By Jill Whalen
At the end of the year, many businesses start to think about redesigning their tired old website to breathe some new life into it. You may even be in the midst of a website redesign right now. If so, the first thing is to make sure you hire a design and development company that knows how to build the infrastructure of the website in a search engine crawler–friendly manner.
Beyond that, you need to address a number of additional SEO tactics before you get too deep into your redesign. The reason you need to keep SEO front and center during this time is twofold: so that you do not lose your previous traffic, but also so that you can gain additional targeted search engine visitors when the new site goes live.
Here are 6 SEO redesign secrets your developer may not know...ignore them at your own peril!
1. Creating Your SEO'd Site Architecture
Search engines look explicitly at how all your pages are linked together in order to determine their place within the site. Pages that are linked from every other page will be given more weight than those that are only linked from a few others. This is all considered a form of internal link popularity, or in Google language, internal PageRank.
Recommendation: During your redesign, don't bury too deeply within the site any content that was previously bringing targeted search engine traffic. Ensure that any informational content that will be focused on the more competitive keyword phrases (for example, product and service pages) is high up in your site hierarchy.
In addition, all content contained in a specific category should be cross-linked via some sort of sub-navigation within that section.
2. Categorization and Avoiding Duplicate Content
When people are seeking information from a search engine, they usually have a question, a problem, or a need for specific information. The search queries they use at Google and the other engines reflect this. The more ways you can categorize your content for the various target markets you serve, the better.
Recommendation: Be sure that all top-level pages answer the potential searcher's (your potential customers') questions, and that it's clear that your products and services can solve their problem. In addition, you also have to ensure that regardless of how someone found any piece of content on your site, they always end up at the same URL to avoid PageRank splitting and duplicate content issues.
For example, if a specific product can be classified as both a product and a service, it makes sense that it might be listed under both categories. However, the page (URL) that the potential customer eventually lands on, regardless of which category they started in, should always be the same.
3. New Content Management System and Changing URLS
If URLs must change in the redesign due to a new content management system or back-end coding, search engines may take some time to index the new URLs as well as give them the same weighting they gave the previous URLs due to URL age factors.
Recommendation: It's critical to 301-redirect all old URLs to their relative counterpart within the newly designed website. This will pass the link popularity of the old URLs to the new ones quickly, as well as ensure that site visitors don't receive 404-not-found errors.
This will be easier if the new URL naming is similar to the old one, because you can use automated methods. If URLs must change completely with no correlation to the names of the old URLs, and hand-redirects are required, you'll want to at least redirect all the top-level pages, as well as those that you're sure receive keyword traffic from search engines. But, ideally, every URL should be redirected if at all possible.
4. Coding of Navigation Menus
Links contained within the navigation of your website should be coded in a search engine–friendly manner so that they are visible and crawlable. Some DHTML and Flash menus are invisible to search engines, which causes the pages linked within them to not receive the internal link popularity they should receive.
Recommendation: Make sure all navigational menus are coded with CSS that is visible to search engines. In addition, avoid drop-down box links as the main form of navigation (CSS mouseovers are fine). You'll also want to ensure that all content can be reached by hard-coded links – don't force the user to go through any kind of search box menu because those are traditionally search engine unfriendly.
5. Custom HTML Elements
While some level of automation for titles, metas, headers, URLs, and alt attributes for images can be helpful, it's critical that your new website's content management system allow you to create custom descriptions for these as well.
Recommendation: Make sure the content management system has fields for custom title tags, meta descriptions, heading tags, etc. There should be no limit to the number of characters allowed in these fields either, because every page may need a different number of words and characters.
6. Session IDs and Other Tracking Links
It's best not to use session IDs to track visitors, but if your system must use them, you'll only need to feed the "clean" URLs to the search engine spiders – otherwise, they may get caught in an infinite loop, indexing the same content under multiple URLs.
You'll also want to avoid any sort of campaign tracking links appended to URLs because these can split your link popularity by causing your content to be indexed under multiple URLs.
Recommendation: If this type of tracking is inherent in your system, use the canonical link element to maintain one URL for every page of content.
Don't be surprised if your developer isn't happy to receive some of these "secrets." He or she may feel that their authority is being usurped or their creativity is being hindered. Just remember that it's your website that you're paying them to create in a way that will make you the most money possible. Let your developer know up-front that these things are non-negotiable. If they tell you that they can't do any of the above, start looking around for a new developer – ASAP!
While there will always be a few unexpected bugs to work out when your site goes live, you won't have to be afraid of losing your search engine visitors as long as you know what you're doing. We've successfully helped many companies through this transition without any glitches. At the end of the process, there's nothing like the feeling of having your beautiful new website launched. But more than that, there's great comfort in knowing that the people looking for what you offer will continue to be able to easily find you in the search engines.
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---Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, a Boston SEO Services company.