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Redesigning Your Website The Right Way

January 25, 2012

The start of a new year - a time when many people take stock of the year that's passed, set personal goals and make plans for the year ahead. For many businesses the dawn of a new year is also a time for goal setting and scoping out improvements that can be made or achievements that can be built upon from the previous year.

From our experience in the web industry it's also a time when many businesses reconsider their existing online presence - the image they portray online, the level and type of online functionality they offer via their website, and the way they promote their business via the Internet.

As exciting and rewarding as the website redesign process is, it's vital that it is done so taking into account your site's existing footprint on the web. Failure to take the correct steps can result in you having a beautifully designed website, but no visitors because your site's disappeared from the Search Engines. Therefore if you're considering a redesign of your site, and preservation of your existing traffic and SEO is important (it should be be!), then you'll want to consider the steps detailed below.

Familiarise yourself with your competitors

Before you embark on any redesign/relaunch process a good way to start is by getting a handle on what your online competitors are doing with their sites. Are they offering a really useful piece of functionality on their site? Are they publishing great blog posts on a regular basis? Have they committed to using Social Media to engage with and grow their list of prospective (and existing) customers? It can also be useful to look at what businesses similar to yours overseas are doing with their websites. Is there anything you can learn from what is being done overseas that you could emulate on your new site?

Get your timing right

If your business is seasonal then it's likely that the volume of traffic to your website is also seasonal. If so, it is best to time the redesign and launch of your new website during a down period. That way you've got the time to spend making sure all elements of the site are the best they can be, plus if traffic dips as a result of the redesign it won’t hurt leads or sales as much and you'll have time to rectify any issues prior to your next busy period. Use your Google Analytics data to help you identify periods of the year when visitor traffic volumes are typically lower.

For this site the months of April and May look like a good time to launch a redesign.

Identify existing performance benchmarks

Before you start making changes you should try to collect as much information as possible about your existing web presence. That way you'll have a line in the sand from which to measure any performance gains or drops following the launch of your new website. Having this information available is also necessary for ensuring that the transition to your new website goes as smoothly as possible.

Examples of the information we suggest collecting prior to your redesign include:

  • Information about any back-links currently pointing to your website (and which pages they're pointing to). This helps you to identify links from other sites that are driving targeted traffic to your site, and which links in particular may be helping the pages of your website reach higher positions in search engine results.
  • Details of the pages (URLs) indexed by the major search engines. If the URLs for each page are going to be different in your next site, you'll need to ensure the correct 301 redirects are in place to the most appropriate page on the new site in order to try and preserve the value of any links pointing to pages on the previous website.
  • Use Google Analytics to identify the best performing pages and content on your existing website - you’ll need to make sure each gets a new home in the new environment. You want to make sure you don't delete one of your website's top performing pages!
  • Use Google Analytics to understand which keyword phrases are driving traffic to the site and via which pages. These keyword phrases will be the benchmark that you’ll use to measure the health of the new site.
  • It's also helpful to pull a complete site map of your existing site before your new site is made live - that way you have a listing of all the pages on your existing site.
  • Get a handle on your conversions. One of the biggest impacts people often experience following a redesign (other than a traffic drop if the redesign is not properly managed) is a change in the number of conversions their website generates. Use Google Analytics to find out how many conversions your site receives over time and use this as a benchmark when your new site launches.

Minimise changes and reuse URLs where possible

Wherever possible, try to avoid making significant changes to your site such as changing the URL structure or file names for each page. Also try to avoid changing the domain name as this can result in you losing all of the 'domain authority' your domain has built up over time. While there are steps that can be taken to minimise the impact of these kinds of changes (such as correctly implemented 301 redirects from old URLs to new URLs), we suggest avoiding these types of changes unless absolutely necessary.

If you've got no option but to change the URL structure (for example, if you're changing the content management system that the website is built with), it will certainly impact your site's performance in the months to come unless you minimise the impact of changes to URLs by applying 301 permanent redirects from old pages to the most appropriate page on your new site. Please note that this step is absolutely critical – if you fail to 301 redirect old pages to new, you'll almost certainly experience a significant traffic drop because the Search Engines won't know where your pages have gone.

Spring clean your site's content

A redesign is a great time to take a good hard look at your site's content on the site. Sift through each page and identify the best quality content (tip: Google Analytics can be helpful here too - look for highly trafficked pages and pages with high average time on page and low bounce rate metrics). Consider removing or rewriting poorly performing content and recycle/reuse the good content. Where possible make sure you keep your existing title tags, header tags, internal links and meta descriptions intact on your new site.

Pre-live measures

Prior to launching your new website there are a number of simple things you should do to give it every chance of being indexed quickly and accurately by the Search Engines, while also minimising any impact on Search Engine traffic.

  • Update your XML site map so that any new pages get found quickly by the Search Engines.
  • Check your robots.txt file to ensure it is accurate and isn't blocking any sections of your site that you do want the Search Engines to crawl and index.
  • Create a custom 404 error page so that if there is a breakdown in the system, visitors to your site will be served a helpful error page that helps them understand what went wrong and provides links to other useful pages.
  • Make sure that none of the pages you want crawled and indexed contain the 'noindex' tag. This can often be a hangover from a staging site environment and would result in the Search Engines ignoring these pages.
  • Check to ensure that none of the staging site's URLs are still present in the live version of the site.

Monitor the site closely at go-live

As soon as your new site goes live you'll want to check it for crawl errors and broken links using Xenu or a similar crawling tool. Fix any broken links immediately.

Over the coming days you should keep a close eye on your Google Webmaster Tools account to see if there are any 404 page not found errors. Make sure to take the time to upload your new XML site map to Google Webmaster Tools and verify it.

You'll also want to monitor the SEO performance of the site carefully for the next few weeks/months. Use Google Analytics to keep a close watch on your visitor traffic via the Search Engines and compare visitor traffic, keyword metrics and conversions against historical data.

As you can see there's a fair amount you need to consider when redesigning and relaunching a new website. The key to a successful redesign project is careful planning and having a clear understanding of the pitfalls and steps needed to mitigate the risks. Certainly don't be put off from doing a redesign due to a fear of getting it wrong. When managed correctly, the benefits of a good redesign will undoubtedly outweigh the risks. And of course, if you're in doubt simply talk to an SEO specialist who understands web design or web designer who understands SEO.

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Filed under Design & Development

Written by

Mark is the Manager of Digital Marketing at Apex and has worked in the digital marketing industry since 2004. Prior to joining Apex he worked in a variety of traditional marketing roles in both the corporate and SME environment in NZ and abroad, but these days much prefers the tangible measurability and transparency of digital marketing.

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