The web evolves on a fast pace, and websites need to keep evolving to meet ever growing user expectations, that includes upgrading the infrastructure (i.e. hosting and CMS) and improving the visual design of the website.
Unfortunalty website redesign is not a risk free process, when lanunching a new website there is a risk of:
- Losing organic search engine traffic
- Conversion rate getting lower
- Data loss due to mistakes migrating the tracking pixels
- Poor user experience manifested in metrics like bounce rate
It is strongly recommended to conduct a pre-launch audit before launching a new website, the list below includes items with the highest impact on organic search in specific, and digital marketing performance in general when they are changed:
- URL changes
- Tags changes (title tags, description tags, ALT and Hx tags)
- Content changes and content removal
- Structured data changes (that includes schema, canonical and social mark-ups)
- Design changes (mainly above the fold area)
- Usability, UX, accessibility (WCAG) and CRO
- Crawlability and indexability
- Navigation menu changes
- Website speed and performance
- Tracking changes
I will take you through every item of these and describe in details how to check if they changed in a way that can negatively affect search engine traffic or user experience.
One rule to remember while doing a website redesign "minimize the variables" where possible try to keep things the same (i.e. content, title tags, description tags), that will make traffic loss diagnosis easier if the new website happens to under perform the old one
The whole search engine ranking system is built around the URL, it is used as an index to rank content and assess authority (mainly backlinks), changing a URL even with the content staying the same without a proper 301 redirect can cause a significant traffic loss. Work closely with the web developer to see if it is possible to keep the URLs unchanged, and if they have to be changed map the old URLs to the new ones, and ask the developer to implement a 301 redirect solution from the old URLs to the new ones.
Tags changes (title tags, description tags, ALT and Hx tags)
Keyword rich title tags and H1 tags can help the content to rank better for the targeted keywords, changing them in a way the become less relevant to the targeted keywords can cause a traffic loss
Title tags and description tags are used in most cases in the SERP by search engines, they should be written like an ad in a way they attract people to click on the listing in the SERP, changing them may bring CTR down.
The safest bet in a transitional stage is to keep them the same which will reduce lim the variables so diagnosing a potential traffic loss becomes easier.
Content changes and content removal
Removing text content from pages or changing content in a way it becomes less relevant to targeted keywords will have a negative effect or ranking. Same thing applies to other form of content like photos and videos.
Structured data changes
Structured data like Schema is a very helpful tool for search engines to better and quicker understand the content on your pages, you can embed specific type of content like an address, reviews, recipes and more in structured data codes, in some cases those codes will be used by search engines to add extra features to the SERP (e.g. the 5 stars you see some times in the SERP).
It is very common for developers to drop those codes while redesigning a website, make sure to check those codes on the staging website using the schema test tool.
It is possible for the design and layout changes to cause some issues to a website ranking and user experience, pay a lot of attention to the above-the-fold area and make sure:
- The content above thee fold is not changing, especially the content that is related to the targeted keyword
- The call to action elements are placed above the fold are not being removed
Usability, UX, accessibility (WCAG) and CRO
Design changes (layout and elements repositioning) can impact many usability elements such as forms, payment process, and funnels. Usability elements may not affect search engines a lot but they will have a significant impact on user experience and eventually conversion rate.
Soft launch is a good a tool to assess usability and conversion rate changes, you can start with a 25% exposure of the new design and monitor the KPIs between the old and the new website (this almost becomes an A-B test)
Accessibility WCAG check up could be done using a tool like WAVE.
Crawlability and indexability
- Make sure there is no commands in robots.txt (like disallow) that prevents search engines from crawling the site
- Check the source code for noindex tags
- Make sure the website has a dynamic site map submitted to Google Search Console
- Make sure text content is not included in images
The best tool to check for crawalability and indexability is Google Mobile-Friendly Test, then check the HTML source code section and make sure all the text content that you want search engines to see is visible there.
Navigation menu changes
The upper navigation of the website has two important roles to play, one of them is SEO and the other one is user experience.
From an SEO prospective, search engines give more weight to pages that are linked from the upper navigation as those pages are linked site-wide, the anchor text used in thee upper navigation will give search engines some context regarding the destination page. Removing important pages form the upper navigation or changing the anchor text may have a negative impact on ranking.
From a UX standpoint, links in the upper nav should be organized in a way that makes key pages easy to access for users, at the same time helping the website to achieve its business objectives.
Website speed and performance
Website speed and performance measured by Core Web Vitals, can be negatively impacted by changing the CMS or the design, measuring Core Web Vitals and making sure the performance is at least stying the same if not improving will be key to maintaining a good ranking (as Core Web Vitals are ranking factors now) and keeping a good user experience (keeping and improving conversions rate).
It is very normal for a website to have a lot of tracking pixels (i.e. Google Analytics, Facebook, Linkedin and more), sometimes they are hardcoded in the source code and other times that are managed using tools like Google Tag Manager. Removing any of those pixels/tags will cause a data flow interruptions, it is very important to migrate all of these pixels to the new website.
Sometimes even keeping those pixels may not be enough, firing rules can depend on URLs and HTML elements names to fire, changing that will also interrupt tracking.
Also tracking tools like Google Analytics have settings to track goals and events that will be impacted by changing URL and HTML codes.
It is ver important to make sure there is not data/tracking interruptions when moving to the new website.
Website redesign or upgrade will be unavoidable at some point, what could be avoidable with good preparation is:
- Traffic loss
- User experience deterioration
- Tracking and data flow interruption
This post focuses mainly on pre-launch audit, but post-lauch audit is also very important, the most important checking points for that are:
- Google Search Console traffic, impressions and average ranking loss
- Google Search Console coverage section (errors, indexability and crawlability metrics)
- Google Analytics conversions loss and bounce rate decline