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How to maintain your rankings during a website redesign

How to maintain your rankings during a website redesign

By now, many firms own domains that are more than a decade old. Firms with an established web presence that are embarking on a redesign project must often work to create a new look for a site that already has a search marketing strategy in place. The process of refreshing a website’s layout and structure should not negatively affect the site’s ranking — but it can without proper planning. It is a waste of time, money and effort to build a beautiful site that searchers never see due to a fall in rankings.

A successful website should look professional, keep visitors engaged, present prospective clients with helpful information, convert and rank well. Fortunately, many of the factors that help a site perform for visitors also contribute to higher search results placement. Simple, intuitive design, a well-planned navigation structure, a sitemap and high-value content all work for both people and search engines. In the past, many websites succumbed to the problem of page stuffing: cramming a site full of useless text to try to achieve better rankings, often to the detriment of design and communication. Search engines might have been fooled by spammy sites, but people were not. And search engines soon caught up.

Consider the following when developing a new web product:

1. Give search engines as much data as possible.

When a search engine is indexing your website, it is looking for information. The more information you give it, and the more intuitively that information is organized, the more likely you are to see positive results. Since Google is no longer fooled by word-laden pages filled with thin content, clean design can flourish. HTML 5 gives developers the ability to add interactive elements and more effectively tag and categorize content for web crawlers.

Take advantage of all the tools at your disposal to ensure your content is visible to and well-defined for search engines. Avoid putting text, especially important text like a phone number, in an image. Label everything on the page to give items context. For example, an image should have a descriptive file name and should be given an alt tag — a piece of code that further identifies the image.

Use semantic code and rich snippets to define the elements on each page. Semantic code tells a browser the function of different pieces of content. For example, the code defining a header could look like this:

<div id="header">
Header content

This will render the content between the two header divs in line with the site's defined header styles, but the code tells the browser nothing. Instead, with semantic code, the header would look like this:

Header content

Browsers understand the header tag, and can classify the content accordingly.

Rich snippets also provide additional information for search engines. Rich snippets can define an event, a business or organization, a product or a review (among other things). Rich snippets can be used, for example, to display a star review within a search result. The more data you give a search engine the better, and correct tags, semantic code and rich snippets help provide that data.

2. When programming a new site, avoid duplicate content.

Google has been cracking down on duplicate content for several years. Older websites may still have issues with redundant content as a holdover from a time when conventional SEO wisdom said the more the better. Firms were encouraged to post content in article directories, which syndicated the same pieces to site after site. If your firm is redesigning your website, you should reevaluate your content strategy and make sure your new site's content is fresh and unique.

However, efforts to write completely new content can be rendered useless if the development site is not hidden from search engines. While a site is being programmed, it usually sits on a development server so the code can be reviewed and tested. During this time, pages should be hidden from Google through the use of code that tells Google not to index them. If Google indexes the test urls and then sees the same content on your newly launched site, it could assume that everything on your new website is duplicate content. This duplicate content trap is one that can easily be avoided with a little planning.

3. Write for humans.

Much ink has been spilled over the mystery of what makes page content good in the eyes of a search engine. But Google has continuously stated that pages should appear natural to real people. Text should read like it was written for a human, which means no sentences that contain more keywords than meaning. Content should be well-researched, well-edited and organized into paragraphs, headers and subheads that flow naturally. Focus on writing pages that your clients want to read. Content that gets a lot of attention from readers is more valuable than a piece with perfectly balanced keyword placement but little reader engagement.

4. Give thought to your sitemap and page hierarchy.

Your site's navigation should be organized with the user in mind. Google looks at a site’s page hierarchy and attempts to judge whether there is an obvious flow from main pages to subpages and an obvious assignment of relevance to the most important content. A well-organized website allows visitors to navigate to the information they want more effectively and encourages conversion. Good page organization and ease of navigation provide a better user experience and can help your site’s performance with search engines.

5. Test and redirect.

When a new website is programmed and ready to go live, there are last-minute technical details to address. Google has already indexed your old site's pages. Make sure you redirect all of the old urls to their corresponding new page addresses so that search engines do not have an index of broken links. Publish a public sitemap and an xml sitemap, which can help search engines crawl your site.

Be sure to test your code and confirm that it is compliant in all browsers. A website must be tested to make sure the layout does not break in any browser and the site functions at maximum efficiency for all users. Code errors can slow down a website, making it both onerous for visitors and less likely to rank well. Lastly, make sure to transfer any analytics code so that you do not lose tracking data once the new site is live.

Good design and good search marketing can and should go hand-in-hand. But everyone involved in the process must be cognizant of the effects design and programming decisions can have on a site’s ranking. Proper planning, research and testing will help your site perform during and after a design upgrade.

Kristen Friend
Kristen Friend holds two bachelors degrees from Indiana University and an associates degreee from the International Academy of Design. As Art Director for Custom Legal Marketing, her work has been awarded Webby Honorees, WebAwards, Davey Awards, Muse Awards, W3 Awards, and many others. She is also a contributor to Entrpreneur Magazine through the Entrepreneur Leadership Network.