Sep 13 2018
Basis Technologies

The Website Redesign Guide for Search Engine Marketers


How to Prepare For and Survive Launches of Redesigned Websites

Website redesigns often require reconstructing at least part of a site from scratch, which can send search engine marketers back to square one. If the redesign project is not completed correctly and critical steps are missed, a website redesign has the potential to send a website into a tailspin. Even when a website redesign is done well, most redesigned sites see a minimum of a seven-to-10% drop in traffic. When done wrong, “redesigned” sites can see traffic plummet. What’s more, it can take weeks or months for the site to regain its lost traffic.

Given this, if you’re a search engine marketer in charge of a site that’s going to be redesigned, you need a plan for surviving the website redesign. The following steps will help minimize any negative impact that the project might have on your SEM efforts, and ensure your hard-earned SEM accomplishments aren’t lost during or after the redesign.

Gathering the Team and Identifying Roles

Your first step in preparing for the website redesign should be to gather a team of people who can assist with the work required. Unless you run a one-person microsite, there’s too much work for one person to manage. Even if your sole responsibility is SEM, you’ll quickly be overwhelmed with all that there is to do and coordinate.

The people on your team should fill a number of roles. There should be a:

  • Project lead (sometimes the website owner)
  • Webmaster
  • Search engine optimization specialist
  • Paid advertising marketer
  • Content creator

You may also want to bring on IT staff, social media marketer or peripheral people.

Of course, the size of your team will depend on how large your site and its support staff is. Large sites may have a different person assume each of these roles, while small sites might have individuals simultaneously assuming several roles.

Recruiting team members isn’t difficult, as everyone you need will already be working in these roles. Gathering a team is about being intentional and setting up a meeting with all the people who are involved so that everyone can understand each other’s needs and be on the same page. If you don’t get people together, SEM can easily be overlooked in the midst of everything else and your concerns may be unacknowledged, ignored or neglected.

Once everyone is together, you’ll want to create a plan that has three distinct phases: pre-launch, launch and post-launch.

Pre-Launch: Focusing on On-Site SEO and Prepping Ad Campaigns

While there’s a lot of technical work to do before launching the newly rebuilt website, search engine marketing concerns are fairly simple. The focus is primarily on making sure the site’s organic search rankings are affected as little as possible during the initial launch of the new site. To this end, there’s some on-site SEO work to do and a few PPC campaigns to set up.

Change the Sitemap

Start by getting a new sitemap of the current site so you know exactly what will need to be done for on-site SEO. Rather than using an older sitemap, fetch a new one using a crawling tool like ScreamingFrog or DeepCrawl. Both tools (and others) will generate a sitemap and show you some items that are relevant to on-site SEO.

With a freshly generated sitemap in hand, carefully review it with your webmaster and SEO specialist. Discuss how the site’s architecture will be changing and what alterations must be made to the sitemap in light of the new architecture.

Make sure someone is given the specific responsibility of updating the sitemap before launching the new site. Having an accurate sitemap in place for the new site will be essential for SEO, since search engines can only rank pages if they’re able to crawl sites accurately.

Update the Page Elements

Assuming the site architecture is changing, some on-page elements will need to be changed in order to maximize on-page relevance. The content creator will likely do most of the actual work, but the SEO specialist ought to be consulted.

Exactly what needs to be changed will depend on how much the architecture of your site is changing. You may need to adjust pages’:

  • URLs
  • Titles
  • Meta descriptions
  • Meta tags (if used)
  • Alt text
  • Image titles

As you work through each page, team members may notice changes that can be made to improve the user experience or increase conversion rates. Work with the project lead to determine what changes should be made before launch and which ones can wait until after launch. The leader might not want to delay launching for changes that’ll only have a small impact or that take too long to implement.

The most important part of this step is to make sure all page elements are updated before launching the new site. You’ll want search engines to be able to easily determine what pages are about from the first day that the new site launches.

Address Dead Links

One of the most important aspects of pre-launch preparation is addressing dead links. This is a matter of both SEO and user experience. Links pass link equity and help search engines determine pages’ topics, and no users like landing on dead pages.

Use the same crawling tool you previously ran a sitemap with to find 404 pages that may have dead links pointing to them. Then, confirm that these are 404s in Google Search Console or Bing Webmaster Tools.

There are a few ways to address any dead pages you find. You can:

  • Change internal links pointing to the page
  • Ask webmasters whose sites generate referral traffic to link to a page on your new site
  • Redirect the page to another page on the new site

It’s often worth spending a little time manually fixing the major links that point to a dead page, but the less important links offer a much lower return on the time invested. Therefore, you might want to focus on a few major links and create a redirect that’ll be sufficient for any lesser ones.

Link changes and redirects certainly should be taken care of before launch so that referral traffic coming from external links can find the new site and on-site visitors aren’t frustrated with a bunch of dead pages. Dead links don’t look good on new sites.

Set Up PPC Campaigns

Even with your team’s best efforts, there’ll likely be at least a temporary drop in the site’s organic rankings. Search engines will need a little time to crawl all the pages and discover all the links, and redirects don’t pass on all of their link equity.

Per Moz’s reporting back in the days of PageRank, Google eventually determined that redirects from HTTP to HTTPS would pass on all of their link equity. Redirects that aren’t to adopt the HTTPS protocol, however, lose about 15% of their link equity. Although PageRank is no longer a ranking factor, there’s no sign that Google stopped treating redirects’ link equity in this way.

Running additional PPC campaigns while the new site becomes established is an easy way to compensate for potential drops in organic rankings. Find out what organic search terms generate are most important to your site’s organic traffic, and then ask the PPC marketer to create campaigns around those terms. The paid advertisements will ensure your site’s still visible in searches until the organic rankings recover.

These campaigns shouldn’t be started until the new site launches, but they should be created and ready to go. Don’t worry about split-testing and refining them too much, since they’ll hopefully only be used for a short time.

Launching the New Site: Crisis Management and PPC

At the time of launch, most of the immediate responsibilities will fall to the team members who actually did the website redesign. There’s not a lot of immediate SEM work to do, but you may be needed for some crisis management.

Keep All Team Members Free

The best way team members who aren’t directly involved with the technical aspects of the new site can help with the site’s launch is by simply keeping their schedules free and minds open.

Anything can go awry on the day of launching, and even well-planned launches sometimes experience difficulties. Should a problem arise, developers may need all hands on deck to help address the issue. People can only help if they’re free of other obligations.

Helping with launch issues may involve any type of work, which is why being flexible is essential at this point in time. There’s a chance that you and other team members will be asked to do something not related to SEM or the other roles listed above. That might involve searching for dead links, checking specific snippets of code or just getting developers lunch while they work continuously on a problem.

Whatever is asked, now is the time to help and not protest that something’s beyond your responsibilities. Pitch in however you can, and your efforts will be appreciated and remembered. Assisting so issues are promptly resolved will also let you return to SEM work sooner.

Launch PPC Campaigns

The one SEM item that should be taken care of at this time is launching those PPC campaigns that were previously set up. This should require little more than re-checking bidding parameters and actually starting the campaigns.

When setting bids for these campaigns, bid high to make sure your ads will appear alongside search results. This is one of the few times in PPC marketing when return on investment isn’t the primary objective. Instead, keeping your site visible should be pursued as the main goal—even if that means over-spending on ads temporarily. If you need a lot of extra funds to sustain these campaigns, talk to your project lead about boosting your PPC budget this one time.

You can ask the PPC marketer to keep an eye on these campaigns during launch, but they shouldn’t require close monitoring. As long as you’ve set bids appropriately, the campaigns should be fine on their own for a little while. There’s no sense in micromanaging them since they’ll soon be ended, and not micromanaging lets the PPC marketer be free to help with other issues should they arise.

Increase Social Activity

You might want to ask the social media manager to increase posting activity shortly after launch. Extra posts can help compensate for a temporary loss in search traffic, and social activity can help SEO.

Increasing social activity should be done cautiously and only after the initial launch, though. The tactic can backfire if there are any issues with the new site, as increasing traffic will only increase the number of aggravated users.

Post-Launch: Checks and Steady Growth

After the immediate activity of the launch is over, the post-launch phase becomes one of checks and steady SEM growth.

Check Redirects

Soon after the new site is live, check to make sure all redirects are functioning properly and there aren't any dead pages that were missed. The easiest way to do this is by using your chosen crawling tool to create a sitemap of the new site.

Any 404 errors that are found should be redirected. If there’s no new content for them, the redirects should be made permanent. If there is content intended for them, use redirects until the content is uploaded so that the user experience isn’t impacted as much.

Monitor Traffic

In the days, weeks and months following the site’s launch, carefully monitor all forms of search traffic. Watch organic traffic and paid traffic, as well as what search traffic is going to any secondary platforms like a Facebook page or external blog. If the new site has subdomains, watch for variations in the number of visitors each one sees.

Watching your site’s search traffic will help gauge how SEO and PPC campaigns are going, and it’ll alert you to any SEM emergencies that may arise. If there’s a sudden drop in traffic, it’s probably not due to a search engine update. In the period after a new site launch, drops are more likely to be caused by issues with the site or its SEM campaigns.

End Temporary PPC Campaigns

As you see SEO efforts grow organic traffic back to pre-launch levels, slowly decrease the temporary PPC campaigns that were set up. There’s no reason to run these short-term campaigns once the new site’s pages are ranking for the targeted terms.

How quickly you can reduce these campaigns depends on how well SEO goes and whether you’ve created a bidding war with your elevated budget. If competitors have increased their bids to match yours during this time, don’t cancel the campaigns all at once. Instead, lower your bids or reduce the number of ads you bid on slowly as the new site’s pages climb up the organic rankings.

If you do want to continue running campaigns for any of the terms, work with the PPC marketer to design campaigns that are better researched and have gone through more extensive testing. When transitioning from a temrporary to a sustained campaign, it makes sense to invest more resources in maximizing the ROI.

Explore New PPC Opportunities

Going forward, continue to watch what organic traffic is being generated. Look not only at the amount of traffic, but also check what terms are bringing in visitors.

With a new site, there’s a good chance that you’ll see new search terms bringing in visitors. Some of these terms might be worth creating PPC campaigns for. An analysis of the costs-per-click for these terms will show whether you should also run paid ads for any of them.

Since these are long-term campaigns, you will want to carefully optimize the ads for maximum ROI.

Survive Your Website Redesign with SEM Intact

As soon as you get word that your website will be redesigned, be proactive. Take action by gathering a team and developing a plan for keeping SEM in tact during the website redesign.

Get everyone to:

  • Update the sitemap, page elements and redirects
  • Run temporary PPC campaigns that compensate for drops in rankings
  • Help the technical team during launch
  • Check and monitor the new site on an ongoing basis

If you do all of this, your site’s search engine marketing should emerge from the redesign with strength. You won’t lose all of the hard work that you’ve already put into organic and paid campaigns. Nor will you lose the traffic those campaigns generate.