I am currently working with a client on a site redesign from an SEO perspective. With any redesign, there are a lot of little (and not so little) things that must be documented prior to the launch of a new site. Since I am currently going through this process and creating notes, I thought I would share my tips as well as a checklist that I created which you can download for your own use.
The first step in a redesign, especially redesigning with SEO in mind, is what I like to call the “reality check”. During the ‘reality check’ phase, I first make sure that going through a redesign process would offer significant optimization benefits. Quite often you will find several areas within the current site that could be better optimized, both from a technical aspect and through developing an ongoing content creation and link building strategy.
If everything looks well optimized and you cannot see any room for improvement, then hold off on the redesign and take a look at possible reasons as to why the site is not ranking better than it is. Without knowing the cause of their poor rankings, simply redesigning the site will not leave them in a better position than where they started from.
Starting the journey into a re-development
In the case with my client, a redesign is needed due to some technical limitations with their current server and content management system. We determined the work involved in correcting these issues would better be served on developing a new site within a more scalable system – Joomla in this case, and I am handling the optimization aspect of the redesign process.
The second part of the ‘reality check’ is making sure that the client is aware of the negative impact this will have to their overall optimization for a short period of time. Many clients expect higher keyword rankings and more targeted traffic from search engines immediately following the launch of their new site. While this would be great if it were the case, we all know (or should know!) that it is not true.
The client needs to be aware of the fact that at first, much of their old sites content will still be indexed in search engines. It will take some time for search engines to crawl, analyze and index the new pages. Site owners should be notified that they may see a drastic drop in visits from search engines for a period of time. In my experience this is about 1 to 2 months before their traffic begins to rise to the same level it was prior to the redesign, though it can vary based on the size, competitive landscape, and many other factors.
Once your client fully understands that a redesign is not a quick fix SEO solution, then you can move on to the planning and preparation stage of your redesign. Since you have already thoroughly reviewed their current site, you should have a good understanding of where and in what ways they can increase their search engine visibility. From your discussions with the site owner, you should also be aware of what goals they are trying to achieve, and have an optimization strategy in place. Without any ongoing strategy, a redesign will not be the miracle cure they are seeking.
Your second step in the redesign process is choosing the best time to do it. Just because your client may have a bug up their butt to do this right away and get it over with, doesn’t mean that now is the best time. For instance, launching a new site just before or during a holiday season may not be a good idea for an ecommerce site. Check for any buying trends specific to your clients market. For example, if your client owns a limo rental company, then redesigning the site during prom season may not be the smartest move.
Also check out the historical traffic data to spot any trends where traffic is lower during one part of the year – this would be a great time to launch a new site because you are reducing the risk of losing a good deal of your search traffic.
You may also wish to consider consulting with your client about their budget – they may wish to consider using PPC as the new site is launched to substitute their temporary loss in traffic. I have found that clients which did not take advantage of PPC in the past, and began using it as a temporary boost, ended up very satisfied with the quality of traffic and conversions received.
Once you have determined the appropriate time to launch the site, you can begin working on the redesign process. Before the client even begins building the new site or worrying about the design, there is still a lot of research and work to be done for optimization purposes.
For benchmarking after the redesign, make sure you get some good data prior to launching the new site. If your research has shown that the keywords they are currently targeting are the best choices, then be sure to get some keyword ranking data to compare the site to in the future.
If the current keywords are not the best choice, then you should do thorough keyword research to determine what keywords are best to use across their site, I recommend grouping these into categories for later use, this will make it easier to create an optimized navigational structure as well as mapping appropriate keywords to specific pages as the design progresses. You can also use the keyword categories to develop adgroups with, should the client decide to use PPC.
In addition to keyword data, it is also vital to gather data on current traffic trends. Be sure to review as much historical traffic data as you can so you are aware of any slower periods as well as high traffic times of the year. If everything goes well the site should be at least back to where it was in rankings by the time the high traffic period hits. You can then compare how much more (hopefully not less) traffic the site is receiving.
In the perfect world all pages of the old site will be redirected to the new pages on the new site. Sometimes it is not possible to redirect all pages to the appropriate new page however, so in this case you should determine the most appropriate pages to redirect. In some cases you can also choose to build the new site using the same URLs as the old site – however if these URLs were not optimized, or due to other technical limitations this may not be an available choice.
When determining the most important pages to redirect, view your analytics information to find the most popular pages in terms of traffic, time on page, most common entry pages, and pages with a substantial amount of incoming links. You should also make a list of important pages based on pages seen in the path to conversion, or pages with a special status – such as support pages. I organize these pages in a spreadsheet with the page title and current URL and then add the new page title and URL next to it so I can easily keep track of what is moving where. I included my tracking sheet for redirects in the downloadable checklist offered at the end of this post. Be sure to include necessary redirects of the home page to ensure proper canonicalization.
When optimizing or creating new content for the site, you want to keep as much of the previous pages SEO equity as possible. If current pages are decently optimized for a specific keyword, try to keep as much of the same content on that page as possible, SEO Copywriting the content as necessary. When determining what pages to redirect where, be sure that the pages you are redirecting are targeting the same keywords.
When planning out where to place current content, ensure the site navigation and hierarchy are optimized based on the keyword groups you created above. Group similar pages together under one main keyword for the category and then target 1-2 additional (related) keywords within each page in that category.
It may be best to create a mockup of the current site with your proposed navigation to see how easy it is to find pages within the site. When determining the new hierarchy of pages, be sure you do not bury pages that have content which previously brought in a lot of traffic, ensure that the pages you deemed most popular (above) are placed higher up in the hierarchy. Top level pages should whenever possible answer potential questions and involve any calls to action.
When planning where images should be placed on the new pages, make sure the image name reflects keywords used within that page. I try to group images together by related keywords and place them in a folder with an appropriate keyword that relates to that group of images. When possible, I try to create these folders and images ahead of time so the appropriately named images are easy to find and place when the page is created.
Ensure that all URL’s, Page Titles and Heading Tags backup and support the keywords used within the content of that page. I recommend matching all of these within a mockup or wireframe ahead of time so as the site is built; you can easily reference what keywords belong with which pages.
Once all the research, organization and optimization has been completed – it is time for launch. Below are some things to remember to do just prior, concurrent to and after the launch:
- Make sure your analytics code has been appropriately placed on all pages within the new site.
- Create a new sitemap and update any existing Robots.txt file with your new URLs
- If possible gather a group of participants to browse through your site before launching it and get their opinions on usability.
- If you are using an open source platform such as WordPress, Drupal, or Joomla ensure all necessary plugins are available and ready to install/activate.
- Check for any broken navigation, internal or external links. – I suggest doing this a second time as you launch just be certain everything is working as intended.
Concurrent with launch
- Redirect all URLs to their new destinations
- If your sitemap is in a new location or your domain name has changed, be sure to update Google Webmaster Tools appropriately.
- Check all links within site to ensure they are working properly.
- Monitor Webmaster Tools and Analytics for any 404 pages.
- Monitor site searches to see if users are finding what they are looking for, or if there is additional need for content
- Post a survey asking for feedback about the new design
- If necessary, contact any webmasters pointing to old pages of your site and request that they update their site. Also correct any directory listings or citations.
- Track indexation of new pages
- Compare campaign benchmarks at various intervals (I will usually create a comparison tracking sheet and track each benchmark at the start or end of the month, continuing for several months to track improvements and trends)
- Issue a press release (SEO Optimized) about your new site design.
Website Redesign / Migration Tracking Sheet
The excel template provided includes a checklist that you can add projects to for each stage of the redesign. I included some default projects in here, but you can delete or add more as needed. The checklist sheet also allows you to add a due date as well as mark the priority and completion status of each task – with a field for notes.
The other two pages are pretty standard excel sheets I use for tracking important pages as well as redirects during the redesign process. The last two pages provide you with an area to track some basic metrics I added as a default. Simply input the data into the “metrics” tab and you will be able to view a chart of the data created on the “dashboard” tab.
This provides a general overview of where you stand throughout the year vs. what your goals were. These sheets are editable so feel free to add or change any information.