Refresh, Renew, Redesign

by Diane Aull June 4th, 2009 

Maybe it's the time of year, maybe it's the economy, maybe it's just coincidence. For whatever reason, a lot of companies I know are either actively redoing their websites or at least contemplating a makeover.

Photo by Yaffa Phillips

Photo by Yaffa Phillips

And that's not necessarily a bad thing at all. Things move fast online — the website that was sleek and modern and cutting edge not all that long ago can turn dated and clunky in the blink of an eye. Markets change, new products are released, old products are discontinued, and the copy on the site may need to change accordingly. Customer expectations are constantly rising and you want your site to keep up.

You simply want to make sure when you do decide to “freshen things up a bit” you don't end up shooting yourself in the foot. Here are a few tips I've found helpful over the years:

Don't change your URLs if you can help it.
If your pages are already indexed and doing reasonably well in the rankings, changing your filenames and directory structure (which will change the page URLs) will almost certainly cause you some pain as the search engines will have to sort out what you changed, re-evaluate your entire site, and decide where to rank these new pages. If it isn't necessary to change your URLs, you should avoid doing so.
If you must change your URLs, take steps to mitigate the pain.
Sometimes you just can't help having to change. Maybe you're migrating to a new content management system that has a different file naming convention, for instance. If you do have to change your URLs, be sure to use permanent (301) redirects to point from the old URLs to the new. This will (eventually) transfer link popularity from the old URL to the new, and insure that links pointing to the old URL don't become broken.
Research real-world keyword usage before you begin.
Sometimes a business owner decides to redo the website, and she focuses on what she thinks are the “big money” keywords. She rewrites the copy to specifically target these particular phrases. What she doesn't realize is that over time, the site has built up rankings for dozens, perhaps hundreds, of “long-tail” phrases — any by refocusing on just a few phrases, she's essentially cut herself off from the traffic those long-tail phrases were bringing.

Make sure you not only research what phrases you want to rank well for, but what phrases already are bringing you qualified traffic. You don't want to accidentally remove phrases that are generating leads or sales for your business.

By the same token, you don't want to overlook new phrases you could add that might be equally valuable. If it's been awhile since you've done some keyword research, it might pay to do some checking. See if there are any new phrases you could be optimizing for that you've missed in the past. Use these phrases as inspiration for writing new web content and sales copy.

Test everything.
It's easy to assume that whatever you do to update the site will be an improvement. But sometimes, what we think makes a site “better” doesn't help increase sales. In fact, sometimes those so-called improvements actually hurt sales.

I love looking at some of the test results over at Marketing Experiments — it's amazing how often what you think would work isn't what really performed the best in real-world tests.

So before you jump in with both feet implementing wholesale changes to your site, consider doing some testing to see if your changes really will make things better. Google's Website Optimizer is free, robust and relatively easy to use for either A/B testing or multivariate testing. If you (or your webmaster) can create a web page, you can use this testing tool to compare the performance of some of your existing pages with your proposed new pages. You can test page layout, copy, graphics… pretty much anything, then implement the changes that work (and avoid the ones that don't).

There's no reason to be afraid of updating your site, especially if you have a good business reason for doing so. Just don't leap in without doing your homework first.

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6 Responses to “Refresh, Renew, Redesign”

  1. Tom Bradshaw says:

    I do alot of redesigns of old sites, which look pretty awful – a new professional website is more likely to get a company customers than a dated one. This coupled with good SEO will really help a business, especially as more people are going online to find businesses.

    Those are good tips aswell Diane, especially researching real-world keywords, I try to tell clients to use common sense when deciding on keywords – what would an average person search for?

  2. Great tips Diane,

    Re-designing can be pain full some times if you loose the link popularity and page rank. 301 redirect method is very help full to easily overcome this situations.

  3. Dr. Cover says:

    Site redesign might be a real stress for your business.
    There are several bad things you should be ready for:
    - Errors in new scripts
    - Wrong displaying of a new design in different browsers
    - Not-found errors due to wrong redirects or missed files
    - Lower positions in Google SER due to different content layout and formatting.

    So, you must constantly monitor all that things (SERP, error logs, statistics) after uploading a new design to server.

    Overall, I agree with your points, Diane. Thank you for the useful checklist.

  4. We are in the midst of converting our website to a WordPress blog. We will have numerous 301s to do as a result. We'll keep our fingers crossed Google sorts things out correctly.

  5. if the content and URL stays the same, but the design changes will it affect rankings??

  6. Diane says:

    Thanks everyone for your kind comments!

    Mike, if the only thing you're changing is the look and feel — the color scheme, the pretty pictures, that sort of thing — there shouldn't be any effect on rankings. Search engines spiders are essentially "blind." I often tell people to look at the text-only cache of their pages in Google to see how they look to the spiders.

    If, when the design is done, the text-only cache "looks" pretty much the same as before, you should be OK.

    But if you change anything that likely counts toward rankings — the anchor text of internal navigation links, the overall site architecture, any of the on-page text, alt attributes of images (especially if those images are also links), etc. — then there could very well be an effect on rankings.