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.