“I am in the process of redesigning my site, what should I look out for in order to maintain the SEO (and rankings)?”
The existing structure of your site is in most cases the single most important factor behind a safe redesign. If your structure changes, even just a little, you could easily see your rankings plummet.
With the redesign you will want to do everything in your power to maintain your existing site structure and page file names. The second you move or rename a file you risk losing valuable rankings. (Not only that, but you risk losing existing customers who may have bookmarked the now-moved page). Unless it is absolutely necessary to restructure the file hierarchy, don’t. In cases where it must take place, the use of a 301 redirect is your best friend.
The 301 redirect will save your existing customers from head aches when visiting now-moved pages by seamlessly directing them to the new location. Permanent 301’s will also help you retain your rankings – sometimes.
In theory, when you move a page, the 301 will tell the search engines “Hey, this page moved” and the search engines will re-assign credit. Existing rankings will eventually be transferred over to the new location along with any credit from inbound links.
Our comments: If you do the proper planning before you build your website in the first place, you shouldn’t run into redirect issues. There are situations and circumstances where it may be unavoidable, but if at all possible you should avoid redirects altogether. You’ll save yourself a lot of headaches.
Advanced sites are another story all together. If your site suffers from obese URL strings loaded with extraneous characters, bizarre paths, session ids, etc. you may be in better shape to change your URL’s to something much cleaner. For example, www.domain.com/product/model/color is much more valuable than www.domain.com/product.cfm?item=productid&model=abc&c=white . Long URL’s like this can usually be processed by the search engines, indexed, and ranked, however cleaning them up offers a better chance of rankings, a cleaner impression to your site user, and an opportunity to incorporate some potential target phrases.
Our comments: A lot can be said for a proper domain name. Put some thought into this and choose the right domain name before you start. Again, you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches if you go into your web marketing plan with the right domain name and website design.
The best middle ground between Flash developers and SEOs is to use “spot-Flash”. Incorporate pieces of Flash into the html based site. This will allow the search engines all the content they require, while leaving the aesthetics in place for your visitors. This said, your new design should not utilize Flash as the exclusive means of site navigation.
Our comments: Flash is making a comeback, but in ways that a few years ago were unimaginable. When Flash first came out everyone ate it up. But Flash ate up their bandwidth and websites loaded to slow. Everyone abandoned Flash. Now they’re picking it up again but in limited ways.
Flash is no longer used as the primary feature on websites and for good reason. Search engines don’t like it and why use something search engines don’t like? Flash can be used to enhance your website features but use it the way you do other graphics – as an enhancement tool and not the primary feature of your website. Content is still king and text is the crown of your content. Flash, and everything else, is simply an adornment to make the crown look good.
If your new site will contain entirely fresh textual content you will want to ensure that keyword densities and focus remain as close as possible to the old copy. Be sure to keep items such as mid-sentence (inline) text links (especially if they link to internal pages on your own site), heading tags, and keyword placement within the top portions of the new site.
Our comment: If you don’t copy your old links, you’ll run the risk of having broken links on your website. Search engines frown on that big time. It is one of the most likely killers of your search engine rankings.
Meta / Title Tags
Be sure to copy over your title tag, meta keyword tag, and description tag from each page to the new version. The title tag is especially important as there is still significant value placed here. You want to ensure that each page retains its old, optimized title tag.
The description meta tag is also important to carry over to the new design. The description tags do still carry some weight, and also can have an influence on the copy used in the search engine listing. Be sure not to lose these tags.
The meta keyword tag can really go either way. While these days it provides little to no value, if it is optimized and unique for each page, you may as well carry it over. It will provide some value for some of the smaller engines, but really have next to no impact on Google, Yahoo and MSN. Since you’ll be transferring the description tag over anyways, it’s all part of the same cut and paste action to transfer the keyword tag also. If you are switching the entire back end system, and copying over the keyword tag will provide you with an extensive amount of extra work, then you are most likely safe to leave it out.
Our comments: As long as your making a deal of tags, and you should, migrate those keyword tags. They are still important at Ask.com and some of the other smaller search engines. The big 3 use those other search engines too. Make it easy to be found with all of your tags.
For images remaining on the site be sure to keep the optimized alt tags in place. In cases where header images and image based navigation is being completely updated be sure to follow the same guide set with the alt tags in the original design. Wherever it makes sense, be sure to have the same alt tags copied over to the replacement images. These alt tags do have some value in your search engine rankings, and removing them entirely could cause a ranking decline.
Our comments: Not enough webmasters emphasize alt tags. These are vitally important to how search engines read your images. More and more, the search engines are crawling and databasing images. Use alt tags even for Flash. They are extremely important for your rankings.
I do want to put an important caveat here. Redesigning your site, even when following all the rules, can still result in your site being demoted. You may still find your rankings disappear. Redesigning a ranked website is really a gamble any way you look at it. Your rankings could drop, they could skyrocket, or they could stay exactly where they are. There is no way to know for sure without moving forward.