Website Transition Planning Critical When Making Changes

by Jennifer Osborne June 25th, 2008 

Picture this … you're ranking really well for an important keyword(s). It's driving a lot of traffic and life is pretty good.

You decide it's time to take better advantage of that traffic by giving your site a face lift.

The next thing you know, you've fallen out of the SERPS and you're left shaking your head, not quite knowing what happened.

wtf-guys.jpg

It's an all too common scenario. To us Marketing People it was just a "face lift" a "re-skin". We didn't really make any major changes that should matter to the search engines.

No reason to let our SEO team know in advance that we're making these changes. After all, it's still the same site.

or is it?

Google doesn't think so.

The search engines (and Google in particular) are all about trust. We talk about trust in human terms. For humans trust is difficult to define. It's part of our feelings. Some might even say it's influenced by intuition. But the Search Engines don't have feelings and intuition.

They have to take something that is very much subjective and make it entirely objective. What we call "trust" for the search engines is really a mathematical formula (algorithm) that is looking for enough "cues" to determine it's next course of action.

…… If I visit your website and see this….. then I should do "A"…….

…… If I visit your website and don't see this….. then I should do "B"…….

My good friend and colleague Ruud, understands that changing everything changes everything. He often describes it like this…..

You're walking down the street and you bump into an old friend. Except that your friend has gotten extensive plastic surgery and he looks nothing like he used to. He's shaved his head. His face is totally different and he's wearing weird clothing.

His voice is the same and he swears it's him. But you don't quite trust what you're seeing right away. You need more cues.

It's the same as the search engines. You can make changes to a site, but you need to leave enough cues so that SE's know it's still the same site. And they don't have the benefit of intuition. It's all math.

What to consider when building your Website Transition Plan?

If you're making changes to your site and you don't want to risk losing your search engine positioning then there are some critical steps that must be taken.

#1 – What to do with your URL's - The best case scenario is to make sure that your urls stay the same. You may think that your urls are staying the same but you need to watch for hidden changes:

  • If you decide to reorganize your sub-folder structure this will change your urls.
  • If the programmer needs to move from .php to .cfm then this will change the urls.
  • If you decide to make the naming convention of you urls' more intuitive then although this might be a good move from an SEO and Usability perspective, it's still changing your urls.

If it's not possible to keep your url's the same or if you decide that you're better off moving to intuitive, keyword friendly urls then you need to 301 (not 302) redirect each page of the old site to it's new destination on the new site.

Note, your CMS may be able to do this using a .htaccess file (assuming you have apache based server) to do a bulk redirection.

#2 – Content Changes - If you want to make massive changes to your content fine but remember the cues. If your site structure is changing, your urls' are changing and now you want to make massive changes to your content then you will risk the search engines losing trust in your site.

#3 – Internal Link Structure – If you are making changes to your site structure don't forget to anticipate the impact it will have on your internal linking structure. Internal links tell the search engines what's important about your site. Plus they help to distribute the link power to your more important pages.

#4 – Timing – To minimize the risk, you may wish to consider implementing changes on a phased basis. Change the content, wait a month or two for the search engines to reconcile / come to terms with the changes. Then change the site structure / urls / do the redirects.

#5 – The plan doesn't end once the changes are implemented - You will want to make sure that you're watching the search engines and your server logs closely in the days and weeks following your site changes.

Look at your server log files for 404 pages or any other signs that something was missed or went awry. Monitor the search engines to make sure that they are indexing your new pages as they should.

By understanding the cues that the search engines look for, and anticipating what could go wrong in advance, you will be able to formulate a transition plan that minimizes the risk of change while maximizing the effectiveness of your site!

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36 Responses to “Website Transition Planning Critical When Making Changes”

  1. Joseph says:

    This is really baffling! Your post has actually explained what happened to my site, I redesigned my site a few months ago and 80% of my indexed pages were suddenly dropped from both Google and MSN.

    But I just wonder, is this true also when you change for instance a wordpress template?

  2. Brian Carter says:

    Killer post. Going to forward this to our web designers and some clients, too. Much needed article, thanks!

  3. search agent says:

    Ouch.

    This is a common problem when trying to improve your site

  4. Metaspring says:

    Thanks for a really good post there. This is going to be filed away for future reference.

  5. Metaspring says:

    Also meant to say that that is a very useful list for me to keep in mind.

  6. Zafar Ahmed says:

    I think you ought to be working for google. Very useful information!

  7. This is a completely new angle to blogging. I have been planning to give a make over to my site and now I know how to go about it. Thanks.

  8. [...] was a post from Jennifer Osborne of Search Engine People.  Her article called Website Transition Planning Critical When Making Changes tackles a problem that SEOs have known for a long time… Site redesigns ansd how they'll [...]

  9. One of my friends experience the same situation..he just did some little tweaking on the look of his blog..and after doing it..he went from page 1 on SERPs to page 5 or something..it was really sad and frustrating.

  10. Thomson says:

    Great post! I love your example of the old friend. I come across clients who just want to redo the site entirely.

    Now your example would be a perfect one to make them understand. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Eva White says:

    Great post. Now it'll be easy to convince others why I don't keep changing things on my site.

  12. Freebies says:

    Great article. I recently made alot of changes to my site though.

  13. Hi Joseph – if you change the look and feel of the template then that should have no impact. If your changes impact things like the navigation then it may have an impact on your rankings.

  14. Thanks everyone for the comments – I really appreciate you sharing your experiences of how this has impacted you or your clients :) .

  15. [...] lovely Jennifer Osborne from Search Engine People explains how to plan a website transition with search engines consequences in [...]

  16. I thought the search engines like to see some changes to your site to see that it is actively being updated and finessed. If I wanted to completely re-do my homepage verbiage with different hot links to various internal webpages, will that blow my SERPs?

  17. Utah SEO says:

    Depending on the size of your site. It's best to roll out large changes in small chunks and always keep monitoring the effects.Great post!

  18. PlugIM.com says:

    Website Transition Planning Critical When Making Changes…

    These are a few things to consider when thinking about redesigning your website, from the seo standpoint….

  19. Phil Benwell says:

    This isn't good news. I want to make drastic changes to my blog including new theme etc. This will change all the linking no doubt.

    Would simply altering the CSS of a site make any difference at all?

  20. Lily says:

    Thanks for the informative podcast. It is really interesting to read and to learn something new and useful

  21. I am going through this transition right now… I made these exact mistakes… I almost feel like you wrote this article just for me. Thanks for this great information.

  22. @ Kathy – the SE's love to see you add additional content. And "look and feel" type changes are okay too.

    If you make massive content changes to your homepage this could hurt your results or it could help your search results depending on the strength of the content changes.

    The same as your internal links, if you had a number of internal links pointing at a page that is currently ranking well for a keyword and then you remove them, then it could have a negative impact on your results.

  23. thanks Jordan – I agree that it's best to be cautious when rolling out major changes. Thanks for the input!

  24. Drew Graham says:

    Please keep me on your mailing list.
    Thanks.

  25. Wii Boy says:

    Can you define "massive changes"?

    I had some feedback that one of my homepgages looked cluttered so changed the structure and added content in tables. The content itself didn't change though?

    How is Google likely to see that?

    PS – I like Ruud's analogy about the friend, reminded me of the film "face-off".

  26. Phil – altering the CSS is fine. It's only when the template changes the navigation that it may impact your positioning.

    Frances – thanks for commenting – I'm really glad that you liked this post!

  27. WiiBoy – I would define massive changes as changes that impact your architecture, content, navigation and internal link structure. Or totally changing any one of those areas.

    In your case, the tables should be fine given that your content didn't change. You may wish to consider CSS instead of tables in the future as it should save you a lot of coding :)

  28. Wii Boy says:

    Thanks Jennifer.

    If I am totally honest, my day job is nothing at all to do with IT and coding with Dreamweaver is about as far as I have got with web design. May need to dig out a good CSS tutorial!

  29. [...] stated by Jennifer Osborne at Search Engine People; After all, it’s still the same [...]

  30. as mentioned above, if you have decided to rename your urls for some reasons, please remember to use 301 redirect to inform the robots that you have permanently moved the original content to the new page. This will prevent your indexed pages to disappear from the se.

  31. Noticed that when we made changes in phases, it often results in robots identifying a number of 404 errors every now and then. So it will be good to always create a 404 catch page to react.
    Anna Nguyen

  32. [...] Website Transition Planning Critical When Making Changes Jennifer Osborne, Search Engine People | 6/25/08 [...]

  33. Chuck says:

    This exact thing happened to one of my clients sites when their developers changed platforms. Thanks for the insight.

  34. [...] stated by Jennifer Osborne at Search Engine People; After all, it’s still the same [...]

  35. [...] article from Jennifer Osborne on SearchEnginePeople.com added several [...]

  36. [...] article from Jennifer Osborne on SearchEnginePeople.com added several [...]