When organizations redesign their Web site, most expect their investment in capital and effort to produce several automatic benefits such as a rise in site traffic and improvements for the user.
While the creative will get a lot of attention, user testing will provide some insight into the experience, but what about Web traffic, especially traffic from organic search?
Here I explore why a drop in traffic will occur without the necessary investment in search engine optimization (SEO), and lay out the steps required to make sure this doesn’t happen to you.
Why Search Engines Struggle with Web Site Redesigns
Search engine rankings are based on two primary things: relevance, the Web site pages with content that best matches the search query, and authority, the relative strength of the Web site page.
When marketers decide to redesign their site, moving content and changing page names confuses the search engines. Your old site was trusted, meaning that it had authority with the search engines like Google and Bing and ranked for at least some content, and if directed properly, search engines can pass this authority on to the new site. But specific actions must be taken for this authority to be passed. Even more importantly, if the new site doesn’t include this content, organic traffic for associated keywords will drop.
How to Handle SEO in the Redesign Process
1) Start at the beginning: Don’t wait to get the SEO team involved. What was driving organic search traffic for the current site? What areas were underperforming? The SEO team can improve the new site performance by fixing aspects of the current site, giving the new site a better launching point
2) Include the SEO team in the architecture development: Information Architecture will develop Graphical Sitemaps (a visual representation of site structure) and Detailed Sitemaps (a hierarchical list of URLs) as the basis for the new site. Through keyword research, the SEO team can recommend new content for the Graphical Sitemap. And they can provide a Detailed Sitemap for the current site. This will enable the mapping from the old to new site and uncover any hidden content. Most importantly, the SEO team will ensure that the new Detailed Sitemap is built with a flat folder structure and keyword-rich URL.
3) Lean on SEO resources in the content development and migration process: Where are the greatest sources of organic search traffic today? These must be looked after in the migration of content to the new site. The SEO team should provide a new page template and fully optimize a sample of top pages. Depending on your budget, this sample should range from 30 to 500 pages. When it’s time to plunk content on the new site, include the SEO lead to help manage each batch of pages. Which sections need to be carefully watched (most valuable or most difficult to map)? This is also a great way to catch pages that fell through the cracks.
4) Don’t skimp on the 301 redirects: Depending on the size of your site, mapping every page/PDF might not be possible. At a minimum, the top 500 to 2,500 pages need to be mapped at the page level. Beyond that, you can map pages at the directory level (individual pages to top section pages). Do not outsource the 301 redirect process and expect good results. Failure to include redirects assures that the old page authority will be lost with the launch of the new site
5) Put the SEO team front and center at launch: The Web site launch is the moment of truth. You’ll need to get the robots.txt file right and build and submit the sitemap.xml file. Your site will have errors. Crawling will not be as thorough or immediate as you would like. But your SEO team has the tools to monitor and address the issues that arise, like drops in traffic to specific content areas, mobile issues, pages that aren’t being crawled and 404 errors. And they will be able to identify and resolve these issues, provided that you dedicate the necessary time and budget.
Yes, sweat the SEO details in your Web site redesign. If you don't the site will lose organic traffic, especially in the short term. These aren’t the kind of results you want to show the larger organization! Make sure you commit the budget (10% of the project is a good basis) and SEO resources so that your organic search traffic is as good as the experience and fancy new design.