Becoming an SEO Ninja
A Beginners Guide to Keyword Research
How To Avoid Losing Your SEO Rankings When Redesigning Or Migrating Your Website
Any type of major site change, whether it’s a redesign, a migration to a new domain, or a migration to a new CMS, can have a serious impact on SEO. New URLs, new technology, redirects and changing on-page optimisation can all cause search rankings to fall and do permanent damage to your site’s SEO success. However, provided that you have a solid redesign or migration plan in place, you can keep a fluctuation in your rankings to a minimum.
We’ve compiled this comprehensive SEO checklist to help, and we’ve also thrown in a few extra tips to help you avoid the most common pitfalls experienced during website redesigns, domain migration, HTTP to HTTPs migration, CMS migration and eCommerce migration.
1. Perform a full SEO audit
An SEO audit allows you to see the site’s strengths and weaknesses, potential risks a redesign or migration could bring, and opportunities for improving your SEO which could be implemented as part of your migration or redesign. It can help you to understand which pages should be migrated and which are not needed, areas for improvement, and risks that need attention.
According to Moz an SEO audit conducted pre-redesign or migration should involve checking for:
• Missing page titles and duplicate titles
• Page titles above 512 and below 200 pixels
• Missing, duplicate and multiple H1 tags
• Missing and duplicate meta descriptions
• Meta descriptions over 923 pixels
• Canonical tags and canonicalization
• Broken internal and external links
• Image alt text
• Duplicate content (through Copyscape or similar)
• Pages indexed by Google (using ‘site:command’ in Google)
• Site speed and performance (using Google PageSpeed)
2. Crawl your website yourself
This will help you get to grips with the site’s existing structure and allow you to show both your SEOs and web developers exactly which URLs will need to be redesigned, migrated and/or redirected. Don’t forget about any subdomains, either. Tools like Screaming Frog can allow you to crawl your entire domain.
3. Analyse current site performance
Use the site redesign or migration as an opportunity to review, document and improve your SEO practices. Try using browser plugins like Search Status and SEO Site Tools to analyse your on-page optimisation, and be sure to use the same successful techniques on your new site to avoid losing rankings. It’s also a great chance to assess which practices are working particularly well, and to implement them into brand new or less successful existing pages on the new site.
Don’t delete anything you don’t have to – some old blog posts may seem like unnecessary additions to your new site, but they all add to the credibility of your website and could negatively impact SEO if removed. It’s also really important that you don’t change landing page content if it’s performing well – if you think it could be time to change it up to improve rankings, wait until your new site is established and running well (i.e. your SEO is in as good standing as it was prior to redesign/migration) and then begin testing and optimising landing page content.
4. Perform inbound link analysis
Tools like Open Site Explorer allow you to gather data on inbound links to your site – these are important, because not only are they a source of referral traffic, but they also contribute towards your link profile which is crucial for good page rank. Once your migrated site is live, you should keep an eye on referral traffic from these inbound links to ensure there aren’t any problems causing a loss of traffic or page rank.
5. Set up Google Webmaster Tools
This will allow you to monitor your site’s performance before, during and after migration to check there are no issues, such as broken links. Plus, it means you can immediately tell Google about your new domain name (if applicable) once your new site is launched to help the search engine crawl it faster.
6. Noindex your test site
Noindexing your test site will prevent search engines indexing a site which is pretty much an exact duplicate of your original site. Failure to do this could lead to both sites being penalised and have a major impact on your search rankings. Noindex can be done by simply ticking the noindex box in your CMS, or by putting the following code into your Robots.txt file or manually inserting it into your site’s header file:
7. Create a 301 redirect map
If your URLs are set to change, which they will when you migrate to a new domain name or switch from HTTP to HTTPS, you must 301 redirect them to their new pages. This will pass PageRank safely from your old pages to the new ones. A 301 status code basically tells search engines that pages have permanently moved to a new URL. Search Engine Land have a fantastic article on the intricacies of creating and implementing a 301 redirect map – all you need is a spreadsheet, Webmaster Tools, and a little time and patience.
Your pre-launch SEO checklist
With all the prep, planning, designing and migrating done, you should have a fully functional test site all ready to launch. Don’t rush though – there are a few crucial tips steps left:
1. Crawl your new test site yourself
By doing this, you can see how your new site compares to the old one. Steps 5 and 6 in this Moz article explain in detail how to do this in a way that helps you understand the structure of your new site and see if there are any missing pages compared to your old site, which could be a disaster for your SEO.
2. Create a new XML sitemap
This is vital if you want the search bots to successfully crawl your new site.
3. Change your domain name in all Webmaster accounts
This lets the search engines know of your new domain (if applicable) as soon as possible, so that they can quickly crawl your new site.
Your post-launch SEO checklist
Your site may be live, but now isn’t the time to relax! Follow this SEO checklist for new website launches:
1. Put your analytics code into the head of the new site so you can continue tracking conversions, goals and events if you have them.
2. Unblock the site to allow search engines to index it.
3. Keep a close eye on everything, even after a successful launch. You’ll want to closely watch rankings, organic traffic, referral traffic, indexed pages and look out for errors in Webmaster Tools for the weeks following the launch of the new site. If rankings suddenly drop there’s clearly a problem, and you should quickly find out what it is.
How to redesign a website without losing SEO
Make sure your SEO team are communicating well with web developers and anyone else who has obvious connection with the website, such as content creators or marketers. This process will be made significantly easier if you’re working with an agency which manages multiple aspects of your SEO, web design and content marketing, but if you have multiple different parties involved, make sure they have open lines of communication available. Every major change and addition to website should be checked before it goes live to ensure your SEO isn’t impacted. You should also make sure new technology is vetted by the head of your SEO.
How to migrate a website without losing SEO
When following the website migration SEO checklist, the biggest cause for concern is the risk of losing the search equity of your well-established, high-ranking pages. You should always create a 301 redirect map to ensure this doesn’t happen, and be particularly diligent about comparing your old site with the new one to check that you haven’t inadvertently removed or changed pages which were generating organic traffic.
To minimise the risk of broken links or redirects, you should consider trying to keep your URL structure as close of possible to that of your existing site. Of course, migrating your website to a new domain may give you an opportunity to optimise your URL structure to make pages more SEO-friendly, but if this is the case and the URL structure is due to dramatically change, your 301 redirect map should be absolutely bulletproof.
Migrating from HTTP to HTTPS
Google favours HTTPS as a ranking signal so if you’re making the leap from HTTP you can expect to see some SEO gains in the long run, providing that you don’t cause any major SEO damage during the transition. A HTTP to HTTPS migration checklist will look much like a standard domain name migration checklist, because ultimately it is just the domain changing.
However, to make the process as seamless as possible, you should aim to keep your URLs identical to that of the original site, the only difference being ‘https://’ instead of ‘http://’. You’ll still need a 301 redirect map, because all of your URLs will be changing and you don’t want to risk losing search equity of established pages. You should also do plenty of rigorous inbound link analysis and post-migration testing to check for any serious URL problems.
Migrating to a new CMS
First things first, you should check that the CMS has all the functionality you need to ensure you can optimise the site. Consider what aspects of optimisation your new CMS package might force (or neglect), and whether that works with your SEO strategy. Does it make on-page optimisation easy? Is it compatible with any analytics tools or SEO software that you use? You should also check for online reviews and speak to real people who use the CMS to ask how their migration went in regards to SEO. It may also be worth performing an SEO audit of sites you know of that run the CMS to see how they perform.
Once you’re confident in your choice of CMS, your migration will look much the same as a site redesign; the actual look of your site may not change, nor will URLs unless you plan to change them, but both on-page and off-page ranking factors might. Rigorous comparisons between the old and new sites are crucial, so crawling, both before and after the migration, should be a particularly important aspect of your migration plan.
Migrating an eCommerce site
When it comes to eCommerce sites, the risk of a drop in search rankings can be particularly daunting because lost traffic means lost conversions and lost revenue. For this reason, it’s often a good idea to plan a migration or redesign during your quietest period. So, if you tend to see slow traffic and conversions during the post-Christmas period, that is the perfect time to make the major changes to your site.
301 redirects will also be a major cause for concern for eCommerce migrations, because chances are that you have far more individual pages for all those products than an informational website does, and a much more complex URL structure due to your product categories. Your 301 redirect map will therefore be a major aspect of your SEO plan, so be sure to give it the time it needs to be absolutely spot on.
Key takeaway: Plan ahead for SEO success
If you hadn’t already guessed it, the key to successful website redesign and migration is good, honest planning. Don’t rush the migration process, ensure your web developers are understanding of your SEO concerns, and be sure to do plenty of analysis and testing before, during and after the new site launch to ensure you’re search performance is as strong as it ever was.