SEO is such a critical part of success online today that, when you’re thinking about redesigning your site, you have no excuse not to consider it from the ground up. Some site factors you can only change in a redesign are still important to SEO. Efficient, optimized code, scripts that don’t break search rules, a URL naming scheme that’s human-readable; these are all easiest to change and implement when you’re designing a site rather than changing an existing site. If you’re thinking about a site redesign, make sure you’re including SEO in your plans.
Step 1: Determine if you really need a website redesign.
Some sites seem like they roll out a new design every year. Others become old standbys, bastions of timeless design that haven’t changed since 1995. There are good reasons to change your design; make sure they apply. There’s no sense in spending the time and money on a redesign when it doesn’t benefit your business. If your website uses Flash, has no mobile version, suffers from a poor layout or doesn’t fit with your business, go ahead and proceed with a redesign. If it’s perfectly serviceable but you just want a new look with no factual reason to do so, put your plans on the back burner.
Step 2: Evaluate your current website’s SEO performance.
This requires either a basic level of SEO knowledge or hiring a firm to analyze your site. You need to go over the main aspects of SEO – like navigation, keyword use, link profile, URL scheme and image optimization – and file them in one of three categories; Done Well, Needs Improvement, or Done Poorly. Anything you’re currently doing well, you should strive to maintain after your redesign. Anything that needs improvement, see if you can improve it with your redesign or if it’s something you’ll need to do with your content once the new design is live. Anything done poorly, determine if you can change it and how. Chances are your redesign will be partially a change in how your site looks, and partially a change in how you manage it.
Step 3: Consider changing domain name or web host.
When you’re changing your website, there’s no better time to swap to a new web host or implement a new URL. If you need either of those changes, do them now. If not, don’t change a thing.
Do you need a new host? Don’t change hosts unless you’re unsatisfied with your current host, such as if it has slow service, downtimes or bandwidth limits that restrict your business growth.
Do you need a new domain? Only change your domain if your current domain is too hard to remember and use, or if it’s not in line with your current brand name. Never change your domain if you don’t have to; you’ll need to implement large-scale redirects to maintain your built-up SEO reputation if you do. It’s better to avoid the hassle if you can.
Step 4: Analyze navigation shortcomings.
This may take some time if you haven’t been monitoring how users use your site. Install a heatmap plugin and track what users do on your page. What buttons do they click? You should keep those in prominent locations in your new design. What buttons don’t they click? Do they avoid them because they don’t look like buttons, or because their content is not valuable enough? Look for holes in your user experience and base your new site design around optimizing that experience.
Step 5: Keep script rules in mind.
• Avoid any script that loads a page and stores session data in the URL; this leads to duplicate content issues.
• Make sure you follow script best practices, or that your web design firm does.
• Make sure scripts are optimized and don’t fail to load or break when used.
Anything that delays site or page loads causes user drop-off and reduces your SEO performance.
Step 6: Establish good habits for ongoing SEO.
Make yourself a checklist of on-site SEO techniques you put to use, and automate what you can. Some examples:
• Make sure you’re creating unique meta titles and descriptions for each page.
• Make sure you’re properly linking internally and externally.
• Make sure you’re using keywords appropriately.
• Make sure your URLs are human readable; i.e., example.com/blog/2014/top-ten-reasons… rather than example.com/blog/399385.
Some of these will be settings in your content management system. Some will be changes to the way your pages are generated. Some can be automated, while others will need a manual touch for each page. Establish your habits now so you don’t forget something important later.
Step 7: While testing, keep the new design offline.
Google hates duplicate content. When you’re creating a new page design, it’s easy to accidentally have two copies of a page active, particularly if you’re changing domain name or URL structure. Try to keep your redesign on a local network rather than the live Internet for testing.
Step 8: Consider modern design trends.
A few years ago, a lot of web 2.0 trends came into play. Everything was rounded edges and 3D-looking shadows. Now, a lot of those trends have fallen by the wayside, and sites that make use of them look out of date.
Modern trends, as seen on iOS devices and Windows 8, use a lot of flat panes and bold colors, with little in the way of gradients or rounded corners.
You can choose to implement these new features, or go with a more classical look that should hopefully remain timeless. If you aren’t worried about going through the redesign process five or six years from now, to keep up with trends, go ahead and implement them. If you don’t want to do this all again, try to aim for a more timeless look.
Step 9: Implement the new site design.
Implementing and testing your new design is critical. Do as much testing as possible on a local network to simulate the environment you’ll be using to update your site. When you actually implement the new design, you want it to be done and over as quickly as possible, with as few errors as possible. Downtime is a risk. A new user finding your site when it’s down may think it’s broken. Ideally, your design firm will have practice in smooth transitions to ease the process.
Step 10: Redirect changed URLs.
If you changed page URLs, changed your domain name or lumped small pages into larger pages, you’re going to want to implement redirects. The 301 redirect is the industry standard for directing traffic from an old version of a page to a new one. Avoid deleting the old pages; a missing page can be detrimental, particularly if external links pointed to it.
If all goes smoothly, you will have a new site with a stronger SEO foundation from which you can build.