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Your website needs a redesign, but you're worried about losing your hard-earned search engine rankings. The reality is any changes to your site, especially major ones, are going to have an impact on your rankings. The impact may be immediate or delayed, but it is inevitable. By planning ahead and avoiding some common pitfalls, you can maximize your chances for a smooth transition. We've outlined seven steps for effective, search-friendly redesign.

MyOrg, Inc. Internet Web Hosting & Design Company Performance Evaluation

The first step is to conduct a thorough analysis of your existing site. What are your top landing pages, and which pages have the most (and best) rankings for your target keyword phrases? Which pages get the most visits and have the best conversions? How are people currently using your site? Be sure the redesign doesn't eliminate what is currently serving you best.

Next, do a link analysis to find all the inbound links to your site. The quantity, quality and relevance of links pointing to your web pages are a key factor in determining their search engine rankings. Do everything possible to preserve that value, either through maintaining the same URLs for primary pages, or employing proper redirects and contacting linking sites regarding the change (more on this below). To find links to your site, you can do a "link:yoursite.com" search in each engine to find some of them.

MyOrg, Inc. Internet Web Hosting & Design Company Crawl Barriers

All too often, in an attempt to make them more sophisticated or add some bells and whistles, redesigned sites lose their ability to be properly crawled. Watch out for frames and excessive use of JavaScript and Flash, all of which can be serious barriers to search engine crawling. Keep JavaScript and CSS off the page in separate files. Make sure your site navigation can be followed by the crawlers -- text link navigation is still best. Check that your new robots.txt file isn't blocking anything it shouldn't be. Be careful of multiple and sub-domains that can lead to duplicate content. And, if you're moving to a dynamic site, watch out for overly long URLs (more than 255 characters) and URLs that contain session IDs, question marks, ampersands or equal signs. Dynamic pages can be crawled, but special measures are required.

MyOrg, Inc. Internet Web Hosting & Design Company Tags and Text

If you're already using title tags, headings (especially <h1>, but <h2> and <h3> as well) and Meta tags optimized for your targeted keyword phrases, make sure to maintain them as much as possible. Of course, some tweaking may be required for landing pages that have changed, but if the core content is essentially the same, keep the tags that have been working for you. If you're working with a developer, get them to copy the exact tags for every page then adjust the tags as needed on an individual basis. Depending on how radical your redesign, the content of key pages may or may not change a lot. Be sure to maintain keyword-rich visible text on all important pages – remember the first 200 words and particularly the first full sentence on the page are the most important. Also make sure the text is actually text, and not part of a graphic image or JavaScript/Flash element.

MyOrg, Inc. Internet Web Hosting & Design Company File Structure and URLs

When possible, use your existing file names and structures in your redesigned site. The more URLs that stay the same, the easier it will be for both people and search engines to continue to find the important pages on your site. You'll also have a better chance of maintaining your current search engine rankings for those pages. If you do need to create a new directory structure, try to keep the structure relatively flat, which means minimizing the number of slashes in your URLs (yoursite.com/name/name/name.html). Remember that the deeper into your site you place important content, the less likely search engines are to find it. When possible, include your target keywords in the URLs for their landing pages.

MyOrg, Inc. Internet Web Hosting & Design Company Proper Redirects

If the location of your pages changes, you must let the search engines, and anyone who tries to go to your old pages, know about it. This is incredibly important; if you don't redirect your old pages to the new ones, anyone who clicks on an existing search engine listing or inbound link on another site will end up getting a "page not found" error. With proper redirects all of your listings and inbound links will transfer, and eventually your link popularity too. Then as part of your ongoing link management activities, locate all the links to pages that have changed, and ask the linking sites to update their links (this is also a good opportunity to ask them to use your targeted keyword phrases in the anchor text of the links).

From a search engine perspective, one of the most common mistakes people make is using improper redirects. Be sure to employ permanent 301 redirects to all pages. This lets the engines know that the change is in fact permanent, which will eventually result in them crawling and indexing the new pages on your site. Sometimes developers will use temporary 302 directs during the redesign process – make sure they change them to 301 redirects when the work is complete. When a search engine encounters a 302 redirect, it will often disregard the new page because it views it as only a temporary change.

Be especially careful if you use Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS), because its default redirect function is a 302 redirect. In the properties, after selecting "a redirection to a URL," be sure to also check the box below it: "A permanent redirection for this resource."

MyOrg, Inc. Internet Web Hosting & Design Company Custom 404 Page and Sitemap

Even if you think you've used permanent 301 redirects on all pages and discovered and updated all inbound links, there is still a good chance that something might slip through the cracks. To minimize any negative impact, create a custom 404 error page for you site; this is the "page not found" page that comes up when an invalid URL is entered. Your custom 404 page should include a partial sitemap as well as a friendly greeting and messaging that will help you keep the visitor. As well as being user-friendly, such a page is also search engine-friendly because it puts crawlable links to all the important pages on your site in one location. In addition to the sitemap included in your custom 404 page, your site should have a primary sitemap linked from the main navigation. The sitemap has the same search engine benefits as the custom 404 page, plus it makes it easy for users to find exactly what they're looking for on your site. This is particularly helpful with redesigned sites, as visitors who are used to your old layout and navigation may need help.

MyOrg, Inc. Internet Web Hosting & Design Company Getting Your New Pages Indexed

Once you've completed your search engine-friendly redesign, you'll obviously want your new pages to be indexed as quickly as possible. Be patient, it can take some time. Less popular sites are visited less often by the search engines, and you can't know the exact frequency with which your site is crawled. Some sites find a majority of their new pages indexed quickly, for others it can take one to two months or longer. Sometimes newly indexed pages may even suddenly disappear then reappear later. Unfortunately this is all normal, and you just need to be patient. Resist the temptation to submit your URLs again and again; it won't do you any good.

One thing you can do, specifically for Google, is try Google Sitemaps (www.google.com/webmasters/sitemaps). Through Sitemaps, you can keep Google automatically informed of all your pages and when changes are made to them. This does not guarantee inclusion, but can help the process.

Link building can also help; the more links from quality, relevant pages pointing to the various landing pages on your site, the easier it is for the search engines to find you (and assign value to your pages).

Ultimately, it's a waiting game. If you've employed proper 301 redirects, created a Google Sitemap, secured some quality inbound links and followed the other steps above, you've laid the proper groundwork and eventually your new pages will be found and indexed. In the meantime all of your current listings and links will still bring traffic via redirects, so you'll continue to benefit from your previous rankings in the interim.

MyOrg, Inc. Internet Web Hosting & Design Company Summary

You can minimize the negative impact of a site redesign on your search engine rankings through 7 steps:

  • Evaluate your existing site and do a link analysis prior to redesign

  • Make sure your redesigned site does not have any crawl barriers

  • Continue to use the effective title, heading and meta tags from your old site (tweaking them as needed)

  • Use as much of your existing file structure and as many existing URLs as possible

  • Employ proper, permanent 301 redirects on all pages that have changed

  • Create a custom 404 page and site map

  • Create a Google Sitemap and obtain some quality inbound links

Finally, be patient and take a careful, methodical approach to every step in the process. Also make sure that your redesign is effective not only from a search engine perspective, but as business perspective as well. The whole point is to increase sales and grow your business. Good luck with your redesign!

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