I recently 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 Although very out of date, not mobile friendly and lacking functionality, the website itself was well supported by local tourism businesses and had consistently ranked number one for it’s 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 websites 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).
Identifying pages to redirect
The first thing to do is identify what pages there are and test them to see if they need to 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 URL’s 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.
Microsoft Excel has a useful 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.
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 less visits than the old one was.