10 actions you can take to keep your SEO intact during a site redesign

Committing to a site redesign isn’t a decision to take lightly. But it’s one small business owners often make. 

I generally hear owners talking about redesigning their site every 3-5 years because: 

  • they’re tired of their current design
  • they’ve had a rebrand, which then leads to a redesign
  • they’ve repositioned themselves, and so need new messaging
  • they want to fine-tune its processes and functionality to improve conversion rates.

There’s a lot to think about when overhauling a website—the design, the site structure, the images you want to use, and the message you want to communicate. And they’re all important. But one area business owners and some designers often (and easily) overlook is the effect a website redesign can have on SEO performance. 

The cost of overlooking SEO during a site redesign

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know I’m very upfront when it comes to the amount of time and effort needed to implement a successful SEO strategy. It’s a form of digital marketing that never truly stops. But all that effort can go to waste if you don’t take steps to protect the optimization work you’ve already done during the redesign.

Search engines use ‘bots’ to crawl your site to get a sense of the content you have and what it’s all about. It’s how they know what search results to include your site in. And so whenever you make drastic changes to your website these bots need to reassess your site. From my experience, this can take 2-3 weeks. And while it’s happening there’s a good chance that:

  • your search rankings will change (and most likely drop temporarily) 
  • you may not show in results for keywords you once ranked for
  • the amount of organic (free) traffic you get will decrease.

It’s inevitable that your SEO analytics will change during a site redesign. But you can prepare your website and protect the SEO work you’ve already done to minimize those changes. 

10 Tips for protecting your SEO efforts before, during, and after a site redesign

As part of my role as an SEO strategist, I’ve helped small business owners navigate their site redesigns without suffering a complete SEO disaster. Here’s what I’ve found works best to protect the optimization work you’ve already done, and avoid such a steep drop in your site’s SEO analytics.

1. Get your timing right 

While there’s never a perfect time to overhaul your site, there will be times in your calendar when it’s more acceptable to book your redesign

Identify your quieter booking periods. For example, if you’re a wedding photographer you may find that summer is generally slower (depending on what the weather’s like in your neck of the woods). And if you specialize in family portraits you’ll know the run-up to Christmas and the start of a new school term can get really busy. 

Not having your site available during slow periods might seem scary. Business is already sparse at those times, so why would you even consider taking one of your major marketing tools out of action? But from an SEO perspective, you won’t have as much site traffic during these quieter periods, which means temporarily taking your site offline won’t shock your customers or the search bots.

2. Download SEO reports for before and after

A website redesign should enhance your business, whether through reinforcing your brand or improving usability. Make sure you have the analytics showing your site’s performance now so you can compare them to the data you collect after the redesign. 

Before you overhaul your site,

 I recommend downloading Google Analytics and Google Search Console reports from the past 12 months. Make sure you have good snapshots of:

  • site traffic, and the number of visits and unique visitors
  • bounce rates
  • times of pages
  • current rankings for keywords
  • the number of leads your site is generating. 

3. Assess your site’s architecture

Site architecture is the fancy name for how your site is structured. It’s how one page links to another, and the call to action you have for each one. Sites with clear direction that are logical and easy to use tend to perform better because people are more inclined to stay there longer there. 

Work with your designer or website developer to understand how your site’s pages will link together, what pages will sit under others, and the actions you want your website visitor to take on each page.

Note: Your site’s architecture may not change at all during the redesign. But that’s the exception rather than the rule. In most cases, your site’s navigation will change. 

4. Identify high-performing content

Blog articles and sales pages that perform well on your site may not need changing all that much. A redesign might be enough (e.g. change the layout and the colors) rather than replace the images or copy.

Identify the content that’s performing well by running a content audit. Make a list of pages where you don’t need to rewrite or update the content. Telling your designer which pages perform well and need to stay intact will reduce the SEO impact.

5. Brace for a drop in organic traffic

Organic traffic is the free traffic Google sends your way. And it will inevitably decrease after a site redesign. Expect it to drop by 5-10% (although mismanagement could see it drop off almost completely). 

Seeing it all but disappear can be pretty scary. But try not to freak out. As long as your new website follows SEO best practices, it should recover and (hopefully) improve once your swish new site is up and running. 

6. Keep your URLs

Changing a page’s URL during a redesign can be tempting. After all, if you’re going to be making all these changes, wouldn’t now be a great time to change the URL as well? 

From an SEO perspective, this is the quickest way to end up with broken links all over your site. You also risk losing any kudos the page has earned from other pages linking to it. (This is called backlinking.) 

Try to keep your URLs the same. But if you must change them, be prepared to spend time fixing links on your site. You’ll also need to:

  • let any sites linking to the old page know the link has changed (and hope they change it on their site)
  • give the search bots time to crawl the ‘new’ page (as it will appear new to them).

7. Design with mobile in mind

About half of the world’s website traffic comes from mobile devices. Make sure your site is optimized for clients looking at it on their phone. This means adjusting the sizing and copy so it works for those devices. 

8. Give Google some time

Once you launch your freshly pressed, newly optimized site, don’t expect your SEO analytics to bounce back straight away. Google and the other search engines need time to learn about your new site, especially if you’ve added pages and changed the structure. 

Even if you haven’t changed the structure, copy, or content, the site itself will have changed. And that’s what Google needs to relearn, because every design, theme, builder, and platform has different backend code. 

Help your site return to its pre-design SEO strength by making sure the XML sitemap is updated correctly. This map tells Google what pages it should look at. (Leave out any content you don’t want Google to categorize and rank.) 

Extra tip: There’s some debate in SEO circles about whether or not XML sitemaps are useful. But I believe you should have one if you’re serious about optimizing your site because Google’s bots rely on them heavily.    

9. Check site speed

One of Google’s ranking factors is based on how fast your site loads. The theme, images, and plugins your designer or developer chose will give your site a particular look and feel. But you need to make sure they’re not slowing down your site. People expect a website to load in less than 3 seconds on desktop (10 seconds on mobile), and the slower the load speed the more likely they’ll ‘bounce’ off your site. (We’re an impatient bunch these days.)

Check the load speed of your new site using a tool such as GTMetrix. If it’s more than 3 seconds, go through the report’s checklist. For photographers, making sure your images are compressed (rather than the original file size) is key.  

10. Fix any broken links

When a customer selects a broken link, they’ll be taken to a ‘404’ error page telling them the page can’t be found. You can generally avoid creating broken links on your new site by:

  • working on your site’s architecture before the redesign begins
  • not changing any URLs. 

However, in my experience one or two always slip through. Especially if you have a lot of content.

Find any broken links by using a site crawling tool such as Screaming Frog. You’ll get a detailed report of any 404 errors on your site, which you can then fix by correcting the link or adding a new one.

Give yourself time to prepare

The prospect of getting a flashy new website is really exciting. And once you’ve found a designer you like, you may be tempted to jump right in. But from an SEO perspective, you should take some time to prepare yourself and your business for the impact a redesign will have on your primary digital marketing tool—your website. 

Download the Site Redesign Checklist

Barb Davids - SEO Consultant

Barb Davids is an SEO consultant and owner of Compass Digital Strategies. Driven by data and analytics, she works hard to get business-changing results for her clients, such as 256% more website traffic and 22% more leads. Connect with her: Instagram | LinkedIn | Twitter
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