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

Editor’s note: This post continues our weekly primer in SEO, touching on all the foundational aspects. In the end, you’ll be able to practice SEO more confidently and converse about its challenges and opportunities.

Changes in content, linking, and URL structure dramatically impact natural search performance. Knowing the risks as well as the rewards involved in these site changes, before you launch, will help you minimize the downside and potentially proceed toward improved performance.

This is the tenth 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. Any change to the content or linking structure, or the way that pages themselves are identified — such as naming conventions and URL structures — impact how search engines understand a site. Thus, redesigns, platform migrations, and changes to individual URLs come with a risk.

Imagine that your site is a roadmap. Each page of content or product grids is a city or town. The major category landing pages are the big cities with massive expressways running through them. Those expressways are a good metaphor for the number of links going to a page. The more links between the rest of your site and these landing pages, the wider the expressways running through that city of content. The product pages, on the other hand, are the little towns that might have a couple hundred residents. They have very few links, or maybe only one, running through them, so they are connected in the map by little country roads.

…redesigns, platform migrations, and changes to individual URLs come with a risk.

Now imagine that on the day a redesign launches, the search engine crawler comes back to your site and the map that it has known and trusted for the last two years is suddenly gone. In its place is a foreign land that the crawler needs to explore and remap. There are new cities full of new content and new roads leading to unexplored places.

In some cases, because it’s a new site that might not have all the kinks worked out, the roads lead to dead ends or the content that is supposed to populate the city is missing or inaccurate. All of these things would lead to a very confusing experience that takes some time to sort out and trust again.

Natural search performance fluctuates every time the navigation changes, content sections are removed, URLs are changed, or sites are moved to new platforms. The period of time the fluctuation lasts depends on the type of change, the size of the change, and how optimally it was executed for search engine optimization.

Identifying SEO Risk

First, identify exactly what is changing in the content, the underlying technology to serve that content, the linking structure, and the URL structure. A “redesign” could mean anything from a color, font, or image change to an enormous migration to a new platform with an accompanying change in the taxonomy of the site, the navigation, what content is offered and how it’s served. If it’s the former, there may actually be no impact to SEO at all. The latter, on the other hand, is likely to have a massive impact.

Try to isolate the exact impact to specific pages that will be added, removed, or changed. Likewise, with links, identify which will be added, changed, or removed. Now determine the value of each page and link.

Pages are easy because they can be assigned both a potential value and an actual value. The potential value comes from its keyword theme — which keywords do you want it to rank? Keyword research identifies the number of searches conducted for that keyword theme. More searches equal more value at risk. This type of value may be unrealized, a future value as opposed to an actual value.

The actual value of a page can be identified in your analytics. In the entry pages report for natural search, you’ll find the number of actual visits and revenue that will be at risk.

Don’t dismiss the potential value. When you’re looking for increased SEO performance, that potential value is where the increase comes from. Dismissing the potential value cuts off your options for future success.

Link value can also be measured by potential and actual page values. Consider that each link is an avenue of amplification for the page it links to. The more links to a page, the louder the amplification of the authority signals is to the search engines. When you add links to a page into the navigation or cross-linking features of a site, that page gets an amplification boost. When you remove links, the page will be less amplified and will have a harder time ranking.

The amplification of links can’t be measured directly. In general, more is good and fewer is bad for SEO performance of an individual page.

Imagine the current value of a page — the visits and revenue that it drives today — is gone. That’s the worst-case risk; you can’t lose more than all a page’s performance. Start with 100 percent loss, because it may be that the risk is very low. In some cases, the loss of content or links to that content barely makes a ripple in the overall natural search performance of a site.

The amplification of links can’t be measured directly. In general, more is good and fewer is bad for SEO performance of an individual page.

If the loss is large, try to make the estimation more realistic based on the actual changes and what you can do to mitigate that risk.

Now imagine an entire content section will be removed or product line will be discontinued. Not all content and products have the same SEO value, so even if the content area is very large, the SEO impact could be large or small. Keyword research will tell you the potential value, and analytics will tell you the actual value at risk.

On the flip side, look ahead to your next full-site redesign. The taxonomy will morph so that shoppers can find things more efficiently. Branding changes will require new content and visual design, which will impact relevance and the amount of text available. New user experience features will introduce a reliance on personalized content and cookies. Everything will be not just redesigned, but reimagined with the shopper at the center of the experience.

That’s a 100 percent risk.

There are many good reasons for reimagining a site, and the benefits can outweigh the SEO risk. To keep that 100 percent risk from becoming a reality, focus on optimizing the site throughout the entire process of strategy, design, and development. The end goal is to ensure that the technology, content, and linking structures are present post launch, to preserve and improve natural search performance instead of destroying it.

Next week’s installment will discuss mitigating risk to natural search performance while making changes to content, linking structures, and URL structures.

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