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SEO Website Audit

6 Website Redesign SEO Secrets Your Developer May Not Know

December 16, 2009
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.
Post Comment

 Herman said:
Thanks for the tips Jill.
Do you recommend a blog or theme-based web site for managing articles? I currently have both however the theme-based site (static) receives way more traffic than the blog which contains tons more articles? Rankings, adsense income are also much lower on the blog.
 Jill Whalen said:
Hi Herman,

It doesn't matter. A blog is basically just a content management system. In the end, the articles or posts are just web pages.

That said, most blogging platforms do ping the search engines too, which can get your posts indexed quickly. But you can set up you feeds and pings on your non-blog-based articles as well.
 Herman said:
Thanks for feedback. Is the site architecture of a blog as good as a theme-based site?
 Jill said:
The site architecture of a blog is whatever you make it to be. Like I said, a blog is just a content management system.
 Kevin Spence said:
Good points, Jill. I've worked through some really major CMS transitions (primarily newspaper sites), and it's rough. The worst one I worked on, the old URLs had this horribly ugly query string in the URL like &articleid=346dfasd643265245435. There was no way to map ANY of the old URLs to the new ones without doing it by hand. I knew I couldn't do all of them (nobody wants an htaccess doc THAT big), so I checked backlinks -- one by one -- hundreds of thousands of backlinks -- to make sure that I preserved as much incoming link value as possible. Pain in the ass, but worth it in the end.
 Lee said:
Hi Jill

I think this is a great basic guide for ecommerce site business owners looking to migrate to a new system.

The only one basic element that I would have included within this document, would have been the use of a custom 404 error page. These are extremely useful for larger sites, when manually producing a large number of 301s are impractical and very time consuming.

 Andrew Shotland said:
This is a good framework for thinking about redesigns Jill. One of the areas that I see a lot of sites screw up with redesigns is when they are rebranding. Often this requires changing copy or eliminating pages that either ranked for valuable queries and/or were effective at passing pagerank. When eliminating these kinds of words/pages if you want to retain the traffic you used to get (even if it's off-strategy for the new brand), you have to be pretty scientific about how to rewrite pages and where to redirect these old URLs. It's an inexact science to be sure, but I have seen more people lose their jobs creating beautiful redesigns than I'd prefer, and it's usually because they didn't take the time to think through complex SEO issues like these.
 Jill said:
@Andrew yep, so true. Typically, we get the call AFTER a redesign was launched and traffic tanks to just about nothing.

We have to keep getting the word out that SEO is critical DURING the design phase, not later. A lot less expensive to the client in that order at least!
 Ben Kaeding said:
Found you on SPHINN. Glad I did. Great article.
 Renea said:

I agree with alot of your suggestions:)

FYI...Just waiting for my client to phone. He hired a design firm that knows nothing about SEO, nothing! Client does not want to lose rank, and the design firm did not want my feedback on site navigation, content positioning, etc. ha ha. I can hear the phone ringing in the distance:)
 Nick LeRoy said:
Great advice! So many times people don't keep SEO in consideration until after their new website is up and running. It's never fun telling a client all the changes that will be needed to make their brand new (and in most cases, expensive) websites search engine friendly.
 HF said:
You said: "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." How would campaigns be tracked without?
 Jill Whalen said:
@HF, you wouldn't put the tracking URLs on your website or on links from other websites.

For ad campaigns, email campaigns, etc., they're fine.

You can also use the canonical link element if you do find tracking URLs get into some website links pointing back to your site.
 Ryan Pitylak said:
It's funny that people are still having problems with 301 redirects and duplicate content. I see this problem all the time, and I think it's because it's easy to be a little lazy and ignore what's happening with your aging pages.
 lazygirl said:
Thanks for this post.

I don't have custom permalinks on my wordpress blog cos I initially read some SEO articles that said search engines might not like it. But some bloggers say permalinks are fine. After getting more & more confused, I just decided to leave it alone.
 Jill Whalen said:
@lazygirl not really sure what that has to do with

this post, but welcome!
 Nathan Williams said:
Great article and insights into how to be sure your SEO and Site Architecture. One question though, you say in tip #5 that CMS programs that allow you to manually enter HTML elements like title, meta tags and so forth usually don't have a limit on how many characters you enter. However, don't search engines have a limit? Is it important you observe these limits when developing these tags or simply write what you want and be sure the important keywords are at the front?
 Jill Whalen said:
@Nathan, no search engines do not have a limit. They only limit the number of characters they display.
 Nathan Williams said:
Thanks for the the limit is on what's displayed, not what they let you put in.
 Riaan Aggenbag said:
Hi Jill,
A quick question. I've seen some WordPress plugins that easily allow one to manage redirects, do you perhaps have any recommendations of your own for WP?
Thanks mam,
 Jill Whalen said:
Anything by @yoast.
 Sharanyan Sharma said:

Do you recommend to have Global Footer and Global Headers ? If it this global footer,Header then it's going to have same Links,Anchor,ALT tags. So, do you thing this is duplicate linking / content issue ?
 Jill Whalen said:
They are fine.