that be by acquiring new links or changing the old ones.
After a period of about 6 – 8 months you can then change the 302 to a 301 and remove old content so you do not have duplicate content issues. My friend, Scottie Claiborne, has written an excellent article on this very subject entitled “Switching to a New Domain Without Losing Your Google Rankings” that explains this process in much greater detail.
4. Internal Site Navigation
Scenario – Many times a site redesign requires a new navigational structure. The old site may have had text links for navigation and now it will sport more aesthetically pleasing graphics. Or possibly the site is switching from static graphic links to a more dynamic menu structure with drop downs and the like. Or you may even be implementing fancy Flash elements to your navigation. Any changes to the site’s current navigational structure could have an impact on search engine saturation as well as visibility.
Problems – Potential problems can be numerous. It really depends on what is changing and will therefore be unique to each site. I will list some scenarios I have come across in my experience.
Solutions – Are any of these changes bad in and of themselves? Certainly not! You should set up your navigational structure in a way that best suits your users. They are the ones that you wish to convert into paying customers, if they are not already. So what to do?
First of all make sure you have a well categorized site map that contains text links to all the pages or at least all the main sections of your site. Use optimized anchor text where you can but avoid making links look like they are obvious attempts at keyword stuffing. If your site includes a rather large amount of content/pages, then link to main sections while using breadcrumb trails to link to interior pages of each section. Finally, make sure your site map has a link to it from every page of the site. The easiest way to do this is by including it as either a main part of navigation or in the footer section of your web pages.
This leads me to the second point and that is to make sure you include a set of text links in the footer section of your site. You do not need to link to every page of the site but at least the main sections that you want visitors to find. Not only is this a search engine friendly tactic, it will improve usability, providing people a way to navigate to the main areas of site when they are at the bottom of your pages.
Finally with regards to graphical images being used as navigation, make sure to use appropriate alt attribute text. The text should describe the page the image is linking to and not the image itself. This will help search engines to better understand the central topic of the page that the image is linking to.
5. Content Management Systems
Scenario – Your web site started out small but has now grown into this gigantic monster. It is nearly impossible to manage. What do you do? Add a content management system of course (CMS). A good CMS will not only allow you to maintain your existing content, but allow you to build out the site as well. In fact, CMS’s are becoming as common now as cascading style sheets were a few years ago.
Problems – While a content management system can greatly reduce the stress of managing a web site, not all CMS’s are search engine friendly. Depending on whether your CMS is an off the shelf product or custom designed, you need to question whether it allows the functionality and flexibility that a well search engine optimized site needs.
Solutions – Whether you are designing your own CMS or incorporating an off the shelf product, look for some essentials to ensure your site remains search engine friendly. Does your CMS allow for unique title tags? How about unique meta description tags? Does it produce search engine friendly URLs? Are you able to develop and modify content? What about navigational structure? Does your CMS produce search engine friendly navigation such as breadcrumb trails and linking within content? These are all important factors if you are going to market your site for organic search results.
Keep in mind that if incorporating a CMS for the first time that your page locations will likely change. You will then need to utilize the redirection tips mentioned above so as to inform search engines where new pages reside.
6. Flash – Benefits and Pitfalls
Scenario – Someone makes the decision that they want to incorporate Flash animation into their company web site. Flash allows not only the benefits of animation and interactive functionality but very compressed file sizes as well which increase the overall download speed of the site.
Problems – Is Flash in and of itself bad? Not hardly. However if used with no regard for search engine marketing, it can hinder your visibility. This typically occurs when a designer incorporates an entire site within one Flash file. It can also occur where all of the copy of the site is embedded within the Flash file. Many times it is a combination of both.
The problem with the first scenario is that you essentially have one page to work with. What’s wrong with this? Two things. First there is a limitation on the amount of title tags you can optimize to reflect important keywords. Title tags are one of the most important elements of page optimization. When your web site is incorporated into one Flash file, you have one title tag to work with. Figure into this that you have about 64 characters to work within a title tag and you can see how you are limited. The Flash file may put out 100 pages but because the URL never changes (only the content), you still only have one title tag to work with.
The second scenario hides your content from the engines. Because search engines cannot read Flash files (yet), they cannot decipher text that is incorporated into a Flash file. You could have tons and tons of great content but the engines will never see it.
Of course the combination of both scenarios is the worst in limiting your reach of search engine traffic.
Solutions – Flash can be used in conjunction with html pages. Rather then build the entire page or site in Flash, incorporate Flash elements such as headers, navigational structures, animations, sound, video, etc. into html pages. Furthermore make sure that you have a variety of pages. If you have 10 products, make sure you have a page for each of them. Have a page that tells visitors about your company or another that allows them to contact you. With a variety of pages comes the opportunity to optimize those pages for various key phrases as opposed to being limited to just one page. Read more about how to use Flash along with search marketing in an earlier article I authored entitled “Can’t We All Just Get Along? – The Battle Between SEOs and Web Designers.”
7. New or Revised Web Copy
Scenario – It is this writer’s opinion that copy can be constantly tweaked to refine results. Copy should be written and modified with the ultimate goal of conversions in mind. There are also plenty of opportunities to add new copy. New products and services may surface. These are items you want to highlight on your site. However, you worry because your site currently enjoys great rankings in the SERPs. You don’t wish to “fix what is not broken” or unsettle things.
Problems – Search engines visit web pages on a continual basis to see if things have changed. When they do, they have to evaluate how they will reward those changes. Will they give those pages a boost or shoot them down? That risk causes many people to fear copy revisions. However they are a way of life. People change. Business changes. Therefore copy must change.
Solutions – The main idea in revising copy is to learn what key phrases for specific pages are bringing people to your site. More importantly, what key phrases are converting them? Then there is the fine art of making sure that those vital key phrases are represented in the new or revised copy. There are no magical formulas – no key word percentage densities, just good writing, a lot of common sense and then measuring the results. It is not always easy but can definitely be accomplished.
8. Implementing Old Optimization Strategy Into New Pages
Scenario – A company decides it is time for a new web site design. In the past they may have hired an SEO firm to optimize their site so that it positions well in the organic search results of various engines. They keep that same firm on a monthly retainer to monitor and maintain the success of the SEO effort. The designers do not take the work of the SEO firm into account when redesigning the site and fail to incorporate any of the prior optimization strategy into the new design.
Problems – The new site is launched and search engine visibility drops like a brick. What happened? Whatever was done prior to optimize the site was not brought over into the new design – things like title tags, meta description tags, optimized copy, anchor text in hyper links, alt attributes, etc. All of those elements were there for a reason. Now they are gone and can no longer serve their purpose.
Solutions – If a site has been “SEO’d” or optimized for organic search, be sure to carry over all the various elements that were optimized into the new design. It may require working with the SEO firm you hired or the search marketing team if you have one. If the file names and structure are staying the same, then it should be fairly easy to make sure all the various elements I mentioned above are carried over into the new design. If file names and structure is to change, then it becomes a more difficult process but can certainly be done. You’ll have to map the new pages to the old SEO strategy and then use 301 redirects as mentioned above to direct search engines and users to the new pages.
9. PPC (Paid Search)
Scenario – With change comes… well, the possibility of change. In other words, if you make changes to your web site, whether that be subtle or drastic, there is the possibility for a shifting of things. That is a fact of life and is no different on the Internet. With a site redesign comes new html code. Search engines have to index that code and then decide where those pages should reside in the SERPs. Proper planning can work to eliminate many of the necessary risks of losing visibility in the organic results but there is still that chance that despite everything you do, you may experience a lull.
Problems – Search engines are pretty good these days at recognizing redirects, indexing new content, etc. However, there still may be a time delay before they adapt the changes. This may affect search engine visibility momentarily. What do you do if you are dependant on the traffic search engines bring you?
Solutions – Pay per click. That’s right, set up a pay per click campaign. It’s is quick, it is fairly easy and it can drive traffic to your site during this transitional period of redesign. Organic search positioning takes time but PPC is almost instantaneous. If you are not already running a PPC campaign, start one before launching a new site design. If you are running a PPC campaign, plan to beef it up a bit during the transitional period.
Scenario – Typically a web site has a team of people behind it. There is the designer or designers who are responsible for the actual design of the site. There may be technical people or an IT department that is responsible for the technical aspects of the site such as hosting, database maintenance, etc. There may be a PR department or person responsible for branding and/or corporate image. There is an accounting department or person who is responsible for the actual budget allocated for the site. There is typically a marketing department or person who is responsible for advertising the company’s products or services. Finally on top of it all, there is the CEO.
Problems – In the scenario of a site re-design or moving to a new host or platform, all of these people or departments should collaborate with each other. However all too often, search engine marketing is not taken into consideration. There are a variety of reasons for this – they have no one on staff that handles search marketing, they have not retained the services of an outside SEM or they simply do not think it is an important aspect to a site redesign.
Solutions – Work as a team. Make sure all team members, whether they are an internal part of the company or not, are involved in the redesign process. Don’t simply have a search marketer look over the site before it is launched, but include them in the entire process. This is especially important when a dynamic site is involved because the content management system itself has to be search engine optimization friendly. All too often I have seen a new CMS adapted to a site that did not allow for even the elemental items of SEO such as unique title and meta description tags, search engine friendly URLs, etc. There is an old proverb in the Bible that states, “Without consultation, plans are frustrated, But with many counselors they succeed.” That is not only sound advice for matters of religion but in the business world as well.