SEO How-to, Part 10: Redesigns, Migrations, URL Changes

Changes in content, linking, and URL structure can dramatically impact organic search performance. Thus it’s critical to understand the search engine risks and rewards from a new design before you start developing it.

This is the 10th installment in my “SEO How-to” series. Previous installments are:

Search engines crawl sites to determine the relevance and authority of each page: what the content is about and how it is linked. Changes to content, links, structure, URLs, and more impact how search engines crawl a page and then assign the relevance and authority to determine its organic ranking.

Thus redesigns and replatforms carry an organic search risk — and an opportunity.

Assessing Risk

First, identify what is changing. For example, a site redesign could mean a wholesale migration to a new platform with an accompanying change in taxonomy, navigation, and content. Or it could be a change in colors and images. The latter may have no impact on SEO. The former, however, would likely to have a massive impact.

Try to isolate what will be added, removed, or changed on specific pages and internal links.

Next, determine the actual and potential value of each page and link.

A page’s potential value comes from its keyword theme — which keywords should it rank for, and how many searches per month do they represent? The higher the number of searches, the more potential value.

The potential value represents an opportunity to improve organic search performance. Ignoring the potential value restricts future success.

The actual value of a page is based on web analytics — the number of visits and the amount of revenue from organic search. The actual value tells you what to protect and which pages to focus on.

Link value has potential and actual components, too. Each internal link amplifies the page it links to, giving search engines an idea of a site’s priorities — the more links to a page, the louder the authority signals. Removing links to a page could result in less authority and lower organic rankings.

There’s no process to precisely measure the SEO impact of internal links to a page. In general, again, more is better, and fewer is worse.

Risk vs. Reward

Knowing the organic-search value of your pages, imagine removing an entire section or product line. Not all content and products have the same value. A large content area could have little SEO impact, and vice versa.

If the loss would be large, what could you do to mitigate that risk? A full-site redesign or replatform, while helpful for shoppers, typically has a large impact on organic search.

For example, say a once-prosperous ecommerce site has become stale and difficult to use. A new taxonomy could help shoppers find products quicker. But it requires changing URL structures sitewide and revamping the header navigation. Branding changes could freshen the site’s appeal, but it would mean new content and modern, minimalist design, which could reduce text and, thus, relevance. And a new personalized user experience could rely on cookies.

In short, the redesign would impact the organic search performance of every page on the site.  The risk is 100 percent.

But there are many good reasons for reimagining the site. The benefits could outweigh the SEO risk. Next week, I’ll address how to turn that risk into organic search improvement.