Without proper planning during a website redesign you can decimate your organic traffic. This article is Part I in a series of articles that will create the ultimate SEO checklist for consideration when redesigning a website so that this devastation doesn’t happen to you. If you don’t want to lose traffic during a new site redesign, thoroughly review these lists and use the referenced resources.
Moving your site’s current SEO value can be an in-depth undertaking so I’ll cover these steps in detail. First we will drill down into the pre-launch SEO checklist, phrase 1- 3.
This 7 (or 8) Phase Checklist includes:
Pre-Launch Check: Phase 1-3
Phase I: Inventorying and prioritization
Phase II: Content SEO audit
Phase III: Map or move
Launch Check: Phase 4
Phase IV: Make the move
Phase V: Audit everything again
Phase VI: Technical SEO final
Post-Launch Check: Phase 7-8
Phase VII: Keep a watchful eye
Potential Phase VII: Fix it if it’s broke
Just so the importance of this process is clear, here is a screen shot from a site’s Google Analytics profile with a poor transition (see figure 1).
Pre-Launch SEO Checklist: Phase 1 – 3
Phase I: Inventorying and prioritization of content and links
If you don’t understand your content and links when transitioning a site then you will likely lose traffic, if not decimate it. However, with these steps you can forgo or at least limit the devastation.
1) Start by using analytics (Google, SiteCatalyst, etc.) to analyze the site’s traffic.
Here are 3 custom reports that you can use (made for Google Analytics) with techniques for analysis.
Organic Landing Page Report
The Analysis: An anaylsis of this report will provide an inventory of content and create priority lists.
Create an organic landing page report to get the data in figure 2. If you use Google Analytics (GA), sign in to your account then click this link to automatically generate a custom report and save it to your GA profile.
Then export the data and create pivot tables in excel to create the charts below (here’s a video on how to create pivot tables).
From this data you can get some great insights. In figure 3 you can see that there are several pages that are generating over several hundred sessions while there are roughly 225 pages that are generating 1 or 2 sessions. Figure 4 provides additional insights into how much traffic the top pages are producing, 64% of traffic is coming from 10 pages. So these 10 SEO pages will have to be high priority with the transition.
Another common insight gained from this data is that many pages will receive a few sessions each but the high number of pages will be the key driver of organic traffic.
For example, below you can see that a large number of pages generate all the traffic and maintaining those pages will be critical.
Total month sessions = 3,000
Total pages = 5,400
Count of pages with 1 or 2 sessions = 2,300
Total sessions = 4,600 total session and 76% of total traffic
The Application: From this information you can identify 1) pages that will maintain similar content, 2) pages that should maintain their hierarchy, and 3) pages that can be removed or reorganized.
Referral and General Landing Page Reports
If you can analyze the data above for the organic landing page report then you’ll be able to analyze both the general landing page sessions and the referral landing page sessions. Here are 2 custom reports that I use to analyze this data:
Referral traffic landing page as a dimension with key acquisition, behavior, and value metrics. Download the Google Analytics template.
General landing page from all sources as a dimension with key acquisition, behavior, and value metrics. Download the Google Analytics template.
2) Analyze the the site’s internal and inbound links
Links are how a site passes authority from one page/site to another page/site. They are a key factor on a site’s ability to rank. Matt Cutts has acknowledged that backlinks are an important factor. Here is one of many videos of Matt Cutts discussing the importance of links. Thus, make sure all links that are pointing to pages on your site don’t end up going to 404 pages or irrelevant pages.
Analyzing inbound backlinks
To identify backlinks I use Majestic.com as I find that it provides one of the most robust list of links for most sites that I’ve analyzed.
Tip: No link reporting tool will give you all of the backlinks that actually come to a site. So consider using several tools and then combining them in Excel with vLookup.
Interested in building new white-hat links, learn more about our link building service?
With the data form Majestic you will be able to prioritize pages more effectively. At the very least you will have the insight to maintain all inbound links to the site so that the site doesn’t loose authority as a result of broken inbound links.
Analyze internal linking structure
In the past few years website designers and strategist have moved towards simplifying sites or designing with ‘mobile first’. This focus has had a tendency to reduce the number of links or the amount of written content on key pages (e.g. the homepage or category pages). I have seen several sites that have had major loss in traffic to high performing (high traffic) pages because a site’s internal linking structure was broken during redesign.
To avoid this silly mistake, use Screaming Frog SEO Spider to crawl the existing site. The tool has an internal linking report that will find all internal links to or from any page (see figure 6).
When analyzing this data I recommend finding insights that answer the questions below.
- What pages are linked from the homepage?
- What pages are linked from key category level pages?
- Out of the top organic landing pages, what is the linking structure of the top traffic drivers?
Phase 2: Content SEO Audit
I have a lot of pride in Rowe Digital’s industry-leading SEO audit as the most comprehensive analysis that uses automated and human intelligence. What is in this article is only a sample of the analysis we do, but it does cover the key elements that need to be analyzed during a site redesign. The SEO elements below need to be audited for a comprehensive analysis:
- Title tags
- H1 and H2 tags
- Description tags
- Written content
For these elements consider the following:
- Current keyword rankings and organic traffic
- How are the keywords integrated into the copy
- What are the outbound links
- How technical is the content
- How much content is there
- What type of page is it
Tip: don’t worry about keyword density being X% of the total page’s content but do focus on the context and use of terminology in content and links. Research latent dirichlet allocation.
Current Keyword Ranking
To not lose organic traffic to your site you need to understand why it gets traffic. The foundation of this seemingly unavailable data is the keyword rankings (Google removed the ability to identify all of the keywords that are driving traffic to a website with the Not Provide issue).
As of now, there are 2 ways to get your rankings for Google: 1) Google Webmaster Tools (GWT), and 2) 3rd party ranking tools. Use both!
Lets start with Google Webmaster Tools. GWT doesn’t provide the full picture of rankings by page but it’s better than not having any information. The 2 reports to focus on are the ‘top queries’ (see figure 7) and ‘top pages’ (see figure 8) reports.
Focus on the key pages identified from the organic landing page analysis and:
- Create a list of keywords the page ranks for
- For each page identify the keeper terms and the I’d-prefer-not-to-lose terms
- Make sure the keepers get mapped as they are currently into the new content
With GWT it’s important to note that a major benefit is that it provides keywords that a page will rank that may not be very obvious. Additionally, it doesn’t provide all keywords that the page will generate traffic for.
Tip: Sites no longer need to have an exact match of a keyword in the SEO elements to rank for a term. So if your site is ranking for a term but it’s not in your page exactly then it may be a synonym or it may have the keyword broken out across the page.
Some great 3rd party ranking tools are out there which will provide more detail between keywords and landing pages or even providing ranking for all possible keywords. One of the most popular ranking tools is Advanced Web Ranking. There is a desktop and web version available.
How are the keywords integrated into the copy
Before Google’s Penguin algorithm update it was much easier to identify the keywords that a page would rank for because they were mostly present in the page’s SEO elements. There were even tools that would identify the keywords automatically like SEOMoz’s On-Page Grader tool.
However, the rules for on-page optimization are much different now compared to several years ago. So when analyzing a page’s optimization I recommend considering this:
- Identify the keywords that the page should rank for
- Create a list of synonyms for each keyword
- Check the ranks for the keyword to see what type of content is ranking and how the keywords are integrated into those pages
If the exact match of the keyword is not always relevant then what should you look for?
Let me provide an example.
Here is a target keyword ‘how to fix a door hinge’.
See figure 9 for the existing content that ranks in Google as of January 2014. Note that the top ranking content’s title tags have ‘how to repair stripped door hinge holes’ and ‘how to repair stripped screw holes for a door hinges’.
Note that the pages’ title tag is not an exact match for the target term. Thus, an exact match of the target keyword will not be useful for on-page optimization. Consider a more creative title and use various parts of the keyword throughout the body copy.
What are the outbound links
The links on a page that are pointing out to other sites or other pages seem to be a strong signal to Google that a page is providing valuable information to the user and thus is worth ranking. If the content is being heavily changed then keeping the outbound links as-is will be a fantastic way to reduce the lurking variables that can have a negative impact on rankings.
The factors to consider are the anchor text structure, the authority of the site’s being linked to, the semantic relevance of the links, and if the links are rel=nofollow.
How technical is the content
Google provides us with 3 different reading levels of its top ranking content. Although we can’t have Google evaluate our content separate from all content in the SERPs we can identify the level of complexity of ranking content. Then we can compare that to the site’s existing content (see figure 10).
It’s difficult to determine if your content should be simple or complex based on what is ranking but I default to sticking within a similar reading level for any keyword. There are options to identify the reading level of content automatically. I use URL Profiler to identity the readability scores that the tool automatically integrates. To develop a full understanding of those scores it will take several full articles, and that will just scratch the surface.
How much content is there
The best practices for word count was 250 – 500 words per page a few years ago, and now it’s common to see articles rank that have 1000+. But with e-commerce pages and product focused keywords the rules are different. An e-commerce page will not have 1000+ words on it. Thus, if the content on your page is a certain word count then the new content should be similar.
Simply remember that word count counts. And if the word count is dramatically difference from the old site to the new then it can impact rankings.
What type of page is it
Is your content a product page, informational, or directive in nature?
I challenge you to search Google for two terms ‘buy shoes online’ and ‘what are the most durable shoes’. The type of content that ranks is very different for those two keyword phrases. You’ll see in figure 11 that the top 3 results don’t have long blocks of written content (search Google and click on the links to see page content). The content for these pages are images with links to specific products or category pages.
If your content ranks well and it doesn’t use long blocks of copy then you should consider not enhancing it.
And the information architecture
Finally, the information architecture of a site as a whole and for the key pages can have a negative impact if changed during the redesign. Although this topic can be complex I recommend considering these 3 simple questions:
- What is the URL path for key pages? (e.g. www.example.com/category/page)
- How far from the root domain is the key page’s URL?
- How deep is the content (i.e. number of clicks it takes to get to the page) from the homepage?
It is not uncommon to want to restructure your content so that it may make more sense for visitors, but this can lead to pages being reorganized in the site’s hierarchy. For example:
For the following URL the page is close to the root domain and may be one click away from the homepage.
If the page is part of a larger category then it seems logical to include that page as a sub-page of the category. So the url might change to
In this example a page was moved 2 folders deep and as a result Google may see this page’s importance being reduced and thus may rank it lower for the term ‘blue shoes’.
Note that the study of information architecture includes internal linking and content structure but those are discussed earlier in this article.
Tip: For specific articles or product pages, moving the pages close to the homepage in the folder structure and having them linked from the homepage or in the main navigation can have a strong impact on the page’s ability to rank.
Phase III: Map or move
For each page on the site you’ll have to make the decision to map them to a similar/same page on the new site or remove the page entirely and redirect the link to another page. The insights gained from phase I and Phase II will guide you through this process.
Map old content to new pages
This is a relatively simple process but it can be time consuming. For all pages that exist on the current site there should be a respective page on the new. In many cases a site redesign will have pages removed from the site or updated to be about another topic altogether. These changes are the ones that will take up the most time. However, it will be beneficial to identify the pages that should remain the same and make no changes to their content or URL structures.
Either way you will need to map the old pages to the new, and this is done with a 301 map.
301 maps and redirects
A 301 redirect is how you will tell the search engines where the old content went to so that they don’t de-index your content and pass value that the page had from inbound links. A 301 redirect will likely have to be implemented by a developer if you have a lot of pages. Some CMSs like WordPress have plugins that will allow you to easily manage 301 redirects without having a developer change the .htaccess file on the server.
You can handle the 301 redirects by using the template shown in Figure 12 below. Use this template to map the pages and then you can hand this map to the developer or make the changes in the CMS.
Note that this template will tell the developer what pages to apply the 301 redirect to, but they cannot upload this to the server or CMS to make the 301 redirects work.
If you have to create a .htaccess file for your developer then you can use this site to generate one for them http://beamusup.com/generate-htaccess/.
Not implementing proper redirects of old urls is a major issue. In our study of almost 100 sites we found over 65,000 broken links. See the full broken link study here.
If you have read through this whole article then congratulations, you are closer to maintaining your website’s traffic during your redesign. I‘ll be writing part 2 which will go in-depth into how to properly move the site so that traffic isn’t decimated.