How to Retain at Least 95% of Your Organic Traffic After a Site Redesign

redesign

A total site redesign is a tricky thing. At some point, you must redesign your site, but when you do, you run the risk of your traffic dropping off. Redesigning a site is one of the biggest SEO challenges that a company can face.

What’s going to happen once the site is officially launched? What will happen with any 404s? How will the site perform in the search engines? What about existing links to nonexistent pages?

If you are currently redesigning your site or planning on a full site overhaul in the future, here’s what you need to know:

The two big ideas about redesigning a site

This article is all about keeping your existing traffic, so I’m not providing any design-specific or development-specific advice. However, I want to set the stage with two big ideas:

  1. SEO should be part of the redesign process – designers, developers, and SEOs should regularly interact with each other during a site revamp. SEOs often see things from a traffic perspective that an information architect, developer, or designer might miss.
  2. Don’t rush the launch – I’ve seen some of the world’s biggest brands and websites completely miss crucial SEO steps because they were trying to meet a deadline. If the deadline is more important than maintaining search traffic, then there is something wrong with the deadline. Do not place unreasonable deadlines upon a site launch.

Now that we got that out of the way, let’s get into the redesign process.

What should you do during the redesign process?

While you are redesigning your site, you need to keep a few things in mind. Some of these things may not seem important to you, but leaving any of them out is an easy way to cause a huge traffic drop.

Never take down your site

At no point should you pull your old site offline unless it needs to go under for a few minutes as you launch the new design. When visitors encounter a website that says “sorry, we’re under construction” for several weeks, traffic declines before the new site goes live.

Reexamine your keyword strategy

A site redesign is the perfect time to evaluate your existing keyword strategy. Take a look at your organic keyword traffic, and find out if your site could be gaining traffic from any new long tail keywords. If so, then you should roll this research into the new site redesign. You may want to create new categories based on these keywords.

Optimize all content

You should also be reviewing content on each page prior to your site redesign. Sometimes things can get changed in the process. Titles are altered; meta descriptions are dropped; and SEO gets marginalized. Don’t let this happen to you. Instead, pay close attention to optimizing all content on all pages.

One reason why sites lose massive amounts of traffic after a redesign is because their content has been deoptimized. This is the opposite of what should be happening. Instead, focus on optimization — adding content, fine-tuning page titles, and improving everything you can.

Maintain the same URL structure as much as possible

If you can, keep your URL structure the same. Whenever you change a site’s URL structure, you lose vast amounts of traffic from inbound links. To remedy that, you will have to conduct a massive 301 redirect mapping campaign.

The biggest site launch mistake I’ve observed is altering the URL structure without implementing 301 redirects.

In many cases, you will want to change your URL structure. If any of the following is true, a URL structure change is in order:

  • You are using a new platform or CMS that requires a different structure. Often, switching to a new system for website administration and content creation is a great choice. If you do, you may have to change your URL structure.
  • You are completely reconfiguring your entire sales or search approach. Sometimes, a site redesign is called for because your business is changing strategy. Maybe you’re adding a new product line, acquiring a new business, or rebranding entirely. In this case, you’ll need a fresh URL structure.
  • Your existing URL structure is downright bad. This is probably the most common reason for a URL structural change. One of the best ways to restructure your URLs is to do it according to organic query patterns. If your current URL structure does help your long tail traffic, then you may need to come up with a URL structure that is better optimized for SEO.

Create a comprehensive 301 URL redirect mapping strategy

Nearly every site redesign will have some pages that will be mapped to a new location. It’s important to have a complete plan in place for redirecting every such page. Every single rewritten URL must have a 301 permanent redirect (possible exception below). Here are some tips on implementing your mapping strategy:

  • Don’t use 302s – 302 temporary redirects are not recommended. They do nothing for SEO and are only a short-term fix for what should be a long-term strategy.
  • Don’t delete pages – deleting pages is not a good idea. If you don’t like a page, you can change the content of the page, or you can redirect it to a different page.
  • The rare 404 case – there are some rare cases in which you may not want to 301 a page, e.g., if a large collection of highly toxic links was targeting that specific page. If this is the case and the page is not a critical landing page, leave the 404 error there and do not redirect it. When you redirect a page, it transfers both negative and positive link juice to the root domain. If you leave it with 404, the toxic juice will have a limited impact on the rest of the site.

Create an effective customized 404 error page

Since the new site will probably experience a few 404s, you should have an optimized 404 page in place. What many developers don’t realize is that a 404 page can be a great tool for marketing and/or keeping users on the site.

Check out this 404 technique for creating more indexed pages, and check out this site for creating a compelling 404 design.

Create new sitemaps (HTML and XML)

You should always have an up-to-date sitemap, but it’s especially important for a site launch or redesign. If any content has moved to new URLs, the sitemap can help the search engine discover these new locations.

Put tracking codes in place

When you’re sure everything is ready, place your analytics tracking code in the page source. Any conversion landing pages should also be tracked with the relevant codes.

You will need data once the site is relaunched. If you forget to put in your tracking codes, you’re going to lose the chance to analyze the performance of the new site.

Launch Time! Flip the Switch!

As you launch your shiny new site, you need to do two important things before popping the champagne bottle and celebrating. Here they are:

  1. Remove all indexing restrictions (robots.txt) on the dev site – adjust your robots.txt to allow your new site to be crawled. Make sure you’ve specified the location of your sitemap in your robots.txt.
  2. Submit your new sitemap to Google in Google Webmaster Tools – go to Google Webmaster Tools > Crawl > Sitemaps. Add your new sitemap to allow for the indexing of the new site to begin.

Post launch: Monitoring your traffic

Once the launch is complete, you enter a new, very important phase: watching your traffic and rankings. Keep a careful eye on your analytics during this time. Your goal is to find any unusual traffic drops, sudden 404 spikes, or keyword ranking losses. Below are three critical points to monitor.

You can accomplish these tasks through Google Webmaster Tools.

Watch the Google index status

Keep an eye on how things are indexing in Google. You want to make sure that Google is indexing your entire site.

index status

Notice any crawl errors

Once your site is launched, watch this page like a hawk. If you see pages 404ing, make a list and fix them.

crawl errors

Watch your traffic

Traffic is a critical metric for measuring the success of your new site’s SEO. Keep close tabs on everything that happens with your traffic patterns.

Look at the charts below. They reflect two different outcomes of a site redesign process.

One site experienced a plunge in traffic at the point of its redesign. It was able to regain most of the traffic shortly after.

traffic

Another site had a total loss of traffic due to a complete mismanagement of the site’s SEO. It did not regain its traffic.

traffic drop

Conclusion

If you follow the instructions in this post, your site will not suffer the fate that you see in the chart above. Sure, you’ll experience a bit of fluctuation. Every site does after a redesign - it’s inevitable.

I’m convinced that a careful and intentional site redesign will allow you to sustain 95% or more of your site’s existing traffic. A big drop doesn’t have to happen. Plus, if your site redesign is rolled out successfully and your new design is better, then you’ll actually see your traffic rise.

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Comments

  1. Really awesome post, Neil.

    I’ve seen a lot of people who miss important things like ensuring easy communication between the site designer, the coder and the person responsible for SEO. Each of these people see a re-design from a different perspective, and only the best ideas from all of them can help create the best possible new design. :)

  2. I just redesigned my site and noticed traffic drops.I now know why.Thank you for the post and am working on the recommendations.

  3. very Nice Post Neil, I just need your help, i have a site which was ranking good in search engines and i was getting around 1000 visits per day, but then someone told me that you are doing keyword stuffing , so i edited every single posts on my site but i took care of keywords during the process, but my traffic goes down from 1000 per day to almost 50 per day, i don’t know what i did wrong. if you can help me.

    • Sami, have you run a full site audit using my tool?

      • No, Neil. How can that audit help me, I have read post somewhere that editing posts will destroy your site rankings, but at that time i did mistake and i edit my whole sites posts, and that’s what results in loss of traffic. any tips to recover traffic again, i am also gonna run a your audit now. Need help.

    • Sami,

      It’s very sad to experience such a drop in visitors.

      Have you considered returning your website content as it had been before you made changes?

      • Micheal, what i did was, after editing when i saw a huge drop in traffic , then again i reedit my posts with the old data. i thought returning to old data should do the trick, but nothing happened, still no traffic,

  4. Thank you Neil.

    There has been a surge in these types of requests from my current client base. People are realizing more and more the importance of a successful site migration. Realizing that no one wants to lose organic traffic, these clients are becoming more informed when launch site refreshes.

    When dealing with proper seo architecture for new sites, what do you look for?

  5. OMG! That last chart is painful even to look at. I can’t imagine having to go through that experience firsthand.

  6. An article of great value. Yet Again!

    Most of the old websites I have seen has major flaws in terms of Design, SEO & Technically. So 80% of the items needs to be changed in-order to rectify those. So it’s better to create a checklist of the items that should be verified before launching the new website.

    Thanks
    Praveen.

  7. Great and informative post Neil,

    This post must be helpful for designers as well as blogger to create SEO friendly website. This point should must have to consider whenever redesigning take place.

  8. Well said!
    Recently I saw a website that got completely redesigned, from the ground – up. However, I didn’t notice any sort of fluctuations in their rankings. Well, your post makes a great sense Neil, thanks for sharing.

  9. Great post – though communicating 95% retention is even possible is misleading. Let me explain. If you look at just one redirect by itself, regardless of intent, it is still a redirect. Unfortunately, a redirect dilutes the value of the original link. (http://youtu.be/Filv4pP-1nw) How much is the question… right? Matt Cutts won’t even speculate on that number – but from various rebranding studies I’ve conducted in the last 3 years it ranges from 20-40% depending on the industry and the market interest. When you communicate that 95% is achievable, it’s adding to SEO’ers shady reputation.

    • Jared, glad you found it helpful. Thanks for the great feedback :)

      • Neil (if indeed it really is Neil replying?!)

        So do you agree with Jared or stand by your original 95%?

        This is of great interest as we are just looking at a redesign probably with a new URL structure.

        Regards

        Roger

        • The amount of traffic you retain does not directly correlate to the amount of link equity you retain. They’re two different things. A smart plan from the beginning is supposed to help you alleviate some of the loss that may come from the 301s and site relaunch chaos.

          95% seems like a solid estimate if you do it right. If you couple the relaunch with a great marketing campaign you can even increase that traffic.

  10. thank you for the post neil, i have few questions if you can answer please.

    1. what if we have many 404’s due to existing urls on the other web pages (which we submit earlier for link building or promotional things), how to fix them?.

    2. If we have few 404’s that you said is a good thing. what about panda 4.0 then, what will be the effect on our site due to panda?

    • 1. You need to fix them. Try to manually remove the links and pages or you can block those URLs through the robots.txt file.

      2. Don’t worry about Panda 4.0 assuming you are blocking those pages.

  11. Hi Neil, thanks very much for the informative article. Try are always excellent to read an jam packed with good info! Just a heads up, the SEO secrets box in this article doesn’t render correctly on iOS Safari and is displaying outside of the viewport. Thanks again for the write up!

  12. Martin Voorzanger :

    There is probably even more, especially if you change the URL structure. Think about data feeds you are sending out, AdWords campaigns that may get different landing pages, and review of Google Analytics and Tag Manager (especially filters and conversions) et cetera. Try to get rid of 301 in the sense that any source should like to the new URLs.

    I would strongly suggest you have sitemaps registered with Google Webmaster tools and already automatically update daily. That speeds up discovery of new URLs.

  13. If you do take a big hit in organic traffic with a redesign will putting the old site back help you regain that traffic. If so could you then relaunch after being more careful with the relaunch following the info you’ve posted? Thanks in advance for your reply and for sharing your knowledge!

  14. I have a problem while redesigning my website. Hope someone can suggest a way out.

    I shifted my website from one Elegant Theme to Genesis Framework. Unfortunately, the SEO data, especially the titles and descriptions, were not transported during the shift.

    I tried the SEO Data Transporter plugin, but it can’t transport data from Elegant theme. I approached ElegantTheme website for suggestion, but none has been forthcoming thus far.

    Any idea how this can be solved? Thanks in advance.

    • You will have to fix it manually. There maybe an automated way but you don’t have much time… if you wait too long your rankings may end up getting hurt.

  15. Thanks for such an informative post Neil. We recently had a redesign for a site on top of search results for highly competitive keywords. All the urls except the home was changed and we did a lot of 301s. We did all the stuff like meta alterations, new sitemap etc. And note that there were zero content editing. Absolutely no content was changed except one or two newly added testimonial.

    Things are going smooth so far and we even had some improvements in ranking and traffic too.

    Well another thing i noticed that the hike in the rankings were found around 2 weeks after re design. Means Google takes its time to crawl the new site.

  16. Hi Neil,

    Thanks for sharing ! I hoped you could give me your perspective on the following:

    Currently preparing for a site migration, changing url structure, design and content.
    We are ranking well on important landing pages. With appox 350 ish words in body copy. The new design is more mobile and responsive designed focused. The result is 50 – 75 words in new copy which will still be centred around the same keyword topic. Would you be concerned about this ?

    Secondly, would be great to see a post on a suggested Kpi framework for a site migration.

    Best, Andrew

  17. We had a client that did a move from static html to wordpress. She seems to have implemented her 301’s correctly and she did a gradual shift of her pages starting with the lowest traffic pages and then the highest traffic pages. The first set of pages saw a small decline and then a recovery, but the highest trafficked pages have fallen off a cliff and haven’t recovered in a week. Sitemaps are in place and seem to be functioning correctly, but webmaster tools is reporting an error on pages that are clearly there and functioning properly.

    Any thoughts on this?

    Any technical SEO experts out there willing to consult on the issue? If so, please contact me at brad at captiva dot io.

    Thanks.

    • Have you submitted the pages to Webmaster Tools again and see if they still see an error. If so, start crawling the site and dig through it all to see if anything could be blocking the search engine spiders.

  18. Neil, this came at a perfect time! I’ve done a number of redesigns, domain/site migrations in the past so it’s nothing new to take the required steps to making this happen without killing my organic traffic.

    I’d like to hear your thoughts on more of the site migration / domain migration in addition to the aesthetic/structural redesigns.

    Thanks again, and always a pleasure to read your blog.
    -Dave Sanders

  19. This is just what I needed! I just started a site redesign and this will be great to reference as I am working on it.

  20. Hi Neil,

    Thanks for this post!
    We’re actually changing quite a lot of stuff on our website and this blog is right on time (or just a bit late).

    We’re experiencing some problems concerning the URLs (changing of URLs, because their name really had to be changed: no keywords, almost nothing to do with the content).

    Some URLs work fine (redirecting to the new url) but some don’t, like for example url/page/15 ; url/page/12 etc.
    I don’t know why it’s not automated, but that would mean I have to do it on my own, right? How would you advise us to do it? Should it be done through Apache or is there any other easy way of doing so?

    Thanks!

    • Just have your developer do a 301 redirect from the old URL to your new URL. Not sure on how to do it as it varies based on your server settings.

  21. I was so excited to see this! You posted this the day after I just completed a redesign for a client and I was happy I have done EVERYTHING you recommended!! The traffic has actually been increasing slowly since the redesign. :)

    Thanks Neil for making me less anxious!

  22. Rajesh Saharan :

    Hi Neil, I am about to redesign my site and now it looks much better than the previous. Earlier i had separate pages for login, register and forgot password now all these are combined into a single page. Since these pages have no significant SEO value, Is it required to 301 redirect them ?

  23. Rajnikant Kumar :

    It’s really very nice stuff and explanation with pros & cons. I will wait for more such usuful information Neil from your side. Thanks a lot.

  24. Hi Neil,

    Thank you for your share, but you have a mistake: “Check out this 404 technique for creating more indexed pages, and “. You’re add two link in a tag

  25. Thanks Neil, another great post, We recently had this problem, they redesign the site without informing us. Some important pages are missing, duplicate meta data occur, and the result was bad, traffic drop after the Panda update. I will send this article to our client.

  26. Most of the time people or companies redesign their websites for better CMS (usability & scalability) and that is where they did the big mistake by changing their old URL structure. If we move our site to another platform or CMS and if we had to change the link structure then be careful about using 301 permanent redirects for each old URL to their respective new URL. I have seen most of the companies use page to domain redirects which is a pain for their site visitors and which in tern pull down their site visits as well as ranking.
    Thanks Neil for sharing another informative article with us.

  27. hello Mr.Neil if i duplicate my focus keyword in tittle or link..Is it good or bad for the SEO?

  28. I just lost most of the organic traffic after I just redesigned my blog,it’s just so embarrassing Neil.Hope your tips will help me to get them back again,finger crossed. :/

  29. Fine way of explaining, and pleasant post to get data about
    my prresentation topic, which i aam going to present
    in university.

  30. I just read this post and I’m dealing with 2 cases of site changes. Both going into CMS and I spent most of my morning fixing everything for them. I’m glad I kept going through your blog today and found this post. Leaves me at ease to know I was doing some of the same things you are recommending.

  31. Hi Neil,

    We were revamping a site. Somehow we ended up deploying the website without copying the meta data from the old website. After deploying, we realized this happened. But now when we try to restore the old website, we see error.

    Is there any other way to get the old meta data without having to ask the hosting to restore the site?

    We are badly looking for an answer. Thanks a lot.

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