Updating the design and structure of your site from time to time is a requirement of the age of online marketing. Designs get stale, technology evolves, and your customers are always looking for the next big thing, so eventually, whether it’s two years or six years down the line, you’ll have to rebuild your website from the ground up.
It’s an exciting opportunity for the entrepreneur enthusiastic about the future of the brand. It’s a new challenge and another project for the design and development team. But for the search marketer trying to maintain and build on their site’s current level of success, the whole process can be a nightmare. Pulling one version of your website down and putting another one up is like swiftly pulling a tablecloth out from under a set table without breaking or moving anything; it’s next to impossible unless you know what you’re doing.
Fortunately, many of us have gone through the process before and have escaped at least relatively unscathed. Chances are, you’re going to see a bit of volatility no matter what, but you can mitigate the effects by watching out for these three common vulnerabilities:
The biggest problem you’re likely going to face as you update your website is a disconnection between your old URL structure and your new URL structure. In a perfect world, you would maintain an identical URL structure, thereby preventing the possibility of a discrepancy, but then you probably wouldn’t need to be updating your site in the first place.
There’s one critical danger here, which can have a rippling effect that permanently damages your domain authority and crashes your ranks. Your URLs have history with Google, and Google likes links with history. Its search engine algorithm has come to expect your site to be in a very specific structure and a very specific order, and when it goes to crawl your new site, if it doesn’t see what it expects to see, it triggers a red flag. Historical links, with lots of credibility, that suddenly disappear in favor of entirely new links can wreak havoc on your domain authority, putting you in the same position as a site for a brand that just launched.
The problem is compounded by external links. Naturally, you’ve built a number of links on external sites pointing to various internal pages of your domain in an effort to improve your authority. If any of those links become no longer relevant, the page rank those links pass will become useless, and you’ll have a profile full of dead links pointing to nowhere, further damaging your domain authority and possibly interfering with your inbound traffic.
Fortunately, there is a simple—but admittedly painstaking—strategy you can use to ensure this outcome doesn’t occur. First, you’ll need to set up a Webmaster Tools account and crawl your site or use an alternative tool to generate a list of all the URLs found on your current website structure—and don’t forget about all your subdomains! Then, if you can, do everything you can to keep that link structure as similar as possible.
For any old links that do not have an immediate counterpart in the new site, or for links whose names have changed, you’ll want to set up 301 redirects. Fortunately, setting up 301 redirects is easy, and once they’re in place, any traffic that would encounter your old URL will be automatically pointed to the new one. This should prevent any damaging crawl errors from Google, and will definitely keep all your inbound external links accurate and functional.
Unless you’re working for a very small business, your new website is going to be in the hands of many individuals from many teams and many different departments. Everybody is going to have their own perspectives on what would be best with the site. Multiple opinions, collaborating together can ultimately culminate in the greatest final product, but you can’t forget about Google’s perspective.
Graphic designers want to make the most visually appealing site possible, but there are some design principles that need to be balanced in order to fit with Google’s priorities and prevent a nosedive in your ranks. For example, most designers would prefer a site designed with minimalism, with only a handful of links in the navigation and as little onsite content as possible. However, Google likes to see lots of high-quality pages, and without ample onsite content, the search engine may find it difficult to understand your purpose. There is always room for a compromise, so work with your designers to find a good balance that works for both of your goals.
Similarly, other members of your team may have strong preferences when it comes to selecting a CMS, either due to price or personal opinions. There are hundreds of CMS options out there, with varying compatibilities and functionality with SEO. Be sure to do your research and vet your options when considering a transition.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, transitioning to a new site is an opportunity to fix all the mistakes that were holding you back with the old site. Passing over this opportunity, or failing to give it its due attention, is a critical mistake and a vulnerability you cannot afford to neglect.
Throughout the planning and design process, run an audit of your current efforts on your current site. Where are you ranking? How much traffic are you getting? Where is that traffic going and how is it behaving? What problems are inherent in your navigation, and what gaps are there in your meta data?
Your first priority when designing a new site, from an SEO perspective, is your navigation. It needs to be simple and intuitive, but fleshed out enough so that any new visitor will know exactly where to go. It also needs to have strong anchor pages with keywords related to your business, and clear sitemaps for Google to read and understand your site. Second, you’ll need to examine which of your pages tend to attract or retain the most traffic, and look for ways to replicate its success in your other pages (in terms of design, content, and purpose). While not directly linked to the process of getting a new site up and running, this is also a good idea to review your ongoing tactics and find ways to improve them.
Even though the process is ripe with SEO vulnerabilities that could shake up your rankings or traffic flow, your website rebuild is an opportunity, first and foremost. Treat it as such, and you’ll be able to reap the benefits.
No matter how much you plan or how closely you monitor the progress of your site transfer, it’s likely that there will be some hiccups in your web traffic and search standings. Try not to obsess over them; as long as you dedicate yourself to following the same (or improved) ongoing best practices as you did with your old site, you’ll see similar patterns of growth with the new one. Remember that SEO is a long-term strategy, and any short-term volatility you experience during the site transfer (as long as you’ve accounted for the critical vulnerabilities) is temporary.