Your site gets great traffic from search engines, and yet it needs a new design. How can you freshen up a site without risking a decline in rankings and a loss of traffic from search engines?
A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, August 2-5, 2004, San Jose, CA.
If a site ranks well in the search engines and gains plenty of traffic that converts, site owners are concerned about losing top positioning and qualified leads. Yet sites obviously must redesign from time-to-time. This session examined strategies to come through a site redesign and successfully retain or increase search-related traffic.
If a site already has good search engine rankings, why redesign?
"First and foremost, redesign is important when evolving from a static HTML site to a dynamic web site," said said Matt Bailey, Web Marketing Director at The Karcher Group. "With the addition of more content, products, shopping carts, etc., site owners might need to move to a dynamic web site with more administrative capabilities.
"Another reason is just to update the web site," he continued, "freshen the design and layout. Maybe the site looks like it was designed in 1998. And maybe you want to improve the layout, navigation, or user experience."
"Another goal of a redesign is to change brand identity to be a little more high end without losing the traffic," said Amanda Vega, Director of Marketing at Rhino Internet.
Regardless of the reasons for a site redesign, all site owners should plan their search engine marketing strategies before they launch the updated site.
Before the redesign
All speakers recommended gathering data about the current site before creating an updated site. Places to gather data are web analytics tools, market segment analyses, and personas.
"We apply persuasive solution architecture to web sites," said Jen Weeks, Director of Website Assessments, at Future Now. "There are a few steps that we use in this methodology. Our first step was to create persona. Our personas are based on how people behave on a web site."
"Second, we did keyword research based on the persona that we developed, and that was specifically to optimize their rankings and conversions," she continued. "And then we develop wiring frames, storyboards, prototypes based on this data."
Once the persona is determined, every click-thru possibility is represented in wire frames, and how visitors might navigate a web site. "That is something you might want to do so that you can meet each of your different customer segment needs and where they are in the buying process," said Weeks.
Both Bailey and Vega recommended using log file analysis to determine site updates.
"Review the history of the current web site, using your logs or other statistics programs," said Bailey. "Find out what people are currently doing on your site. What pages do they tend to visit? What conversion points to they typically go towards? Look at your entry pages - where are people coming in other than the home page?"
"Identify the user paths towards conversion, because you want to measure those to see how effective they are currently and how you can improve those in the new web site," he continued.
In addition, Vega recommended carefully reviewing visitor and target audience demographics. In one situation, a client was completely wrong about who made up their chief demographic, which was mostly female. "We used demographic information to drive the page layout and redesign, especially the psychology of an online user," she said. "What does a woman do on a web site vs. a man? What layout tendencies do they have?" Gender preferences can have a considerable impact on conversion rates, especially on non-U.S. sites.
Launching the redesigned site
Bailey recommended creating a new 404 (Page Not Found) page during the changeover plan. "I can't stress the importance of this enough," he said, "because if you create a new URL structure, you are going to need to capture visitors who arrive from old page links Some search engines will not clean out their indices for a number of months so you will continue to get referrals."
To communicate to the spider-based search engines that URLs have been modified, speakers recommend using a 301 redirect for permanent changes, and a 302 redirect for temporary changes.
"To ensure that we did not lose traffic during a redesign," said Vega, "we purchase PPC keywords for the highest converting keywords. We kept those ads active until the site converted organically for those words as well. When you are doing a redesign, it becomes especially important to invest in PPC advertising."
Link development is also part of the redesign equation. "Take a good look at inbound link opportunities and make sure you notify your current inbound links of the changes in your site," Vega recommended.
Managing client expectations
"If you are a search engine marketer, stay involved with the client make they know what is going on," said Bailey. "Let clients know that Google rankings are changing daily, so whether or not you put up a new site or not, rankings are going to change regardless."
"The fact is that any change to your web pages is going to have an impact on your ranking, and there may be a slightly delayed effect," said Danny Sullivan. By planning ahead, site owners can minimize the effects of a site redesign on traffic and conversions.
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Grant Crowell is the CEO and Creative Director at Grantastic Designs, Inc.. He has 15 combined years of experience in the fields of print and online design, newspaper journalism, public relations, and publications.Want to discuss or comment on this story? Join the Maintaining Rankings after a Site Redesign discussion in the Search Engine Watch forums.
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