Understanding how design, technology and content affect search engine optimization (SEO) is an essential skill for any Web team member, especially when approaching a major site redesign.
Much can go wrong during website redesigns, from technical glitches and negative audience reaction to traffic loss and usability issues. Any one of these problems can severely impact key metrics. To help site designers avoid the most egregious problems, here are 10 tips to ensure that your new website stays on page one after launch.
1. Employ Descriptive Links
As designers and marketers, you understand the value of effective calls-to-action (CTAs). And, best practices confirm that verb-noun pairs work great in terms of setting expectations and enticing action. The problem from an SEO perspective is that this practice can lead to repetitive CTAs on homepages.
Homepage CTAs are one of the most important tools to tell Google what content is most important. So, don't litter pages with 'Learn more' or 'View details' links; consider providing more context. For example, "Learn about shoe buying" is a far more descriptive link that just "Learn more."
2. Reduce Number of Links
What you say in links matters. And, how many links also matters. Every link on a page reduces the potential link equity that can be spread to key pages.
This situation can be challenging due to mega-menus and super footers that result when everyone wants a piece of the homepage. Mitigate this problem by avoiding over-linking to pages that are unimportant for SEO. For example, multiple policy pages might be combined into one page. And be diligent when relegating less important links to your sitemap.
3. Only One H1 per Page
Every page should have just one h1 tag and it should be specific to the page. The more that it matches a user's potential search query the better. While it may be tempting to rely on your site's name and branding for context, specifics help. For example, a page called "How to buy a diamond" is more helpful than "How to buy."
4. Hand Roll Sitemaps
It sounds old school in a world of XML sitemaps submitted to Google and Bing, but you'll want a hand-edited sitemap too. Hand-edited sitemaps give you an opportunity to use different words and phrases than you might use in your space-constrained navigation. This is particularly true for multi-national sites with longer words (e.g., German) crowding navigation menus.
One example is spelling out common acronyms or using long-form references for key topics vs. shorthand ones. This gives search engines more information about your pages. Alternatively, if your page name is rooted in important industry jargon consider descriptors with lay-person language to attract both neophytes and initiates. Since the sitemap has a lot of links into it throughout your site, you could also prioritize how you list the links and keep the more important ones near the top. Hierarchy counts in design, and in SEO too.
5. Use PDFs Sparingly
Search engines prefer not to send people directly to PDF pages. This does PDF content a real disservice as it's a common format for in-depth information like research, specifications, whitepapers and thought-pieces - the kind of content Google loves. You can still have the content available in PDF format for easy offline reading, but by integrating it into the page you greatly expand your unique content footprint. Additionally, if others link to the page, versus bypassing it and linking directly to the PDF, you improve the site's overall link ranking.
When using PDFs as lead generation bait, common on B2B sites selling costly software and services, try integrating a strong sampling of the content into your page body. This will not only help Google, it will also help would-be customers determine if they want to provide the lead information sufficient to download the rest.
6. Check All Analytics
Redesigns often entail shifts in content strategy and information architecture. Before you revise your navigation review your analytics. Some long-forgotten pages might be functioning as landing pages and generating valuable organic (free) traffic. Make sure these pages retain a presence in your sitemap so search engines can continue to find them. While you're under the hood checking your analytics, be sure to look at your goals. Some of those pages might not only be generating traffic, they might be driving real business results. If so, consider elevating those pages, not just retaining them.
7. Be Wary of Subdomains
While domain decisions are often the province of IT, there are very real marketing and SEO factors to consider. Google considers a subdomain (anything that precedes the primary domain like finance.yahoo.com) as an independent domain. As such, a new subdomain will have little to no initial equity in SEO terms. So, if you're adding a new platform, particularly if it's potentially rich in content, like a blog or forum, add it as a subfolder of your primary domain, not as a subdomain. This way your primary domain will accrue the SEO value.
8. Always be Responsive
Every marketer and designer knows the world has gone mobile, but did you know your site's mobile friendliness is now an SEO factor? It is. Google's preferred approach to mobile-friendly design is called responsive Web design (RWD). A responsive website adapts to the user's view port size so they see the same experience on their iPhone as they do their ultra-wide monitor. So, if you're considering your approach, a responsive site design will provide your customers with a great experience and make Google happy.
9. Install Webmaster Tools
It might seem counter-intuitive to clean up any of your current site's SEO issues before you redesign, but the sooner you get on good footing with Google (or Bing) the better. Install Google Webmaster Tools and the Bing counterpart to diagnose how well, or not, your current site is being indexed. If you see any major errors fix them now. You know the saying - 'the best time to plant a tree is yesterday?' The same is true of SEO. SEO takes time so start your clock as early as possible.
10. Draft Content Carefully
While it might be tempting to give your copywriter free range to express your brand in unique ways, take care to consider the words and phrasing for those who may want to discover your business. Promotional copy that's doesn't align with how people think about your product or solution might play great for those who know you, but it might not attract Google and could limit your reach.
It would be irresponsible to suggest that these are the only SEO implications of a website redesign. The potential considerations are myriad, but so are the resources. Further complicating matters is the ever-changing landscape.
About the Author
Alex Berg is the director of strategy & analytics for Fell Swoop - a digital design firm in Seattle. Prior to Fell Swoop Alex held leadership roles with Ritani, Wetpaint, Expedia, and Blue Nile. Follow him on Twitter @alexwberg.