I receive a lot of SEO questions from business owners who want to spruce up their aging websites, but are dead afraid of losing their existing search engine traffic. And for good reason. Going live with a redesigned website without considering the SEO implications is like being ensnared in a nasty trap that you cannot escape from. It's hard to make money while stuck in a trap!
With that in mind, here are a 3 SEO traps to avoid before, during and after you develop your website:
SEO Trap #1: Your Content Management System
If you are switching to a different content management system (CMS) it often means that the URLs from your current site will have to change to something that fits with the new system. It's likely that the new URL naming convention will not match your old one.
The Escape: If this is the case with your new back end, then 301-permanent redirect all of the old URLs to their new counterparts if you can. If this is a practical impossibility, then review your analytics to find the landing page URLs within your website that receive direct search engine visitors, and redirect those. Also redirect any URLs that have links pointing to them from other sites. While it's best practice to redirect all URLs, those that don't receive any direct search engine traffic and don't have any external links are less important.
SEO Trap #2: Your Site Architecture
Your new website is likely to be sporting a brand new navigational scheme as well as an overall change of its site architecture (how each page links to each other). This is a key element in determining whether pages from your website will show up in the search results. For instance, if you take a page from your website that is currently featured in the main navigation (meaning that every page of the site links to it) and you feature it less prominently within your new website, don't be surprised if it doesn't show up in the search results for its targeted keyword phrases as it used to.
The Escape: You can tell the search engines which pages are the most important ones on your site by how you link to them. Be sure that the pages you are optimizing are linked from your main navigation so that they will receive the internal link popularity they deserve. They'll stand a much better chance at bringing you targeted visitors than those that are deeply buried.
SEO Trap #3: Your Content
If you hadn't previously optimized the content of your old site, I highly suggest doing so with your new site. This means that you research the keywords that people use at the search engines to find products or services like yours, and then use them strategically within each page of the website. Doing so will likely increase the targeted visitors to your site fairly quickly after going live.
On the other hand, if your existing site was fairly well optimized and already bringing targeted visitors, you'll need to be careful about the content that you change. While you shouldn't be afraid to make your content better, it may not be a good idea to completely rewrite old content that was working for you. You'd be surprised how many marketers decide to change their website messaging without even realizing that it was previously optimized to bring in targeted visitors.
Still, your website redesign is a good time to work on increasing your website conversions. All the targeted visitors in the world are of no use to you if they don't take any of the actions you'd like them to take. Rewriting some of your content to convert more visitors into buyers is a good thing as long as it doesn't decrease the number of those visitors. Again – this is where you'll need to review your analytics reports to determine which pages were your best performers.
The Escape: If you find that your existing page content was bringing in search engine traffic and conversions, think 10 times before changing it! If you're certain that your new content is much better and more in tune with your company's message, then try testing it against the old copy through a tool such as Google’s Website Optimizer. You may be right, but you'll never know for sure unless you test it.
The Booby Trap!
Don't forget that title tags are an important part of your content as well. Sadly, one of the most common mistakes during a redesign is to inadvertently lose all the previous title tags.
The Escape: Don't go live with your new site without proper (unique, relevant and keyword-rich) title tags in place on every page. You will absolutely take a huge traffic hit if you do. Make sure that your new CMS allows you to customize the title tags of every page as needed. If it doesn't, then find a new CMS that does. I can't stress this enough because title tags are so important to SEO. It's fine to dynamically generate them based on specific rules, but some pages may need their titles to be customized for best results.
These 3 traps are just a few of many you may face as you redesign your website. Don't be one of the many who wait to go live with their site and THEN call an SEO consultant for help. Bake your SEO into the new site from the start to avoid any loss of search engine visitors, while ideally increasing them. There's no reason why your visitor count should take a hit with a new design--but only if you are prepared to avoid the traps!
Jill Whalen, CEO of High Rankings a Boston SEO Consulting Agency, has been providing SEO services since 1995. Jill is also the host of the High Rankings Advisor newsletter and the High Rankings SEO forum.
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