Did your traffic decline after you redesigned your site? Did your SEO guy promise you it wouldn’t be bad? Unfortunately it’s going to happen, site redesign inherently results in instability with search engine traffic which results in a decline in traffic. A redirection strategy to mitigate the risk of a traffic decline decreases the length and potential intensity of the disruption to organic search traffic and can work to keep traffic loss to a minimum.
As a search marketing strategist I work with at least one site redesign per quarter and with an automotive client they have multiple brands each with annual model change overs. This post is a recap of my experiences over the last 5 years dealing with site redesigns, CMS changeovers and other ways clients have abruptly changed their sites, and the redirection strategies implemented. This redirection strategy works to keep the traffic loss to the lower end of the loss column, with sites which follow my redirection strategy generally experiencing traffic loss in the mid teens instead of upper 30’s.
Why Redesigns Cause Traffic Declines
When a site is redesigned, a number of elements that search engines use to establish rankings of the pages on a site change and this results in a decline in traffic.
URLs typically change as pages are added and deleted, content is merged or split into new pages. When the URLs change, how that change is handled matters a great deal to the search engines, and to the traffic the pages will drive after the redesign goes live.
Navigation is another potential disruptor when a redesigned site launches. If navigational labels change it could potentially make the anchor text for the navigational links different, sending different keyword signals sitewide post-launch.
Content will invariably change, get spruced up to fit with the redesign. This is good. However content that was plain text reworked into a less indexable format like images is not good. It’s tough getting plain ole text on the page much to the detriment of organic search traffic. Designers make clients believe the clean look of image-based content where fonts and other design elements can be controlled more easily are better. Yet without a couple of lines of plain textual content, many sites risk becoming invisible in the redesign process, unable to send strong keyword relevance signals.
All of these changes, very common in site redesigns, send extremely disruptive signals to the search engines. Your marketing and development teams have been planning the redesign for months, but late one night Googlebot is surprised with an entirely new site without any advanced warning. Helping the bots understand the changes quickly is the secret to mitigating the risk to the site’s organic search traffic.
What is the risk?
Any site redesign, no matter how large or small, creates inherent risks such as glitches that can create problems with the user experience for visitors coming to the site from both direct and search traffic.
Loss of Traffic from Search
The biggest risk in a site redesign is the loss of traffic from search. While no two site redesigns are the same it is normal to experience anywhere from a 15-30% drop in traffic across the board, even with safeguards in place. Search engines require exact instructions of where to find content when it moves; the search engine has no way of knowing where a page has moved without information to point the original URL to the new URL.
The traffic from search engines will recover as the search engines crawl and re-index the new pages. The recovery time varies from redesign to redesign, ranging from a few weeks to a month or longer before traffic returns to pre-move levels.
Loss of Traffic from Bookmarks
Loss of traffic to the site from either direct or bookmarked links is the consequence of not mapping URL’s correctly. This may lead to frustrated users with previously bookmarked pages not being able to find their bookmarked content. Therefore, it’s important to set up 301 permanent redirects from old pages to new ones in order to help search engines and users understand where the content has moved to.
Mitigating the risk
The main goals in creating an SEO redirection strategy is to mitigate the potential traffic loss through:
- Maintaining / Improving Search Rankings
- Maintaining / Improving Search Traffic
- Maintaining / Improving Link Connectivity
- Improving User Experience
By following these processes for mitigating potential traffic losses due to a site redesign, the risks of the site redesign will be reduced.
- Use a 301 redirect strategy to best suits the needs of your site, categorical or one to one.
- Consider keeping the same directory structure to make it easier to redirect links.
- Check internal links. Prioritize pages with the greatest customer experience impact.
- Create custom 404 error pages per best practice so that when errors occur, visitors receive a message helping them navigate to the new page.
- Verify the moved site in Webmaster Tools and review crawl errors regularly to ensure 301 redirects are working properly.
301 Redirection Strategy
Tell search engines old content has moved permanently with 301 redirects. A 301 redirect tells a search engine that the old Web page no longer exists and redirects all requests to the new location. 301 redirects also help ensure all inbound link credit will be applied to the new location.
Categorical 301 Redirection
Categorical 301 Redirection maps content contained within a category or vertical to the new category homepage. This strategy is less challenging and labor intensive than individual one-to-one redirects. A categorical redirect is slightly more sophisticated than a global redirect strategy. Page level content will lose any link value it may have gained.
One-To-One 301 Redirects
Every page on the old site properly redirects to a corresponding page at the new location. The One to One 301 Redirect is the most sophisticated and impactful solution. This strategy ensures all inbound links and relevancy scores are passed to new location.
Depending on the site configuration, this solution may require a significant resource allocation for implementation.
Global 301 Redirect
With this type of redirection, one global 301 maps all old pages to one new homepage. This is the most basic type of redirection and the most generic solution and should be reserved for permanently deleted content.
301 Redirection Mapping
If either the Categorical or One to One redirect is chosen the next step in the redesign process is to map out redirects at the page level. When creating the redesign map points to be considered are:
- Which pages drive traffic?
- Which pages drive conversions?
- Which pages have external links?
- Which pages drive the greatest level of engagement?
URLs of the existing site need to be mapped to pages (URLs) on the new site. For those pages where the URL remains the same there is nothing to worry about, provided that the amount of content on the new page hasn’t been significantly changed or reduced. This activity requires a great deal of attention; otherwise things can go terribly wrong.
Even though there isn’t any magic recipe, the main principle is that ALL unique, useful or authoritative pages (URLs) of the legacy site should redirect to pages with the same or relevant content on the new site, using 301 redirects.Always make sure that redirects are implemented using 301 redirects (permanent). The use of 302 (temporary) redirects IS NOT recommended because search engines treat them inconsistently, often resulting in drastic ranking drops.
Pages with high traffic need additional attention but the bottom line is that every URL matters.
Consider keeping the existing directory structure of your site. If you are changing the structure of your site, then you need to ensure that the re-directs are pointing to the correct directory. This is a good time to perform a content audit, and add optimized content to be included on the new site.
Be careful not to change too much content so that search engines don’t lose trust in your site.
Internal links help distribute link power to important pages, indicate to search engines the important pages on your site, and help search engines understand the new structure of your site. Use a link checker such as Xenu to verify there are no broken links.
In setting a priority for which pages to fix first from the broken link report it is advisable to repair the broken links on pages that impact customer experience first.
Inevitably, your site will experience 404 errors, either directly caused by your redesign efforts or as a result of other errors. Those are to be expected, to a degree. However, it is important that these 404 pages not create a complete dead end for search engines and users. Ensure that a custom 404 page both exists and provides users with a number of different paths to relevant content locations on your site.
Create custom 404 error pages per best practice so that when errors occur, visitors receive a message helping them navigate to the new page.
Changes to off-limits content should be updated in your robots.txt. In your robots.txt you can also block sections or paths that existed in the old site but not in the new one.
Completion of the actual redesign does not mean the work is completed. Use the following methods to identify potential problems and fix them:
- Submit new sitemaps to Google Webmaster Tools
- Export a 404 Page Report from Google Webmaster Tools.
- Check 301 Re-Directs
- Resolve Duplicate Content Issues
Google Webmaster Tools
Check Google Webmaster Tools to insure the site is still verified. If the site needs to be re-verified follow the instructions on Google Webmaster Tools to resubmit the verification code to verify site ownership.
XML sitemaps are the easiest and quickest way for search engines to discover your newly moved site, so make sure to take advantage of them. Remove all old XML sitemaps, and then create and submit a new XML sitemap listing based on your new URLs and site structure and resubmit to Google.
Export 404 Page Report
After the site has been migrated; export a 404 report from Webmaster Tools. This report can be exported directly from Webmaster Tools under Diagnostics->Crawl Errors. Simply download the entire table as a CSV file.
In setting a priority for which pages to fix first from the 404 Report it is advisable to repair the 404 errors on pages that impact customer experience first.
Check 301 Re-Direct Implementation
This important step may need to be repeated more than once. All URLs to be redirected should be checked. If you do not have direct access to the server one way to check the 301 redirects is by using Xenu’s Check URL List feature.
Resolve duplicate content issues
Google Webmaster Tools will help in identifying duplicate content issues which should be resolved as early as possible. A few common cases of duplicate content may occur, regardless of what was happening previously on the legacy web site. Canonicalization at this stage will allow for optimal site crawling, as search engines will come across as many unique pages as possible. Such cases include:
- Directories and pages with and without a trailing slash
- Default directory indexes
- Case in URLs.
- URLs on different host domains
In all the above examples, poor URL canonicalization results in duplicate pages that will have a negative impact on:
- Crawl bandwidth (search engine crawlers will be crawling redundant pages).
- Indexation (as search engines try to remove duplicate pages from their indexes).
- Link equity (as it will be diluted amongst the duplicate pages).
Regardless of the type or level of redirection implemented, search engines still require a grace period for identifying, reevaluating and purging content from their index. Ranking and traffic declines are unavoidable due to the reliance on search engines to actively and efficiently update their indices.
The redirection strategy I have outlined works to keep the traffic loss to the lower end of the loss column, with sites which follow this redirection strategy generally experiencing traffic loss in the mid teens instead of upper 30′s.