Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes: Website Transitions and SEO

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Redesigning or redeveloping a website can be a huge undertaking, even for a small business. Among the huge numbers of tasks to keep track of and carry out, maintaining the site’s ranking in search engines is not always put high on the list of priorities. However, as Joe Griffin outlines in his article “Ch-Ch-Changes: Website Transitions and SEO,” it is essential that you not lose track of the importance of safeguarding search engine optimization practices and procedures during this period of change.

To help you with transitioning your website during redesign, Joe has provided a number of best practices related to the following aspects of site development:

1.  Domain Name Changes
2.  Filename Changes and Platforms
3.  Template Changes
4.  SEO Migration
5.  Flash and Frames
6.  And, Don’t Forget About … (analytics, webmaster tools, broken links, sitemaps and feeds)

Although each case will certainly be unique, Griffin’s article will give you a base for beginning to approach the task of maintaining your hard-earned ranking and not wasting the effort you have already put into optimizing your website. Involving a professional to help you with this task is generally advisable, but one should use the opportunity as well to learn more about how sites function and the role that seemingly minor details can play in your overall online strategy.

The complete article follows …

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes: Website Transitions And SEO

With site redesign and redevelopment commonplace, the risk of affecting search engine ranking is ever-present. However, by paying attention to maintaining the strength of certain variables, one can make significant changes to a site’s design and function while safeguarding its position in search engine rankings.

The following are some best practices relating to specific site factors at risk when transitioning websites.

1. Domain Name Changes

If you plan to change your domain name, use a 301 redirect of the old domain to the new domain to maintain your rankings. Any other form of redirect or workaround idea will fail.

If completed correctly, rankings will smoothly transition (although you may notice some odd behavior for two to six weeks). Google provides details on 301 redirects in their Webmaster Help Center. However, if mistakes are made, rankings may be negatively affected for three-months or longer. Hiring an expert will reduce the likelihood of errors, but unless the case for changing your domain name is a good one, it is recommended you keep your existing domain.

One possible workaround is to promote a new domain in your online and traditional marketing programs and use a 301 redirect of the preferred new domain to your old domain. Users still start with the preferred domain – they just end up on your older domain.

Many domain management companies offer the ability to perform a 301 redirect from within their backend management consoles. If you choose this option, it is best to beta test the process with a throw-away domain. In a few cases, clients of ours using big-name domain registrars were victims of failed implementation of a promised 301 redirect, where the actual instructions sent to the server created a 302 redirect (also called a temporary redirect). This server error caused rankings havoc for months. You can check a redirect type with Rex Swain’s HTTP Viewer (http://www.rexswain.com/httpview.html).

2. Filename Changes and Platforms

Changing filenames is not recommended unless absolutely necessary, as many issues can arise as a result. If you must change filenames, you will need to perform internal 301 redirects at the file-to-file level, handled differently in Linux and Windows.

If changing filenames, always opt for static-looking URLs. This either needs to be managed at the CMS/Shopping-Cart level or sometimes separately by a URL handler script, ISAPI, or via .htaccess. Changing a dynamic-looking URL to a static-looking URL is commonly called a “URL rewrite” or “Mod_rewrite.”

Pick a CMS or Shopping Cart platform that allows you to designate the filenames you want. Alternatively, if your system was created from scratch, create your filenames dynamically using database fields, and then rewrite them using the URL handler script, ISAPI, or .htaccess.

Static URLs are preferable for a couple of reasons. Experts agree, and search engines commonly concur, they are easier to crawl and index. However, search engines can generally crawl dynamic URLs with ease.

More importantly, though, static URLs can be a constant in the ongoing evolution of your website. Whether you migrate from Yahoo! Stores to Volusion, or MIVA to ASP.NET Storefront, or from any platform to another, you will at least be able to maintain static URLs. Switching from PHP to ASPX to JSP to CFM won’t matter to search engines as long as your URLs remain in their static-looking format. All you need to do is strip out the scripting identifiers (.php, .cfm, etc.) and go with .html extensions.

In addition to these advantages, static URLs look cleaner than dynamic ones, and well-written URLs may have a higher clickthrough rate in search engine results pages.

With new platforms, also make sure you can create unique titles, meta descriptions, and meta keywords for each page. It is also extremely useful for large websites to use dynamically managed titles and metas. Some CMS/shopping carts offer this functionality. You should also be able to create content boxes on category and sub-category pages. You want to have the option to add custom content to these boxes, or have your system use default content, while allowing you to insert database content dynamically from page to page.

3. Template Changes

Modifying your website template should be a fairly low-risk proposition, as long as some basics are addressed. Search engines generally view the home page as the most important page on the site. It tends to rank for the best keywords and generally carries the single most page trust. Often, the home page uses the main website template, which includes the header, footer, and sometimes the left- or right-hand column.

On the new site, it is vital that you continue linking to the same pages you linked to on the previous site. Rankings loss happens when you cut off internal PageRank distribution. PageRank flows from page to page throughout your site, and your home page generally acts as the power generator. By pulling links from your home page, you may inadvertently decrease PageRank value, which can decrease the ranking of your internal pages.

If you are changing your navigation to improve visibility and you therefore must pull links, either integrate the links into the home page’s website content or add them to your footer navigation.

It is also important to ensure that you have crawlable navigation. The best way to determine this is by viewing the source code on the page in question. If you see hyperlinks (a href) pointing to the pages within your navigation code, this generally means search engines also can navigate to those pages. For navigation formats that are JS-driven, where the code is externalized, however, there may be negative impact on the crawlability of your internal link structure. Generally speaking, CSS and table-driven navigation menus should be crawlable by search engines.

4. SEO Migration

With the launch of a new site, ensure that any and all existing SEO work is properly migrated. Whether or not you were responsible for the existing SEO on the first site, you still want to transition over the titles, meta descriptions, meta keywords, heading tags, alt tags, and SEO-specific content and internal linking to the new site. You may need to ask an expert to help you identify other potential SEO-specific content types, such as link reciprocation pages, article pages, and even message boards or forums that may seem to have little-to-no purpose. Sometimes these ancillary content components help drive trust and authority, leading to higher rankings, which you do not want to lose.

5. Flash and Frames

Search engines often now can read the text within Flash, with Google in particular having made great strides in reading Flash-based content. That said, I would not recommend that you create an entire website in Flash. Using Flash as an embedded object within your website is a great idea, but make sure you still incorporate standard, readable, optimized text. Including Flash elements on your website will not cause your site to have lower rankings.

Frames, on the other hand, are almost always bad news. Don’t design a website in frames and if your current site is in frames, change it. It is possible to optimize a frames website, and install hacks like “framejammers,” etc., but ultimately you are likely going to need to move away from that model anyway, so you might as well bite the bullet now.

That said, incorporating certain elements of content within your site via iframes is a different story. Note, however, that content from iframes will not be indexed as part of the master page. And, if you are calling up an iframe from content stored on your server, you should consider adding a no-index meta tag to the iframe. Otherwise, the iframe could potentially rank, and would act like an orphaned page with no template around it.

6. And, Don’t Forget About …

  • Google Analytics – it’s surprising how often even experienced developers forget to add in the Google Analytics code to the redesigned pages. A couple of weeks later, you pull it up and find no reports. Don’t make this rookie mistake!
  • Google Webmaster Tools – instrumental for seeing Google backlinks, uploading Google sitemaps, etc. Make sure you upload the appropriate Google meta tag or .html file.
  • Broken Links – if you changed filenames, ensure you no longer link to the old URLs anywhere on your site. It also makes sense to tell Google, Yahoo!, and MSN to remove those old pages from the index (via Webmaster Tools for each engine), but only do this after the replacements are indexed. With a proper 301 they generally are automatically removed.
  • Sitemaps and Feeds – remember to update website sitemaps, Google Sitemaps, and any feeds you might be running with Yahoo!, Bizrate/Shopzilla, Shopping.com, Google Base, etc.

With any website transition there will be unique circumstances, but the general points covered here will get you started on the right path. Hiring an expert to help ensure that every possibility has been dealt with and accounted for is ultimately the best decision you can make. Pay a little bit of money and buy yourself a lot of peace of mind. If inexperience leads to mistakes being made, the time and effort it will take to get your site back to its previous ranking status with the search engines will almost certainly be much greater than the cost of hiring an experienced SEO expert to help in the transition.

About the Author

Joe is Managing Director at iAcquire, where he oversees corporate development and business strategy. Joe has over 12 years experience in the search engine marketing industry. He co-founded Submitawebsite.com in 1997, served as a Vice President, Media at iCrossing for 3-years, and sold Submitawebsite to Web.com (Nasdaq:WWWW) in April 2007.

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