You’re in the middle of a website redesign or you’re considering a revamp, how do you know your changes won’t affect your existing ranking with Google?
What happens if you go through all that effort, time, and money, redesigning your website, and suddenly it’s no-longer ranking like it was before the redesign? That’s exactly what happened to a website designer during Google’s latest office hours session with John Mueller – A veteran Search Advocate at Google.
The designer had recently “revamped” a number of websites and had experienced extremely negative and destructive changes to his site’s search rankings post-launch.
How can we avoid issues like this and make sure your website keeps it’s ranking? John Mueller gives us some pointers which we’ll explore in this post today.
How we redesigned and continue to “revamp” Stiff Upper Lip.
Back when we redesigned Stiff Upper Lip, we knew we needed SEO to be top of mind. What’s great is that we had a (relatively) blank slate to work with, so not only could we build something from the ground-up using the latest and greatest, but we now have the perfect sandbox to experiment in.
Having said that, we’ve taken an evolution style approach to our updates and revamps. With an aim to build up content (and consequently, SEO value) over time. But what happens if you’re doing a complete overhaul? How do you ensure you keep your existing SEO value? These factors might not be obvious in the midst of a redesign, but they’re important to consider.
What does Google see when you revamp your website?
Google uses a number of factors to rank your site, and long-term consistency when it comes to structure is certainly key – major changes can really throw Google’s bots through a loop if you haven’t prepared correctly. When conducting a redesign, we really want to avoid Google treating your website as if it were brand new.
John Mueller listed some key factors that might cause Google to treat a website as brand new:
- If your website URL’s change
- Your website content changes significantly
- You don’t make use of smart redirects from old URLs to new ones
“…those are essentially aspects that say to us that we have to treat this as a new website because essentially we crawl from the start and there’s completely different content or it’s completely different in setup or it’s a completely different layout or the URLs are completely different.” – John Mueller
Does changing site structure affect rankings?
Almost in every case, yes. It’s best to try and keep your core structure consistent. If you’re ranking certain pages, keep their urls and architecture the same. If you really must change urls, make sure you’re mapping old urls to new ones with smart and proper use of redirects.
Of course, done properly or intentionally, changing the site structure can have a positive effect as Mueller noted during the Q&A:
“…It’s something where changing the structure of a website will affect how search looks at it and it can be a positive effect too…So that might be that the previous revamps that you did if you went from a one page website to a multi-page website, it might be that that was a good change for those websites…But it might be that the same change for the current website that you’re working on does not make so much sense..”
Personally, I like to take an evolution style approach, especially if you already have an established ranking. It might take a little extra time, but adjusting existing pages, keeping content and site structure the same, layering in new design and evolving that content over time, is your safest bet.
Be on the lookout – Avoid revamps that coincide with major Google updates.
Google always seems to be making updates to their algorithms, so this one can be hard to avoid. But it’s good to know when these updates are happening so that you can more easily debug potential issues. It’s absolutely possible that the changes in ranking for your website aren’t due to your revamp at all, but just a change in how Google evaluates your pages.
“…And sometimes when you do a revamp you get the timing in such a perfect way that it aligns exactly with when we make a core update or when we make a bigger ranking change…”
“…And then it’s really hard to recognize: Is this issue because of my kind of technical change that I made or is this issue because Google just generally would have understood my website differently anyway…”
“…Use the different testing tools to make sure that it’s all crawlable and indexable… all of those things…”
That last snippet of information is key to our redesign process – We will always crawl and index a site before making any major changes. This gives us a solid baseline and a historical reference of what the website looked like before the change.
Once the website is revamped, we can re-crawl and compare the two states, giving us a clear picture of the differences and what to expect if/when rankings change.
Uh oh, something weird happened! – Any negative changes to your rank should be investigated.
Uh oh! Your website redesign is complete and your number of visitors has dropped to zero! What now? Well, any negative changes to your rank should be thoroughly investigated.
There’s several investigations we can do – first would be to look internally – Looking at internal links and overall website structure. You’re looking for any discrepancies between old and new and how that might affect rank.
Sometimes the issue isn’t all that clear and when there’s no clear cause, it could be related to a change on Google’s side. In this case, a more in-depth search audit should be completed, to understand Google’s changes, the differences between your old site and new, and how those changes might have affected your ranking.
Remember! If your site is ranking well, making changes should be done in a measured and careful way, you’ve worked hard to get it ranked, so make sure you’re taking care when making changes.
Don’t worry, it’s not all that bad.
Ok, so this all sounds like doom-and-gloom. It’s not, I promise!
- Don’t worry about any of this if you haven’t focused on SEO before. Your website probably isn’t ranking too high anyway. Instead, how about kicking off a redesign with “SEO first” in mind?
- If you do rank and you want to redesign your website, there are legitimate ways to make updates carefully, and in a measured way. Your website designer should guide you through this process to make sure there are no lasting negative effects.
- Regardless of the changes you’re making, you always want those website structure and content changes to positively affect your rank. So make sure there’s a plan in place before you dive in and get started.
Wrap it up.
Revamping or redesigning your website will affect your rank in just about every case. We just want to make sure that it’s a positive – rather than a negative – effect. All it takes is a little planning and forethought before diving headfirst into a complete overhaul.
Before redesign, make sure you:
- Collect baseline SEO metrics
- Determine where you currently rank
- Map page urls between old and new
- Collect and catalog metadata for key pages – Page titles and descriptions
- Add appropriate redirects if required using the map you generated above
- Make sure you have up-to-date XML sitemaps
- Regularly re-run SEO metrics
- Monitor your website ranking and look-out for any anomalies
We’d love to hear your thoughts – Have you experienced negative effects to your website rank post-website-revamp? Have you done SEO planning before starting a website redesign? What did you do and how did it work out for you? Let us know! Are you planning a website redesign and not sure where to start? Whether recommending services we offer, or just dishing out some advice, we’d be happy to help.
If you’re interested in other insights from John Mueller, you can catch the whole Office Hours session: