How to finesse a redesign without losing traffic or rankings
Planning to redesign or restructure your Web site? Any major overhaul is a great opportunity for implementing new search engine optimization (SEO) techniques. By including SEO considerations early in the process, you can save both time and money. Site redesign is also a time of great risk to existing search engine rankings and current inbound search traffic levels, so care needs to be taken to avoid losing traffic and rankings as content and pages shift.
Top Traffic Pages. First, do a detailed analysis of top entry pages and top traffic pages. There's no such thing as having too much data in this case. I recommend looking at a full year's worth of data, taking into account seasonal trends and specials. You can't afford to overlook pages that may be due for an upsurge in traffic around a holiday or special event simply because you've only bothered to check three or six months of previous site activity.
When examining Web data, the goal is to determine the highest-performing pages in terms of both entry pages and strict page views. These pages are particularly important, and traffic to them must be conserved and appropriately directed from the old URL to the new URL to ensure that revenue and conversions remain stable after the switch to the new site.
Incoming Links. Links are an important part of SEO, not only because they affect search engine rankings, but also because many links will help bring highly targeted buyers to your site. You need to identify and manage these links in much the same way you do your top traffic pages. Make sure that after the redesign, visitors who access the site via the links will still be landing on a page that contains the data they're looking for. There is no faster way to make a potential buyer hit the back button than to serve them a 404 error page or bounce them to the home page because a URL has changed.
In the past, SEO companies spent hours contacting the Webmasters of various sites that linked to our clients' sites, asking them to update their links to specific pages. Thankfully, search engines have since evolved to where they're finally able, more or less, to handle redirection codes correctly.
Deleted Pages. A custom 404 page is a safety net, a backup, and possibly your last chance to save a sale. Even if a user calls for a page that doesn't exist, they'll still end up on your site, instead of seeing the ugly, and nearly useless, default 404 page. A well-crafted 404 page can be responsible for saving a sale when a potential customer might otherwise have abandoned the site.
These pages can be dynamic and specific to each visitor. One creative option for a 404 page is to read the referral string if your visitor is coming from a search engine. This string contains the word or phrase that the visitor used to find your site. Take those words and insert them into an error message: "We're sorry you couldn't find our pages on [keyword phrase]. Please browse our directory or click here to search for [keyword phrase]." If you have an internal site search, it's a small matter to populate the search box or give the user a pre-formed search query link to take them directly to the search results.
The goal of all this work is, at the very least, to preserve your current search engine rankings, traffic, and revenue during a site move or redesign. This is truly a case in which forethought and planning can go a long way to protecting the bottom line and making you look like a star to the person who signs your paycheck.