There are many reasons why you might want to rebuild your website, but I presume that the main purpose of your website rebuild is to help generate business leads more effectively. Pretty much every rebuild I’ve seen has been for the right reasons – and trust me, there are plenty of great reasons, but the business owner really should do due diligence and seek out good advice before going ahead, and also look carefully at investing in SEO services during the rebuild process.
If you have an existing website and want to have it rebuilt with new design features, new products or services, refreshed content or better capability for organic rank into the future, then you should get professional advice from someone experienced in preserving Google rank through the transition.
The following information will give you an overview of some of the issues that can arise. I have developed a step by step ‘best practice’ process for transitioning websites, but regrettably the list of recommended SEO tasks actually undertaken for such a transition is usually limited by the client’s budget.
I recommend that you set aside some funds when building a new website to ensure all SEO features are either preserved or improved upon, thereby putting you in the best possible position to move forward.
Typically, most website developers do not consider any rank or SEO factors when building a website for their client. It’s normally not included in a website design project. SEO is a specialised field on its own, and it’s unusual to find a web developer who understands both to a sufficient degree to give you the right advice.
Domain Name Changes
My first piece of advice is that you should not change your domain name if you can avoid it. Google and other search engines have built up a history of your website, and all of that history is associated with a domain and URL. For example, if your domain name was www.example.co.nz and you wish to change to www.bestexamples.co.nz (or say: www.example.nz) you are effectively disconnecting Google’s history off the old domain, and also off every URL in the domain. The result is that the new website (even if it had exactly the same content) would be seen as a brand new site, and all established ranking will reset to zero for all search engines. You would be starting again as far as rank is concerned.
There is a process you can follow called Change of Address, in Google Search Console, to transition your website from the old domain to the new domain, but this works best if it’s only the domain name that is changing. For example, if you have a page URL www.example.co.nz/services.html and you change your domain name to www.bestexamples.co.nz then your new Services page should remain on the exact same URL path: www.bestexamples.co.nz/services.html.
Changing the URL path by anything at all, like www.bestexamples.co.nz/services/ will produce a brand new URL never before seen by Google, and have all organic SEO reset to zero until such a time as it ‘earns’ it back, even if you used the Change of Address feature in GSC. This can be resolved by using 301 redirects which connect Google’s cached pages to the new page URLs in your brand new website.
If for some reason you wish to update your domain name from a ccTLD (country code Top Level Domain) like www.example.co.nz to a gTLD (generic Top Level Domain) like www.example.com then you also need to set geo-targeting if your business only operates locally. Please get SEO advice around domain name choices and the affect it may have on organic rank in Google when changing from or selecting either a ccTLD or gTLD. It’s not unusual for web developers to not understand the different effect these will have on rank and target.
The best practice is therefore:
- Do not change your domain name if you can avoid it.
- If you have to change your domain name, try to keep your page structure the same and use the Google Search Console Change of Address process immediately after launch.
- If you can’t avoid changing URLs and paths, and have completed the Change of Address function, also ensure you add 301 redirects to appropriate cached URLs.
Whenever you change content in a website (and this mainly relates to written text), Google has to re-calculate the value it ascribes to the page that the new content is on. That’s a natural process for all websites, because if the content has improved, Google wants to know by how much, so that it can recommend your page(s) to the right audience. That recommendation is reflected as Google rank. For a brand new page, it can take between 3 and 12 months for Google to assess your page against all others of the same genre, despite the fact that they probably visit the website on a daily basis. The process of rank establishment is called ‘chunking’ (this is my word for it, not Google’s).
Content is assessed at many levels, from your page title, down to where you have placed links in the page.
Assuming your new page is perfectly set up from day 1, in other words, your website launched fully complete, then there are two possible conditions for how your new content gains rank: 1) if the new content is placed on a URL in your site that already existed, then your new content temporarily inherits the rank of the old content, or 2) if the new content is placed on a brand new URL never before seen by Google, it has to establish rank from zero. In the first condition, you know that the page has rank immediately, but will re-adjust over time to the position at which Google assesses for the new content. In other words: Your new content may or may not deserve the same rank as the old content, so it has to find its own natural position. This takes anything from weeks to months. You should expect rank change any time you replace content.
The best practice for changing content is:
- Ensure new content is optimised for search
- Ensure new content is most likely to perform better in search than the old content
- Try to use the old page’s URL to service the new equivalent content
- If you want to change the URL, make sure you 301 redirect from the old URL to the equivalent new URL.
- Do not 301 redirect pages that don’t correlate in content or purpose, if you removed a ranked URL and will not replace it in any way, then redirect that URL to the home page.
A common driving factor for a website redesign is that it no longer looks that great on modern devices like cell phones or high resolution screens, or no longer represents the brand values of your business. It’s also possible you just simply got bored with the old look and want it to look fresher or more modern. Keep in mind that changes you make to design may also have flow-on effects on content. Your old home page may have been very heavy with text at a tiny 12px font size, and your new home page may be a large image or slide show, with very minimal text at 30px font size. This means that your content for the page has changed dramatically, and this will affect rank in search engines. Always consider each page in your website in regards to the role that it must play in your business. Some pages play critical roles, while others are supplementary and don’t need to get Google rank or drive website visits, or need to support your site as a whole for SEO. Usually, pages like the ‘Contact Us’ page does not need optimisation or rank in Google, but rank for products and services pages tends to be quite critical for organic performance.
Generally speaking, if you change design but not content, it’s possible to preserve current Google rank. I’ve done it many times with my own websites, dramatically changing the look and feel, but not changing the texts in any way. I’ve also discovered that most business owners see content and design being one single thing, so fully expect that when building a new design for their website they also typically change the content. In those instances, Google rank will change. It will be difficult to predict whether rank will go up or down, but one thing is certain: if best practices are not followed, or if the client has not budgeted for SEO processes during and after their website redesign, it’s very likely the Google rank will go down in the short term at least.
Best practices for design changes are therefore:
- If possible, preserve text and other optimisation features as part of the new design
- If content changes are an integral part of the redesign process, ensure that the new cumulative content is as good as or better optimised for search than the old content.
- If content has to move to different URLs as a result of design change, ensure any applicable 301 redirects are in place.
The final element of this overview is when a new CMS is used to build the new website design. For example, the old website may have been built using Joomla, and is now being replaced with a WordPress system. Considering how functions and features of these CMS system may differ is a key part of preserving SEO and rank. In both systems, SEO may be supported differently, may operate through plugins or extensions, or may be integrated into theme functions. Whatever CMS you are moving to, you’ll need to ensure it is ‘optimisation friendly’ at the very least, and also find out what SEO functions will be added. Note that an SEO function being present in the site build does not mean it is optimised. It merely means the site is ‘capable’ of being optimised. Having an SEO plugin installed or using Google Analytics in the new website will not guarantee Google organic rank in any way. Optimisation for Google rank is almost always an additional task for a rebuild on a new CMS and typically not included by the web developer.
Best practice for upgrading your CMS is therefore:
- Ensure the new platform is ‘SEO ready’
- Invest in either transferring SEO features from old to new, or creating new SEO features.
Guarantee & Warranty
Redesigning or rebuilding your website may be a necessary part of your business’ evolution, or there may be functional or Google rank requirements that drive the need to rebuild and adapt to new standards. Whatever the case, it’s virtually impossible to guarantee that Google rank won’t drop when rebuilding or redesigning a website. It’s far more possible to guarantee that it in fact will change. Redesigning and rebuilding your site can result in a much more successful business if handled well and where best practices are followed.
A guarantee or warranty of organic rank performance will never be credible because:
- The business owner may insist on changing or updating content because there may be a change in writing style or general message.
- The business may have evolved since the old website was built resulting in necessary updates to text content.
- There may be new products or services being offered resulting in many changed or new URLs.
- The new design may result in loss or re-distribution of primary SEO contributors like text.
- The business owner may wish to change menus, pages names and navigation structure which affects how Google crawls and indexes the website and may reset rank values to zero for new pages, or make some pages more or less easily accessible.
- The competitors to the business may also make changes to their sites or offerings at the same time and may gain or lose rank against you.
- Google may change the way it assesses and ranks websites. It makes an average of about 500 adjustments to the algorithm per annum with some of those changes being major.
- The web developer may not offer SEO work as part of their website design package, and therefore not consider SEO as your primary concern.
- The website developer is probably not skilled in SEO as it is a specialist role, and may not be aware of best practices.
- The business owner may not have commissioned SEO work in parallel, so the new site may launch completely devoid of key SEO elements.
These factors (and probably several others) will affect the rank of the website. Our job as SEO specialists is to guide the client into making decisions that positively affect the result, because failing to consider SEO during a rebuild process can have a significant negative impact.