How to redesign an existing website without erasing rankings
Before you redesign an existing website, you should take careful account of its current status. Rather than just rush headlong into the web redesign / rebuild process, an assessment of the good and bad elements of the original site should be made.
Include consideration of SEO aspects. All to often, the website makeover results in a dramatic downturn in search engine rankings! Don’t underestimate the value of the existing indexed pages… or the benefits of current organic SERPs.
Run the rebuild idea past a top SEO agency… Preferably before you start.
The Risks to Current Rankings
Be aware that existing search engine rankings can all too easily go down the toilet! Why? Well, that’s the consequence of not planning and executing strategies to cover the threats.
Without a trail of breadcrumbs to find out where the old content went, all search engines are left bewildered and floundering in a sea of 404 Page Not Found errors.
- Top-Ranking Pages – should be identified, preserved and enhanced
- 301 Redirects – rerouting old page URLs to the corresponding new page names. If that’s not done, all indexed and well-ranked internal pages will suddenly generate 404 Page Not Found errors, and will eventually be purged from all search engines indexes! All internal Page Rank will be lost, as will all client’s Bookmarked page links… All “deep links” to internal content will be lost…
- Optimised On-Page Content – moving previously optimised “good page content” to the corresponding new pages
- Image Alt text – copying the old text to the replacement images
- Meta-tags – copying titles, description and keywords to the corresponding new pages
- Sitemaps – provision and listing of XML or HTML Sitemaps
Fail to do this and Google’s search engine spiders and bots will be forced to start from zero! If they are forced to reassess the intent and purpose of the site, and you’ve not preserved the good elements, a drop in rankings is inevitable.
I don’t have a problem with branding per se… However, whilst branding consultants have great expertise in their sphere of interest, they usually have minimal understanding of the issues inherent in attaining top search engine rankings.
Branding consultants have no respect for your 10 year old domain… Any recommendation to drop your aged / mature domain name in favour of a new “trendy” business name is a severe risk to your online presence.
Domain Redirection makes it possible to redirect all traffic to the old domain to the new domain. You can couple that with individual page redirection… However, that still leaves you with all your old links pointing to a ‘dead’ domain and at risk of removal.
Don’t “misunderestimate” the value of an aged domain with lots of links!
As an example, I once reviewed a proposal to redesign an existing website that involved moving from a 1999 registered domain with 2900+ incoming links (including 100+ links from domains with a +7 PR! Their destination was a 2008-registered domain with 35 links…
Choosing The Redesign Company
Ok, so you’re going to redesign a mature site that’s generating business, but needs a more modern look and feel. You need to find and hire a web designer / developer who comprehends the importance of the old content, and understands the SEO aspects. Make sure the fundamental SEO elements are included in the design architecture. I repeatedly see website design output from designers that amazes me, with examples such as;
- An SEO module was loaded but not activated – so zero meta-tag content on any page!
- A WordPress CMS with the Admin / Privacy settings set to “I would like to block search engines“
- Flash main menu that SE’s cannot penetrate, meaning no internal pages indexed!
- Splash / Intro pages with 1 link to the home page only, and Flash content – meaning zero Home page content!
- No sitemaps, just to make it even more difficult to find internal content!
If you are deliberately setting out to kill off a website, these are very effective ways of doing so…
There’s a lesson here! Whether you are going to redesign an existing website yourself and tackle your own seo for small business, or pay someone else to do it, you’d best ensure that the person responsible for the changes has a plan that includes at least the basics! Failing to plan is planning to fail ,as these examples clearly show!
Do You Need Google?
Whilst there are people out there who say that you don’t, you may rest assured that they are, in the main, not knowledgable on the subject.
Unless (or until) you are a household brand name, you are going to need search engines to deliver potential clients to you. To get an increasing flow of visitors from search engines, you’ll have to play by their rules, not yours…
Whenever you cannot change the global reality to fit your own perception, you must adapt… or you’ll simply be irrelevant!
New Site SEO Requirements
For maximum benefit from any SEO services packages, there are some overall goals to aim for…
- Search Engine Friendly URLs – Page File Names should be explicit, and keyword-rich, independent of Titles or Headings
- Off-Page Titles: independent and unique page Titles are essential. Dynamic, with manual over-ride will work fine.
- Description Tag: independent and unique page Descriptions are essential. Dynamic with manual over-ride is ok
- Keyword Tag: independent and unique page Keywords – dynamic with manual over-ride is ok
- Image File Names: imported image file names should be preserved, allowing keyword-rich image names.
- Image ALT Text: dynamic based on file name with manual over-ride is ok. Keyword rich image file names are important supporting elements of page content.
- Menu Item Names: controllable, independent of page Headings, with manual set hyperlink titles
- Page Headings: formatted in H1, H2, H3 HTML tags, independent of menu name
Make sure that the basic files are in place;
- Robots.txt: with a link to the XML sitemap
- Sitemaps: XML, plus HTML
- Custom 404 Error Page: standard page template, full menu etc
Make sure that the basic hosting issues are sorted;
- www vs. non-www: always use full canonical domain name, and prevent duplicate content being indexed
- Hosting: correct country TLD – or correct country hosting
Site Architecture Issues in Detail
Search Engine Friendly URLs:
- URL’s should include a relevant keyword phrase specific to every page generated!
- Avoid capitalisation AND spaces in file names, use hyphens to separate words instead.
Search Engines can now cope with URL’s with multiple iterations of ?, & and = in them, but they are incomprehensible to HUMANS! But nonsensical URL’s do not provide any clue to the search engines as to what the page content is about… Search-friendly URLs are valuable increments in the process of categorising page content.
Explicit Image File Names:
Use keyword-rich explicit Image file names e.g.;
Image URL’s could include a relevant keyword specific to each page generated!
- Both Google and Yahoo have specific image functions that can generate a lot of traffic if images are properly named and tagged (ALT tags)
- Avoid capitalisation AND spaces in file names, use hyphens to separate words instead.
Image Alt Tags:
As you redesign an existing website, be sure to use Image Alt Tags on every image – a short keyword-rich, relevant sentence that describes the content of the page / image is what’s needed.
Its essential to reinforce relevant keywords in every area of the page – Image ALT tags are an important location to insert one or more exact match search phrases.
Site Maps are Essential:
Sitemaps help shorten the “levels” to the main content – the Products. In many Shops, the nested Categories drive the real content down far deeper than 3 levels from Home. Anything lower than 3 levels in the internal link hierarchy appears far less valuable to SE’s – and rarely gets a Top 30 ranking in the SERPs!
Both forms of sitemaps are essential;
- An accessible HTML version, with links to it from Home page.
- Plus an XML version that should be linked from the robots.txt page (and submitted to both Google and Yahoo for indexing)
For example; in very large eCommerce SEO services projects its possible to dramatically increase the number of indexed pages on Google by using the All_Products modification as a site map, and placing the A-Z links it generates on the footer of every page.
Custom 404 Error Page
Add a Custom 404 Error Page: According to a survey, only 23% of visitors that encounter a 404 page make a second attempt to find the missing page. That means 77% of visitors that encounter a 404 error will immediately leave your website! Creation of an effective Custom 404 Page, you can actually increase visitor retention by ensuring they find what they need.
As part of the redesign of an existing website, make sure there is a robots.txt file on the site, because search engine spiders look for it! In there you can specify which, if any, directories or files are NOT to be indexed. In the majority of cases, you allow all spiders access to everything. If the file is missing, the requests for it generates 404 Page Not Found errors – and you should always try to minimise these errors.
The robots.txt file should also include a link to your sitemap e.g.;
Pages need text content. Without it, there is nothing for a search engine to work with as it attempts to establish what the website is about. If you seriously expect a page to rank in the Top 10 for a competitive keyword search phrases, the minimum amount of content you should aim for is in the order of 800-1000 words of content. Previously, lesser volumes may have sufficed, but Google’s quest to provide the most relevant pages for any given search has upped the stakes a little.
Does it seem logical that a page with 400 words of good content is likely to outweigh a page with 1000 words of good content…
That content should be original, well-written, interesting, engaging, thought-provoking and/or provocative. It must be focused toward the specific keyword search phrase you are planning to rank well for… The content should include 1 or more images to add interest, with relevant keywords in the Alt text.
There must be some form of “Call to Action” where you specify WHAT it is that you want visitors to do, and How/Where to do it.
This is the most (SEO) important “On-Page” location to specify to the search engines what the page is about… It is important to both include main keyword phrase/s, in the Headings, with the most important at the beginning and to ensure one H1 per page with lesser haeding on subscrtions – e.g. H2 / H3 format.
This is the 2nd most (SEO) important “On-Page” location to specify to the search engines what the page content is about… ….
- It is important to place primary keyword phrases at the start of the first paragraph, and to highlight them in bold if possible.
- It is important to include text anchor links on main internal pages. Links TO these anchors (bookmarks) should be provided on Home page and sub-pages, to pages below, and at the same level.
Place some keyword-rich anchor text links to internal pages from within body text, because this helps set keyword relationships to those pages. Adding anchors on internal pages, and links TO those anchors, also raises keyword count of both pages.
Linking to anchors on internal pages from Home page raises the perceived importance of those internal pages, and provides additional pathways for search engine spiders to find and index them.
- This should be CSS / DHTML text-based to gain maximum traction
- Page Rank is passed downwards through the site via accessible internal links
- The keywords in internal links are also what SE’s will associate with the internal pages
If possible, allow addition of hyperlink titles to the menu item links – dynamic, based on the internal page’s 1st heading is not as good as the ability to manually add titles to menu item names. Hyperlink titles in the menu, and in the text anchors (above) can significant increase keyword count on a page, as well as reinforcing what the page (that the link leads to) is about. If this seems unduly complex and tedious, you could consider engaging a professional seo services provider to assist.
The page Title tag is the still single most important on-site element! There are also other opportunities for increasing the density of key words and phrases – some are listed below;
Title – The No.1 On-site Element
The maximum recommended length is 8-10 words, or 70 characters. Full manual control is important. In a CMS or ecommerce scenario, if all that can be offered is dynamic, it should be ordered as follows; Product Name + Category + Tagline :: maximum 70 characters. Do NOT use stop words, or irrelevant words.
The best Title tag is one that is unique and strictly relevant to each individual page, and this is crucial to attaining top search engine rankings.
Items such as Titles, Descriptions, Keywords are essential off-page elements which significantly influence the search engine’s appraisal of your site, and have an impact on whether searchers actually click on the search results link and come thru to your site. USE THEM, WISELY!
In a CMS / Shopping site, especially if very large, it is probably best to have a dual-action system. E.g. populate the Title / Description / Keywords meta-tags automatically from page content by default, but allow manual override as / if required.
Unique Description meta-tags must be provided on all pages. The maximum recommended length for a Description is 200 characters (Google will display 150 only, but other SE’s will show 200).
Manual control is best if possible. If dynamically generated then an output string like this is best; Product Name + Category Name + 1st Paragraph of Product Description :: maximum 200 characters
It is extremely important to search engine rankings that a carefully crafted Description, unique to every page, be provided. This helps the search engines to properly categorise the site. A well crafted description will also be used verbatim in most search engine results displayed to searchers, meaning you can control what is shown to searchers in SERPs.
And, of course, the Description should in fact describe the page its on.
The Problem: when descriptions are not supplied, the search engines will do their best to generate one from existing content, which can often look like rubbish, or be duplicated on all pages.
Where a “generic” description is provided, all the pages look the same in the search results. Your Descriptions are meant to help “sell” the product…
Don’t use Keyword meta-tags! This tag is not used by mainstream search engines, and its presence could be seen as an indicator of over-optimisation, especially if used badly.
You need to be careful about Links – simplified, it now works this way…
- A good link to your site from another site is a vote for you and is added to your total vote count.
- A link from you to another site is a vote BY your, and is DEDUCTED from your total vote count
- Bad links to you are toxic and can destroy your rankings
Reciprocal links are now toxic…
- Outward links bleed away your Page Rank….
- Outward links to inappropriate sites WILL hurt your rankings.
Amending outward links so they don’t count as a vote outwards is done by adding the rel=”nofollow” attribute to the links. Wholesale use of nofollow is not necessarily wise… It is unnatural and potentially you may incur a Google penalty for it. Its introduction was to cover “untrusted” links only, but abuse of the original intent and purpose is forcing Google to rethink its use.
There are a variety of Domain-related issues that impact on your search engine rankings.
- Use relevant / specific keywords in the Domain Name, but not excessively so. Two or three keywords is regarded as sufficient…
- Consider separating them with HYPHENS because it helps make sense to viewers!
Country Code vs. .Com
- A dot.com site must be hosted in the targeted country.
- A .com.au or .co.nz site can be hosted anywhere and Google will associate it with the specific country
An aspect overlooked by many site owners is the importance of the Domain Name “Country Code” to your site rankings, traffic and consequent success.
The problem here is the “decentralisation” of search – the way in which the major search engines have split their indexes up into country-specific search opportunities. Google (and other SE’s) know where you are, or where you should be associated with, by either the Country Code (.Co.NZ) or the IP address allocated to your site. IP addresses are allocated in numeric blocks or ranges, by country.
Social Media Integration
Google places increasing importance on a site’s participation and prominence in Social Media. The “user experience” element of website assessment is now a prominent element, and a website that is wired into Social Media networks indicates an effort to present a modern facade.
That emphasis behooves you to consider the importance of connectivity in your design. At the very least, there are two items you should include;
- Facebook LIKE Buttons
- Links to your Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube accounts
Website Redesign Summary
The examples shown illustrate that its not the tools, its the quality of workmanship that makes the difference.
If you’re a website designer, you owe it to your clients to ensure you do more good than harm! If your stupidity causes the newly rebuilt website to vanish off Google’s radar screen, it does not matter one iota if the site looks stunning! Page redirection is such a fundamental requirement, its verging on criminal negligence to overlook it! Not using freely available, fully automated WordPress sitemap and meta-tags generation tools is quite unprofessional. It confirms the designer’s incompetence, so by all means, add your name to the footer credits to let the world know who to avoid!
Of course, if your underlying objective is to keep people like me in business, feel free to ignore all my well-intended advice…
If you’d like an assessment prior to a rebuild, ask for a Website Audit Review