In 2016, we took over the Bay of Islands Travel Guide from a web designer who had built it from scratch using Miva Script in 1997. Although very out of date, not mobile friendly and lacking functionality, the website itself was well supported by local tourism businesses and had consistently ranked number highly for its main keywords for at least 10 years. I was really keen to see this website redeveloped and build it into a more modern, useful resource, but wanted to make sure that the Google rankings didn’t drop after we relaunched it.
Your website’s Google rankings can drop for many different reasons and a website redesign is only one of them. If you need help getting your website back to page one, please get in touch!
Because the old website had completely a different URL structure (page addresses) to our redesigned website, it was important to ensure that we weren’t losing website traffic due to people clicking on links that no longer worked from;
- Google and other search engines
- Links from other websites
- Links in saved emails and documents
Just as importantly, if Google discovers that a website is returning a stack of 404 errors (“404” means the page doesn’t exist), the website rankings could crash quite spectacularly as the broken links are considered to be of no value to the website, thereby reducing it’s perceived value. This is a very common cause of lost website rankings when web designers who don’t specialise in SEO fail to consider the consequences of their changes. It is vital for an established website that old page URLs are redirected to new page addresses using a 301 redirect (a piece of code that says the page has permanently moved).
Identify Existing URLs
The first thing to do is identify what pages there are and test them to see if they need to be redirected. As we rebuilt the Bay of Islands Travel Guide, we created redirects as we went but there were hundreds of URLs that needed to be considered, so how do we find them? There are various ways of doing this. (This next part will sound like Gobbledegook if you’re not technically minded!)
- Manually check your page files
- Use a sitemap generator to find all the existing pages
- Use a browser extension to source data directly from Google
- Use landing page data from Google Analytics
We opted to use Google Analytics to display a list of landing pages as we had a ton of data going back years and could also use the results to see what pages were getting the most hits. Another reason to use the analytics over the other options was that it showed the actual URLs that visitors were accessing, not the URLs listed on Google or via a sitemap. This allowed us to be more flexible in the way we redirected incoming traffic and avoid losing visits from “out of the box” links.
The analytics export only gave us the landing page, not the whole URL with the domain name. This is not something that we really wanted to do line by line, so the easiest way to manage it was to extract the information from a CSV file and re-add the domain name back to create a fresh list of URLs that we could check with some software we use to run SEO audits.
We started with a list of URLs like this…
What we really needed was a piece of code like this that we could use to check and see if the link to the website still worked.
Here is a useful spreadsheet function that allows us to join together the page address with the rest of the code we needed to run the check. We used a formula like this;
That gave us a list of website addresses that the software could check once we saved them into an HTML file.
Avoid dropped rankings with 301 redirects
Next, we ran our link checker software over the HTML file we created and produced a report of links that still weren’t redirected to the new web pages.
Once these broken links had been listed, it’s just a matter of deciding what new page they should be redirected to. I often see websites that have been redesigned where any URL not on the new website but using the domain name will redirect to the new home page. The web designer thinks that they are helping by ensuring that there are no broken links but they’ve actually undermined the website rankings by;
- Pointing old URLs to a page that might not be relevant.
- Allowing any link using the domain (including spam) to point to the website.
When setting up your 301 redirects, do them manually if there is no way to automate the process and ensure that they point to a page that has content related to the page that it is replacing. If you’re really keen, you can find out more about how to set up 301 redirects here.
There are a number of other issues that can arise from a website redesign that can result in lower Google rankings.
Internal linking refers to the linking of pages within a website to create a structure that makes it easy for users to find related content and for search engine crawlers to navigate and index pages. A well-designed internal linking structure can improve the crawlability of a website, which can help search engines understand the hierarchy of pages, the relevance of content, and the overall importance of the website.
When a website is redesigned, changes in the internal linking structure can impact the website’s crawlability, leading to a decline in search engine visibility. For example, a website may have several internal links to a particular page from various other pages. If those links are removed or modified during a redesign, search engines may not be able to find and crawl the page, which can negatively affect the website’s rankings.
In addition, if the internal links are not optimized correctly, search engines may not be able to crawl certain pages of the website or the pages will be seen to have lesser importance than they had within the old version of the website. This can be caused by a lack of internal links pointing to specific pages or by having too many internal links pointing to the same page, which can result in an uneven distribution of link equity.
Changes to website content
Search engines use complex algorithms to determine the relevance and quality of a website’s content. The algorithms analyze various factors such as keyword usage, relevance, user experience, and other technical aspects to determine a website’s ranking on the search engine results pages (SERPs). Therefore, any changes made to the content, such as removing or altering key phrases, can have a significant impact on search engine rankings.
A redesign that removes or changes important keywords, phrases, or content can affect the website’s ranking for those particular keywords or phrases and can decrease rankings significantly. Search engines rely heavily on the use of keywords to understand the content of a website. Significant changes may mean that search engines can’t understand the content as accurately.
Removing or altering content can affect the overall relevance of the website. For example, if a website removes content that was relevant to a particular topic, it can negatively impact the website’s ranking for that topic and related keywords. In contrast, adding new, relevant content can positively impact search engine visibility. Remember: Websites do not rank. Web pages rank.
Large images or poorly optimized images can have a negative impact on website performance, user experience, and search engine rankings. Generally, newer websites tend to be more image-heavy than websites built over 10 years ago. This is partly due to faster internet speeds allowing pages to load faster and partly due to changes in style preferences.
However, large images take longer to load, which can result in slower page load times. Slow page load times can lead to higher bounce rates, as users are more likely to abandon a website that takes too long to load and slow load times can negatively impact search engine rankings. Search engines consider user experience as a ranking factor. If a website has a poor user experience, it can negatively impact search engine rankings, so it is important to optimize images to ensure that they do not impact website performance or user experience.
In summary, redesigning your website can make it look better but if your web designer doesn’t consider your search engine optimisation, you can find your great-looking website design is ranking lower and getting fewer visits than the old one was.