It pays to have a plan

Keep Your Search Engine Equity When You Update Your Site

by Cara Au Yeung & Steve Constable

Building a new site can cause a dip in your traffic and organic search rankings. We show you how to keep your search engine equity when you update your site.

Watch out for Those Search Engine Game Changers

You know it’s vital to keep your website current. A new site offers you opportunities to enhance your digital presence and trial new marketing techniques. However if you’re making changes to your site consider the SEO implications carefully.

It’s not just Google’s latest algorithm mixing it up for your search engine optimization.

Other changes that can cause your search rankings to dip are:

  • Website redesign
  • Domain name change
  • Changing the platform your site is built on
  • Moving from http to https

There are ways to mitigate your risk, to ensure that you experience very little dip in your organic search traffic, and that undesirable side effects of these changes are short-term,

The two changes that have the biggest potential SEO impact are a site redesign and a domain name change.

Our TimeZoneOne search expert Steve Constable talks you through some tactics to manage your search engine presence as you make these changes.

How Website Redesigns affect Search Engine Equity

Site Indexing

When you redesign your website, elements search engines use to determine the relevance and authority of your web pages may change.

  • Page URLs change
  • Pages are added or deleted
  • Content is merged, split into new pages, or deleted altogether

Changing the way people navigate around your website can dramatically alter the way search engines access pages and index your site.

Link Equity

Changes to your site structure also influence the transfer of link equity to your new site. Link equity, or link juice, is the ranking Google awards your site based on the quality and quantity of links to your website.

An inbound-link to your website from a major international news organisation like Al Jazeera, will rank highly, indicating to Google that your site has high quality content. Link equity is an important component of SEO and a major contributor towards your organic search rankings. You want to be sure that your link equity transfers to your new site.

Content

Content has a major impact on your search engine equity. You may move, rework, or delete content contributing to your organic search authority during the redesign process.

Search engines then need time to re-scan your new website, and either index your updated content for key search topics, or find new relevant content instead.

If you replace written content with images, video or other visual content, you may find your website loses more organic traction, as search engines have less information to index.

How to Retain Your Link Juice and Search Engine Equity

Do these things before you redesign your site:

  • Conduct a search and content audit of your old site: Work out what content on your current site performs well for your users and for organic search. Categorize into content to keep, content to rework, and content to remove. This also helps highlight gaps you may have in your content.
  • Create a SEO and content strategy for your new site: Do customer research and keyword research to identify opportunities for new content to benefit your users and attract relevant organic traffic. Then work out the information architecture for your new site. Your goal is to create an site map that retains your existing organic traffic, better addresses your users’ needs, and delivers new opportunities for organic traffic. Search engines place high value on quality content that meets your users’ needs and answers their search queries. Adopt a user-guided content strategy, base your website design around this, and you’ll not only retain your organic traffic, but likely grow it.
  • Consider design elements which are beneficial for SEO: As part of the design process, make sure your site is logical, flows well, and has visible and relevant links between pages to enable search bots to crawl your site easily. Also if your design is very visual, make sure you’ve carefully considered your content from an SEO perspective. Images and videos in isolation provide little SEO benefit. Search engines cannot read them without meaningful text descriptions.
  • On page factors: Complete your on-page SEO factors, using the keywords you determined in your SEO strategy. For example, use unique meta data for each page. Give each page  an H1 page heading. Fill out the alt tags for all images. Set a canonical URL for any duplicate content.
  • Page Redirects: This is one of the most important considerations. You need to redirect every single significant page from your old website, to the equivalent page on your new website. This helps transfer the search equity and authority that page has built up over time, to the new page. Not doing this can have detrimental effects on the search performance of your new website.

Changing Your Domain Name

Changing your domain name can be a risky business. We recommend you have a strong business case to change your domain name, strong enough that you’re willing to accept some organic search losses along the way. Changing your domain name can be as simple as  changing the TLD at the end, for example changing from .co.nz to .com. Or you could change your whole domain name, for example changing www.timezoneone.com to www.tzo-chch-agency.co.nz.

As far as search engines are concerned, changing your domain name means you’re starting a brand new website, even if the content is all exactly the same. New domain names take time to develop traction. Search engines have to re-crawl your site, re-index all your pages and content from scratch. You’ll likely experience at least a temporary SEO hit, possibly even a permanent effect, even if you do everything correctly.

The most important thing is to carry out your 301 redirects properly. A 301 redirect is a permanent redirect, telling search engines that the content that used to be on your old site, is now over here on your new site. A 301 redirect usually transfers 90-99% of link equity to your new domain (however this is not guaranteed). In addition, if you have a lot of back links from other websites to your site, there might be some loss in link equity with the domain change.

Steps to Minimize the Impact of a Domain Name Change

  • Do your domain change in isolation, keeping everything else the same, to help search engines re-establish your search authority more quickly. If you change your domain name at the same time as you make other major website changes, such as a redesign or a change in platform/CMS, you may experience a significant longer-term dip in organic traffic.
  • Carry out 301 redirects on every page and document on the website, including images. Redirect every page to its equivalent page under your new domain name – using the same content, meta data etc.
  • Create a new profile in Search Console, submit your new sitemap, and implement a change of address.
  • Audit your backlinks and determine your link profile. Contact websites who link to you, especially high profile sites, and ask them to update their links to your new domain.
  • Closely monitor traffic and rankings for your website so you can quickly react to any loss in organic traction.

Don’t let Your New Site Have a Sting in the Tail

We're always redeveloping websites that attract substantial organic traffic. Maintaining search engine equity is crucial, and the development of a content and search strategy is an important part of our partnership with clients.

Let us tell you a little cautionary tale that prompted us to write this article. Over the last six months or so, a few organizations we used to manage websites for, built new sites with new agencies. It happens. We wished them well, they went on their merry way. It was all very amicable. Then they launched their new sites. They looked lovely. But looking lovely and delivering results can be two different things. We still managed marketing access to their sites, and we could see the new sites were hemorrhaging organic traffic, because the steps outlined above, particularly redirects, had not taken place. In several cases traffic dropped by more than 50%. We sent a few awkward emails, along the lines of: “It’s not really our place, but have you noticed …’

It’s easy to sound smug here, but we empathize. Websites are complex. The list of things to consider can feel endless. We’d be the first to put our hand up and say sometimes we drop the ball. But with organic search so fundamental to your digital marketing success, you need a plan to maintain your search engine equity when you make changes to your site. Imagine the business impact of losing 50% of your traffic.

If you need advice on how to keep your search engine equity when you update your site, contact Todd at [email protected].

About the Authors

Steve Constable

Steve Constable

Digital Marketer

I specialize in SEO, digital data analysis, and user experience optimization. SEO is a continuous cycle of improvement, so I monitor your site’s organic effectiveness, and optimize it to improve organic traffic and engagement from your target market.

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