How to Do a Website Redesign without Harming the SEO

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Thinking about a website redesign? Today I’m going to show you exactly how to redesign your website without harming SEO.

In this comprehensive guide I’ll cover:

  • how a website redesign can negatively affect SEO
  • why redesigning your site might be a good idea anyway
  • a step-by-step walkthrough of how to redesign your site safely

So if you want to learn how to plan and execute a website redesign without ruining your site's existing SEO, this post is for you.

Let's dive in!

Why Redesign Your Website?

In the early days of the Internet, businesses didn't have to do much to get noticed online other than have a web page. But those days are long gone. Today, a business website is all but useless unless it's built to rank on the major search engines.

And that often means spending significant time and money on search engine optimization (SEO). According to some estimates, the average website SEO project can cost upwards of $30,000. And most of those projects take 6-12 months to start showing results.

That said, you may be shocked to find out that most marketing experts insist that businesses should be redesigning their websites every 1.5-2.5 years. The rationale behind it is that web technology moves so fast that brands can't run the risk of their site appearing to be behind the times.

But here's the catch – if you redesign your website, you could destroy all the SEO progress you've made up to that point.

Unless you know how to do it in the right way, that is.

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How a Website Redesign Affects SEO

One of the big misconceptions about modern SEO is that there's some kind of one-size-fits-all approach that will guarantee a website better search performance.

That's only partially true. The reason for that is simple: Search engines like Google don't want anyone to know too much about how they rank pages – or their whole ranking system would become meaningless.

But through a combination of careful testing and tireless research, SEO experts now believe they've identified at least 200 ranking factors that go into scoring every web page. And nobody (except Google) knows how many there are in total.

Among those 200 ranking factors are some that could be disturbed by a site redesign. One of the biggest has to do with linking. 

Inbound and outbound links play a huge role in a given web page's search rank. And so does the internal structure of the site itself.

For example, if you have a site with a cluster of pages focused on various aspects of a specific topic, they are likely interconnected and bolstering each other's performance. All you'd have to do is change one URL in the cluster to cause a cascade of SEO problems. Internally, those pages would all feature broken links.

And if an authority website has content linking to your cluster, they'll end up with a broken link, too. Next thing you know, some clever SEO expert will swoop in and offer the authority site a link replacement, and boom – your SEO damage is permanent.

Dive Deeper:
* Google’s 200 Ranking Factors [Infographic]
* The Easy Guide to Broken Link Building for SEO
* 10 Most Important Google Ranking Factors (& How to Optimize for Them!)

So Why Would You Risk a Redesign?

Since a website redesign does come with some SEO risks, it's natural to wonder why a business would take the chance to complete one. And there are a few answers to that.

The first is that an aging website reflects poorly on a brand. And second is that customers have grown to expect a cutting-edge web experience and will flock to whichever business provides it (including your competition).

But the biggest reason is also the most counterintuitive one: to preserve and improve SEO performance.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Search engines like Google are on a never-ending quest to provide their users with the best possible experience. And that means they are always evolving their ranking criteria to reflect what their users want. For example, back in 2015, Google altered its ranking criteria to prioritize mobile-friendly websites in searches originating from mobile devices:

Mobile friendly sites - correct and incorrect

All at once, a whole generation of websites became almost obsolete. And businesses had to redesign their sites to be mobile-friendly or risk losing ground among a critical search audience. Those that didn't continue to pay an SEO price to this day – since Google has since gone mobile-first on all searches.

But that's not the only change Google has or will make. And that means businesses have to redesign as needed if they want to keep up. So, despite the risks, planning and executing a website redesign is usually worth the trouble and expense.

Dive Deeper:
* The 4 Fundamentals of E-commerce Website Design
* How Poor Website Security Negatively Impacts SEO Rankings
* How to Design the UX of a Website or App to Increase Conversions

6 Steps to Execute an SEO-Neutral Website Redesign

By keeping SEO in mind from the beginning of your redesign process, it is possible to avoid costly SEO errors. If you do a good job, your redesign should be SEO-neutral. If you do an exceptional job, you should even end up with improved SEO performance.

Here's what to do.

Step 1: Complete an SEO Analysis of the Existing Site

Before even thinking about a new website design, it's necessary to analyze the SEO performance of the site you already have. And that means completing an SEO audit to see where things stand before you make changes.

To do this, it's best to begin with a crawl of the existing website using your preferred tool. Some excellent choices include:

The idea is to make sure that everything on your existing site works as it should, from an SEO perspective. Otherwise, when you begin the process of migrating to a new design, you'll also be replicating pre-existing problems.

And once you're sure everything's working as it should, you'll also want to collect some performance data from the existing site. This will allow you to measure the impact your redesign has on SEO performance. The data points to collect include:

  • Search ranks for already-targeted keywords
  • Number of unique visitors
  • Average time on site
  • Current domain authority
  • Bounce rate

Related Content: 10 Effective SEO Techniques to Drive Organic Traffic in 2021

Step 2: Clean Up Backlinks

After collecting data about your existing site, the next thing to do is to look for any external factors that might be harming your SEO.

To do this, you'll need to conduct a backlink audit:

Look for any inbound links that aren't from reputable sources. Those links aren't likely to improve your search performance and may be harming your site's reputation.

Some good backlink audit tools include:

If you find a large number of sketchy backlinks, that's a sign that your site may have been targeted for harm by a competitor. Intentionally adding poor-quality backlinks to a competitor's site is a negative SEO tactic some unscrupulous webmasters unfortunately use. Their goal is to damage your site's search performance and elevate their own by comparison.

Regardless of the reason, once you've identified any unwanted backlinks, you can disavow them using your Google Search Console. This will negate the negative SEO effects of those unwanted backlinks by letting Google know you're not responsible for them.

When you've done that, you'll be ready for the next website redesign step.

Related Content: How – and Why – to Build a Backlink Portfolio

Step 3: Catalog Your Most Valuable Content

In most cases, a large part of your site's SEO performance will come from a handful of high-performing pages. They could be helpful articles, walkthroughs, or product description pages.

It's important to catalog those pages before you think about making any design changes to your site. This is because anything that interferes with search engines' ability to locate and send searchers to those pages could be a catastrophe for your SEO performance.

In this case, you'll want to focus on pages that:

  • Have plentiful high-quality inbound links
  • Generate high time-on-site and low bounce rates
  • Exhibit a high number of user shares
  • Rank high in the SERPs for targeted keywords

You can use a simple Word doc for your high-ranking pages. But if you want to be more organized, you can use Excel or a Google spreadsheet. On your sheet, you can place a tab for the inbound links, targeted keywords, user shares, and ranking. This way, you can readily see every detail for every page you listed.

Once you've made a list of your most valuable content, you should put it aside to revisit before you launch your new site. At that time, you'll be comparing the old versions with the new ones to make sure nothing was overlooked or omitted.

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Step 4: Set Up a Staging Server and Create a Design Framework

At this point, you should be ready to begin working on your new website design. But it's critical to do the work without disturbing your existing site.

So this step is to set up a staging server with a separate subdomain from your existing site (click here for a step-by-step guide on how to do this):

Staging server

If your redesign also includes a domain name change (if you're rebranding or going through an acquisition), now's the time to do a domain name search to secure the domain you plan to use.

As you do, you should also make sure the domain you're choosing doesn't have any negative SEO history associated with it. You don't want to inherit any problems from a domain's previous owner. Even if it takes you several tries to find one, it's worth it.

The owners of CVMaker went through more than a dozen options before settling on their current domain name. It turned out that an unscrupulous competitor had cycled through multiple similar names and left them in poor standing in Google's eyes. Had they not taken the time to investigate, their business may have suffered the consequences.

Once you have your staging server set up, you should configure it to prevent indexing by search engines.

This will prevent your half-finished designs from appearing in search results before they're ready. If you're using a subdomain under your existing website, this is extremely important.

Once that's done, you can proceed to create your new design and the framework for your new site.

Related Content: B2B SEO: How to Rank Your Business Website Higher in Search

Step 5: Make a Redirect List

When your new site design is ready to go, you should go back to your original site to figure out which pages and content won't be making the transition to the new design. This allows you to eliminate poor-performing or redundant pages from your old website. It's critical to be very thorough as you do this.

The reason is simple. You're going to need to set up 301 redirects for any nonexistent pages on your new website so you don't lose any inbound traffic. A 301 redirect is a means of informing search engines of permanent site structure changes. They also preserve any preexisting link weighting.

You also need to use 301 redirects for any pages that are transitioning to your new site design, but that will appear at different URLs.

Failing to get this step right could cause you plenty of SEO headaches once your new site goes live.

Step 6: Crawl Your New Site

After you create new pages of all the content that is making the transition to your new design and set up redirects for anything you've omitted, you're ready for the next step. And that is to use the same tools you used in step one to crawl the new version of your website:

The purpose is to make sure that you've updated all of your internal linking and that all of your new pages function the way they're supposed to.

Ideally, you should be able to compare the results of your old site's crawl to your new site's crawl to make sure you haven't overlooked anything. If everything checks out, you should be clear to launch your new site without any trouble.

But don't let your guard down. Even after you launch, you'll want to monitor your site analytics to look for any signs of a problem. Addressing any errors or omissions quickly is the key to preserving your hard-won SEO progress after your site redesign goes live.

Related Content: SEO Score: How to Grade Your Website (in 5 Minutes)

Ready, Set, Launch

If you've made it through the six steps above – and you're happy with your new site design – you can launch it with confidence. You should be able to do so without doing any harm to your existing SEO. And that's no small thing.

After all, if you're going to stick to the recommended 1.5 to 2.5-year lifespan of the average business website, you're not going to have the time (or the money) to start your SEO work from scratch every time you move to a new design. And now that you know what it takes to preserve all those hard-won gains – you won't have to worry about that happening ever again.

Hopefully you learned how to do a website redesign without harming your SEO! But if you just want an expert SEO agency to do it for you, click here.

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