An SEO’s Guide to Executing a Successful Website Redesign
An SEO’s Guide to Executing a Successful Website Redesign
“We need a new website.”
Those are five simple words, but they pack a punch. I’ve seen more than one client come looking for help midstream during a redesign project because they didn’t realize just how much work was involved. Worse yet are the times a distraught client comes to me after unveiling a new site – traffic has dropped, the stakeholders hate it, and website conversions are down. In such projects, it’s often true that you’re given limited time and scant resources. The powers that be assume that it will be simple…or simpler than creating a new site from scratch, at least. Hey – you already have a website. All you’ll have to do is make some tweaks, spit polish the home page, and flip the switch, right?
Maybe that’s the case if you’re just making a cosmetic change, but that’s often not what’s expected when your boss says the word “redesign.” They don’t just want the look and feel updated, they want the site to perform better too. Your website is the cornerstone of your online marketing efforts – whether it’s a digital storefront, a source for lead generation, or just a place to inform customers and prospects. There are a million and one things to do if you want to build a website that performs up to today’s standards. The thing your boss will most likely not understand is that if you’re redesigning an existing website, there are at least two million and three.
We were recently approached by a client that “gets it.” They knew how much they didn’t know about redesigning their site, and they wanted to do it right. This was going to be a complete overhaul, from choosing a new content management system (CMS) on up. They have the added complexity of being an organization with a robust ecommerce program, multiple brick and mortar locations, and a host of other complexities.
Below is a guide we’ve created for clients as they begin their redesign endeavors to help make sure they’re not wasting their time on the wrong details. As their SEO team, we’re not involved in every part of the process, but we’ve seen enough redesigns to know what’s important. We also view SEO as more than just tweaking the technical factors that influence Google rankings – we help our clients turn searchers into customers, and therefore have a vested interest in successful redesign efforts.
Phase 1: Strategy
It’s easy to want to rush into the actual site build – generating wireframes and brainstorming the look and feel of your new website can be just plain fun. But in the spirit of the old adage “measure twice, cut once,” we encourage you to stop and think about your current site as well as where you’re trying to go. What are you planning to get out of your new site? How will it differ from what you currently offer? How will the new property measure up against other sites in your vertical or market?
Identification and Benchmarking of Current KPIs (Key Performance Indicators): The strategy phase is an excellent time to think about what’s really important, so you can measure it before and after launch. At the most basic level, we recommend you think about the following:
- Number of site sessions (formerly known as visits) – monthly average for the past year
- Number of organic search sessions – monthly average
- Number of overall site visitors – monthly average
- Bounce rate – monthly average
- Time on site – monthly average
- Top performing/most important keywords (you can extract these from Google Search Console if you don’t have any other means of tracking your keywords)
- Number of inbound links (Moz’s Open Site Explorer is a great tool for pulling this)
- Total number of new leads/form submissions (per month, if applicable)
- Total amount of sales generated (per month, if applicable)
- Total number of pages indexed in Google
- Total number of pages that received traffic (YTD – extract from your analytics package)
- Total number of organic landing pages (YTD – extract from your analytics package)
Relaunch Goals & Objectives: If your answer to “why do you need a new site?” is “because my boss wants one,” you need to go back to the drawing board. Sit down with your team and really think about your current site. What’s already working? Where is it letting you down? How can you improve upon the successes you’ve had and minimize the pain points for both you and your customers?
Branding Changes or Repositioning: Will any part of your branding change with the web relaunch? We’re not talking about changing the color of your logo from chartreuse to mauve – now is the time to think about if you need to evolve your overall branding and market positioning.
Target Market Persona Research & Definition: You can build what your team thinks is the most amazing website in the world, but if it doesn’t resonate with your customers or prospects, it will fail. It’s as simple as that. We recommend digging deep into demographic information to understand your customers’ likes and dislikes, etc. You can also use surveys and other customer outreach initiatives to really understand what they want instead of throwing money away based on assumptions.
Competitive Intelligence: Spend some time looking at other websites, whether they are your direct competitors’ or just other companies in your vertical or market. Identify what you like and dislike about their sites, and look for content ideas that you can incorporate into your plan.
Redesign Requirements: Now, armed with all the information you collected above, you can start putting together the requirements necessary for the site you want to build. Do you want to use a managed/hosted service like Shopify or Magento for your ecommerce site? Will a CMS like WordPress be robust enough for the site you’re planning to build, or do you need something customized? By laying out your requirements in advance, you’ll minimize the number of surprises you encounter down the road.
Phase 2: Planning
Now that you’ve got your strategy in place, it’s time to break it down into the tactics you’ll use to achieve your redesign goals and objectives. Before you commit to a single pixel, you need to have a plan.
Hosting, Security, CDNs: Since you have an existing website, you obviously have a hosting solution already, but are they going to meet your future needs, especially once your new site starts driving all the traffic you can handle? Now is the time to think about whether you need to upgrade your hosting or switch to a dedicated solution – for example, we’ve had great luck working with a WordPress-specific host that can offer improved speed and security thanks to their specialization.
- How easily can you implement CDNs, perform platform updates, and other important considerations?
- How is their reputation for uptime and issue/escalation handling?
Existing Content Audit/Asset Inventory: Take a look at your content and decide what’s going, what’s staying, and what could be removed or consolidated. For our clients, we typically run a crawler through their website, then work with them to identify if they have any offline content that should be brought online in the new iteration of their site.
Content Strategy & New Content Planning: Once you know what you’ve got, it’s time to start thinking about what you’re missing. Deeper analysis of your analytics, SEM campaigns, competitor websites and even customer surveys can help you identify what’s missing.
Site Architecture: One mistake we see over and over again as companies redesign their websites is how they architect their content. Make sure you’re taking into account your users and how they will interact with your site when you’re organizing your pages, rather than simply organizing based on your internal business units. Step back from your site and think about how your user personas might see it, and check your analytics for user pathing information that can help guide your information architecture. Create a sitemap mockup to represent your new organization.
URL Mapping & Redirect Strategy: This is one of the most crucial – and most often overlooked – parts of your relaunch. You wouldn’t move to a new house without forwarding your mail, so why move to a new domain or URL structure without forwarding your old pages? Look at your current pages and choose what pages in your new sitemap will be their new homes. If the URL is changing, flag that page to be 301 redirected, which will automatically bring site visitors to the new location on the website when you launch – and keep you from losing massive amounts of traffic.
Platform Evaluation: Now is the time to think about what platform you’ll use. If it’s overwhelming, we recommend you talk to a trusted professional about what you need and where you want to go, and do some searches to expand your knowledge as your options become clearer. Pick any two platforms, and someone has written an informative blog post with a detailed comparison.
- Compare your requirements to what’s offered by each platform, and you’ll most likely find something that at least gets you close.
- Think long and hard before you agree to commit your site to a developer’s homegrown platform, especially now that there are so many content management systems that will most likely meet your needs. We’ve worked with multiple clients that have run into support issues, technical headaches, and end up feeling trapped in a relationship with a partner because of a custom, proprietary website solution.
- Is the platform easy to use on the back end, so you don’t have to rely on a developer to make day-to-day changes? Every platform vendor will most likely answer yes to this question, but make sure you test it out yourself.
- Does it have a good reputation for stability, security, and updates?
- Does it offer SEO-friendly options and strong customizability?
Phase 3: Design & Build
Most Web developers worth their salt take SEO very seriously, and that should be part of your decision process when hiring one. Most CMS (Content Management System) platforms have specific settings that will help your new site perform better in search as well, so it’s worthwhile to look into that during the design phase. Your developer should have most of these steps well in hand.
Layout: Work with your developer to come up with layouts that work best for your vertical, your branding, and your goals. There may be 2-3 iterations, but it’s worth the extra time as you hone in on the right mix. Break things out into categories – the homepage, category pages, product pages (if relevant), etc. – but also think about larger items like site navigation and calls to action.
Mockups/Prototyping: It may be helpful to do a few rounds of mockups and/or see a prototype of certain key pages, especially if you need to get signoff from stakeholders before you move forward.
Colors & Branding: Identify early on with your designer what your color palette is. The same goes for branding – do you have a unique sales proposition (USP)? Make sure you figure out a way to get that on every page.
Platform Implementation & Tweaks: Before you move on to building out content in your staging area or development site, make sure you’ve read up on all the settings your Content Management System has to offer regarding creating search-friendly URLs, organizing content properly, and overall performance.
Content: Work with your copywriter to finalize content for the pages you identified in the planning phase.
Staging: This is where the rubber hits the road – building the site. Work with your designer, developer, and copywriter to get your content built out on your development site. Pro Tip: Make sure the development site is blockedom search engine spiders to avoid issues down the line.
Phase 4: Optimize
Once you have a stable version of your site live in your staging or development environment, it’s time to optimize the experience for your users. Below is a list of topic areas for optimization. Going through this list could produce a very long list of edits and improvements. If it’s more than you can handle before launch, prioritize what you can get done quickest and with the most impact.
Preliminary Error Check & Testing: Click around the site, and attempt to successfully complete the goals you laid out in the strategy phase. Look for broken links, typos, missing images, and anything else that you wouldn’t want the general public to see. Recruit your coworkers, usability test subjects, or even your family and friends to help you test – we recommend giving them specific goals to try to achieve, and have them report back on where they encountered difficulties.
Shareability: Social sharing is crucial to online success these days, so think about how you would like to have your content shared. Make sure your social accounts are featured prominently in the design, and that it’s simple for a user to share your content with their friends.
Analytics: All this work won’t mean anything if you can’t track the success of the site. We often recommend Google Analytics since it’s so powerful (and free), in conjunction with a tag management system like Google Tag Manager or Signal to help you easily capture events and actions on your site.
Keywords & Semantics: Semantic search is the future, so make sure your content is tagged properly, is written for people instead of computers, and features the keywords your target audience is using to try to find your products and services.
Schema & Tagging: The other half of semantic search is the ability to tag your content with schema to make it easier for search engines to categorize, and make your listings more appealing in search results. Implementing schema will help you include pricing, ratings, and additional information that will help entice prospects to click on your listing and visit your new website.
Usability & Navigation Review: Step back and think about your navigation. It should reflect the Site Architecture you laid out earlier in the process, but think about how people will interact with it now that you can click around like a real user.
- Is it too complicated, scaring off users?
- Are all the key pages included?
- Are pages clearly labeled to make it easy for people to find what they’re looking for?
- Can you trim anything out of the top navigation to make it less overwhelming for users?
- Read Are You Making These Common Website Navigation Mistakes from Kissmetrics for more things to watch out for.
Design & Layout Review: Use third-party tools to make sure your code is up to snuff – HTML validation, CSS validation, etc.
Mobile & Performance Testing: Search engines take load times for both desktop and mobile traffic very seriously, because the longer a page takes to load, the more likely a user will hit their “back” button to return to search results and go to your competitor’s site.
- Make sure your responsive layout is working properly by running Google’s Mobile Friendly Test – your Search Console implementation will have mobile-friendliness information as well.
- Using Google’s PageSpeed Insights can help you get a sense of how well your site performs or you can also get great information from third-party tools like GTMetrix or Pingdom.
- Your Google Analytics has great PageSpeed information as well – once you launch your redesigned site, check under Behavior > Site Speed to help you fine-tune your performance.
Launch Prep & Management Signoff: Dot all your i’s, cross all your t’s, and send the site off to stakeholders for one last review. Once everyone’s happy (and why wouldn’t they be, with the great site you’ve built?), you’re ready for launch day.
Phase 5: Launch & Post-Launch
Sorry to break it to you – you’ve been through a lot – but just because you can see the finish line doesn’t mean you can slow down. You still have a lot to do to make sure your new site functions properly, gets in front of the right people and justifies the effort you’ve put in for the last weeks (or months) in the eyes of your coworkers, your boss, and your audience.
Post-Launch Crawl & Redirect Testing: Your first order of business is to crawl the new site and make sure all the pages are returning a 200 OK response code. You should also make sure to crawl your list of old pages that were marked for redirection, to ensure those pages are ending up in the right place.
Google Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools): If your domain changes, you can submit a change of address form in Search Console. Even if the domain is the same, make sure you submit your XML sitemap to both Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools to ensure your new pages are indexed as quickly as possible.
Post-Launch Checklist: Double check that your analytics is firing properly, and everything is being tracked. Check to see if the new pages are being indexed by Google and the other search engines. Take a look at everything you laid out in Strategy & Planning – is everything on point?
Announce the Launch: Once you’re sure the site is stable and you’re happy with it, it’s time to come out of the soft-launch phase. Announce the new site in all the channels you have access to – email, social media, blog posts, etc. You might also think about submitting an SEO-friendly press release to shout it from the rooftops.
Benchmark Comparison: Once you’ve had a little time to breathe, take a look at your KPIs and compare them to where you started. You won’t have much data at first, obviously, but make sure to check in at two weeks, one month, three months and six months to make sure everything is on track.
Yes, a website redesign is a lot of work, but in the end, it’s all worth it when you start to see your traffic, conversions, social shares, and other KPIs begin to grow because you’re connecting the right content with the right consumers. Feel free to pat yourself on the back. If you need help with your site relaunch, we have years of experience handling all phases, working with Web designers and developers, and making sure your migration goes as smoothly as you deserve.
BIO: Jake Jamieson started his SEO career in the search department at Lycos in 2001. Over the past 15 years, his focus has been technical SEO, website migration strategy, and analytics consulting. He has helped clients of all types, from small businesses to enterprises, B2B to ecommerce, to identify their audiences and track them accurately.