Almost 14 years ago I wrote about the power of 301 redirects. That piece touches on minutia I won’t discuss here, but if you’re left wanting after reading this article the piece has been updated for 2023. Here’s the fresh haps on why layout, intralinking, and 301 redirects matter during a redesign and what other SEO pitfalls to avoid when rejiggering your website.
Don’t Hastily Delete Text Content
Confer with your SEO collaborators before deciding what to delete. Digital-messaging stakeholders of varying backgrounds define value differently; one’s trash is another’s treasure. Inevitably, some content ends up on the cutting room floor or moved to a different directory.
Discarding or even hastily reorganizing pages Google ‘likes’ is wasteful. If only there was a way of letting Google know that we’ve permanently changed our content schema. Enter the 301 redirect. I won’t go into technical detail here—suffice it to say 301s are powerful and easy to implement.
When You Remove Or Rename, Redirect.
Let’s call these “SEO’s Three R’s of Redesign”? Sure.
Depending on your situation, you’ll want to 301-redirect URLs accordingly.
301 redirects when a page doesn’t make the cut
When merging two companies’ sites into one, and there’s messaging and/or product overlap, you’ll invariably want to leave some content out of the new website. If oldsite1URL/redwidgets didn’t make it to the new site (maybe because oldsite2URL.com’s red widget page is superior,) 301 redirect that old URL to an appropriate asset on the new site. Something like newsiteURL/redwidgets.
Quick side note about merging content: If oldsite2 had a better red widget page, don’t assume all of oldsite2’s pages are better through the SEO lens. Ask your SEO guru if there are obvious outliers on either site.
If, during the merger, the company decides to no longer deal in red widgets, redirect that old page to the most appropriate page on the new site or to the new homepage. Anything is better than the dreaded 404 error.
301 redirects when you change domains and nothing else
If you’re only changing domain names but keeping all of your content and directory structure, setup a blanket redirect on the webserver to send everything from the oldsiteURL/[whatever] to the applicable newsiteURL/[whatever] address. You may be tempted to do a domain-level redirect at the registrar, but that registrar redirection doesn’t handle SSL well. Stick to the web server for 301 redirects.
301 redirecting images?
While images aren’t often recognized as substantial SEO assets, if you’re aware of high-ranking images, be sure to give them some 301-love too. Many sites can safely ignore image assets when migrating to a new site or domain. However, if the images’ filenames and alt tags weren’t already optimized, add that toward the bottom of the SEO honey-do list.
Other SEO redesign concerns? There’s more!
If a page used to be featured prominently in the site’s top navigation or footer but is orphaned or otherwise deprecated on the new site, Google will take note of its demotion. Falling from hundreds (or thousands) of internal inlinks to zero is a strong negative ranking signal.
Titles and meta descriptions:
I’ve written about title and description best practices. Check it out.
Assuming you’ve put effort into yours, maintain them during your website transition. Just do it. Maybe because they’re not visible on pages people sometimes don’t migrate titles and descriptions to new sites.
- Does the new layout use a tall hero image to push the text content far below the fold?
- Did you lose good funneling-CTA links (calls to action) in the redesign process?
- Did the words-per-line increase to the point where readability suffers?
- Did you accidentally remove attention-grabbing images? Captions? Engaging sidebars?
If layout changes inadvertently hurt user experience (UX), your SEO can suffer too.
Is your new site slower or otherwise less responsive? Did you test new ideas to see if they resonate with your typical viewer? Have you gone through the unholy slog of trying to merge two Google business profiles? Did some other marketing cog get too much leeway at the expense of your hard-earned SEO capital? Sometimes that’s okay! SEO doesn’t have to drive every decision.
Involving your SEO maven in the conversation will help your organization plot the path forward. SEO best practices don’t always define the direction, but they can help us read the map.
Dan Dreifort consults on SEO and UX. He makes noise in a couple of bands and pets all the cats. He’s self-publishing a few short stories in the not-too-distant future. Promise. He also promises to update that aging 301 redirect piece real soon. (Done. It’s updated!)