For many businesses, their website is an old, familiar friend that they are reluctant to change. One of the most common reasons that businesses make the decision to pursue a website redesign, however, is to improve search engine rankings. It is a great irony, then, that a poorly executed website redesign can actually damage your reputation with search engines and lower search rank.
This happens because search engines value "history." Sites that have been around for a long time are weighted more favorably over new sites, no matter how flashy they are. Just like you would prefer a plumber who has worked in your area for years, and has earned referrals from your friends and neighbors, search engines send keywords to sites that have been active for a long time and have "referrals" in the form of inbound links.
A website redesign that does not methodically work to retain these historical links and assets is like that plumber changing his phone number without call forwarding or notifying his customers of the change - the search engine will think your site has closed up shop and will call someone else for your keywords.
The good news is that with some very simple steps, you can not only retain your existing search rank, but immediately gain the benefit of your new, improved design:
Know What Pages You Have
Generate a comprehensive list of existing URLs to make certain all are accounted for in your new site. Drops in search engine rankings happen when:
- Quality, optimized content is not included in the new site
- Existing pages are "orphaned" in a new URL structure - search engines will not find this content or associate it with your site if the pages aren't properly integrated
It happens all-too-frequently that sections of valuable content are simply "forgotten about," especially on large sites. Taking the time to identify, then account for, existing content will ensure search engines can find those pages they have a history with once your new site is up.
Know Your Inbound Links
There are many tools available that can identify sites that link to you, and what pages they are linking to. An inbound link analysis will help:
- Prioritize page migration - Pages with inbound links must be included in a new design, even if the content is being de-emphasized.
- Inform new URL structure - Knowing what your audience recommends about you (with their links) will help you design your site to meet their needs.
- Protect your link profile - It takes a long time to build a link profile! The last thing you want is to lose work you've already done.
Use the Correct Redirects
It is best not to change your URL structure (i.e. names and paths of pages) if at all possible. But when reorganizing or renaming URLs is unavoidable, it is IMPERATIVE that:
- The 301 redirect protocol is used to "forward" old addresses to the new ones. 301 redirects not only make sure people using the old addresses will get to the new page, it also passes any accrued search equity to them.
- All pages are correctly redirected. It's worth repeating: knowing what inbound links and pages you have - and which ones have changed - will reduce the risk of losing search rank simply because you missed a redirect.
In the excitement of a website redesign, it is crucial to protect this significant benefit that your existing site is already providing: Established Search Rank. That's why we begin every project with an inbound marketing assessment to understand where your site is working, so you can improve where it's not without risk.