When you’re redesigning a website it’s easy and tempting to focus solely on the visual aspects of the new design. This is great for providing a pretty new site to your client but if this is the only thing you are spending time doing then you are about to cause some real issues in future.
It’s important when you are designing a new website to replace one that has been live for months or years that you consider how this will impact your client’s existing digital marketing activities. These include things like how the changes you implement will impact the search rankings the client has already, how your changes will impact the load time and mobile responsiveness of the website and how any changes to their domain name settings and hosting will impact their other digital tools like email and remote access.
This post will focus primarily on how you can preserve an organisation’s existing search ranking performance, as well as how to correctly migrate a website without taking down your client’s other services.
Preserving existing search rankings
We see many cases every year of designers new to the industry performing website redesigns of varying success. Most of the time these websites look great, but look under the hood and there are essential steps that have been missed through a lack of knowledge or time. Unfortunately most of these detrimentally impact a website’s search visibility which is difficult to repair and sometimes goes unnoticed for months – not great if your main source of leads is via search engines. So what steps do you need to take to preserve an organisation’s search visibility?
Where possible, keep the page structure the same
Where ever you can you should keep the page structure of the new site the same as the previous. For example, if the old website has service pages with existing page links like “www.domain.com/our-service” and “www.domain.com/about-us”, then you would recreate these pages with the same URL’s in the new website. Where possible you should not change them to “www.domain.com/services” or “www.domain.com/about”. Doing this instantly creates a 404 error when anybody tries to reach the previous page which is just about any time someone clicks on a link to that URL from any other website, including Google. When redesigning a website you should avoid creating these 404 errors entirely as they are terrible for user experience as well as search visibility. For this reason you should always create a list of all existing web pages and plan how you will recreate them.
When this isn’t possible, set up 301 redirects
Sometimes it isn’t possible to keep a page structure entirely the same. For instance you take on a website redesign project where previous SEO’s have created numerous different service pages for the same thing. In the redesign you want to combine all of these pages into one. In these cases, and in projects where you need to change the structure entirely, you will need to create 301 redirects. A 301 redirect does two things – it redirects visitors that reach the old page to the new one and it tells Google that this content has moved permanently. A 301 redirect generally preserves any search rankings that a particular webpage benefits from and transfers it to the new one. So as well as not creating 404 errors, this is an essential step in any website redesign.
Be mindful of your content changes with both text and images
Once you’ve planned out your page structure and 301 redirects, you need to pay particular attention to the changes you are making to the on page content and therefore the signals these pages are sending to Google. Small changes to on page content don’t generally impact a website’s search rankings wildly, but removing too many paragraphs that are sending strong signals for certain keywords will inevitably cause a drop in search engine visibility.
When we redesign websites we pay particular attention to the on page signals a website is sending. It’s easier to accomplish this if written content is staying the same and the redesign just covers the visual elements or involves adding more content. If you absolutely need to change the on page content, you should make a note of what the existing content includes and try and reflect the same keyword density, synonyms and word count. You should also pay attention to the existing image alt tags, title headings and keyword positioning to ensure your client does not take a giant hit to their website traffic when you launch the new website.
Preserve meta titles and descriptions
Similar to the on page content, you should ensure that you replicate previous meta titles and descriptions within the new website. Meta titles are a significant ranking factor and changing these can therefore have a detrimental impact. If you’ve preserved the page structure of the old website this will be as easy as copying and pasting them over. If you have changed the structure and set up 301 redirects, you’ll need to use common sense and a little keyword research to identify what your new meta titles should include. Normally if you’ve combined a few pages, it’s enough to use the best performing page as the meta title and description copy but you can also merge two versions together to create a new one.
Resubmit a sitemap to Google
Once you’ve finished the website redesign, it’s good practice to resubmit your website’s sitemap to Google for quicker indexing. This step is far from essential as Google will identify your changes with time, but to speed this process up you can jump onto Webmaster Tools/Search Console.
When it comes to moving hosting…
We quite often see and hear about situations where a web designer has launched a new website on new hosting by changing the name servers on the domain and patting themselves on the back. Unfortunately this causes no amount of headaches as emails go down and none of your client’s remote users will be able to login.
Instead, you should audit the DNS records of the previous hosting, creating a list of all existing records and paying particular attention to C Name and MX Records. Generally you will run into problems if your client uses an email exchange provider like G Suite or Office 365 and when they have remote users accessing their server. You’ll see records that pertain to all of these areas and most will be fairly self explanatory (e.g. xxx.outlookprotection = Office 365) within the cPanel of the existing hosting. All you need to do is recreate all of these MX and C Name records on your new hosting provider’s cPanel prior to changing the name servers to point there.
Never avoid this step, unless you wish to have a nerve-wracking 8 hours while DNS changes are propagating and you have an angry client ringing constantly!
If you want to know more about things you should never skip in a web design, you might be interested in reading our previous article here. If you want to find out more about us, click here. And finally, if you have any questions get in touch!
Liam is a website designer and digital marketer based in Leeds, West Yorkshire. He spent many years working within the charity sector before moving into the marketing space a number of years ago. Liam always strives to do something slightly different with every project and always designs to deliver results, not just pretty websites.