Rashad Nasir is the founder and CEO of ThinkCode, a software engineering and digital marketing agency headquartered in NYC.
Whether your organization is considering a total rebuild, migrating to a new platform or simply redesigning an existing website, the preservation and improvement of your current search engine performance should be top of mind. Websites often see a period of immense ranking volatility and attrition in traffic in response to drastic changes. As with most things in life, prevention is better than needing a cure.
The eight SEO concerns I discuss here stem from real-world scenarios my team and I have worked on to diagnose and correct over the years. And they’re more insidious than you’d expect.
1. Redirects were improperly or inadequately handled.
Proper implementation of redirects is crucial in ensuring your new website maintains its authority and topical relevance following a revamp. There are multiple steps to consider taking here, including the following:
• Preserve legacy redirects from your previous website. It’s imperative that your DevOps team reviews all possible places where old redirects may exist, such as server configurations, CMS settings and DNS-level redirects.
• Eliminate redirect chains, ensuring all redirects forward directly to the correct destination. Redirect chains negatively impact site performance and can dilute the value of old backlinks.
• Consolidate your redirect rules into as few as possible. Too many individual redirects will have a significant, negative impact on load time.
• Ensure that your assets are redirected if your file structure is changing. Images and PDFs are often a major source of backlinks and site traffic.
• Avoid creating too many redirects to your homepage. Redirect old pages to the closest corresponding page within your new site’s structure. For unimportant pages that are being deleted, in many cases, the best solution is to allow them to 404 instead of redirecting them to the homepage.
2. Internal links and heading hierarchies weren’t preserved.
Depending on how manual your content migration process is, links and other HTML formatting may be lost. At scale, this can result in pages falling from top-three placement in search engines to page three. In fact, I’ve seen this happen. Internal links should also be programmatically found and replaced throughout your CMS to ensure that they’re pointing to the final destination, rather than to a redirect.
For heading tags (e.g., H1s, H2s and H3s), it’s important to preserve the hierarchy that was originally in place, assuming your page ranked well originally. A simple change of switching H2s to H3s can tank a page’s rankings—another issue that we’ve seen firsthand at our SEO agency.
3. Your staging or development sites were accidentally indexed.
Inadvertent indexation of staging or development sites happens all the time and can go unnoticed for weeks. The following steps can mitigate this issue:
• Password-protect your staging and development sites when possible.
• Update your robots.txt directives to disallow crawling.
• Add a meta robots tag in your HTML to nofollow and noindex pages.
If your staging and/or development sites are indexed unintentionally, Google has a Removals Tool, and other search engines do as well.
4. Meta tags weren’t preserved.
Meta titles and descriptions are often hardcoded in cumbersome settings panels or controlled by dynamic templates. They’re easy to overlook, especially if a CMS change is taking place. Your site’s meta tags should be meticulously migrated along with your content to prevent slippage in the search engine results pages.
5. There was a lack of image optimization.
Image file names and ALT attributes are critical on-page SEO factors. Image files should be appropriately sized and compressed, and relevant, keyword-rich file names should be defined prior to upload. Take into account the file names of images that were previously in use, and ensure you’re making use of modern, efficient file types if they’re compatible, like WebP.
ALT attributes provide important context for search engines to understand the relevance and content of your images. They’re also crucial for blind and visually impaired visitors who use screen readers. Use clear, concise and descriptive language—don’t simply “keyword stuff” your images’ ALT attributes.
6. Site performance wasn’t considered.
Often, aesthetics is the impetus behind a massive website overhaul. Excellent user experience (UX) is pivotal, but it goes far beyond design. Core to your UX is website performance.
Engineers need quantifiable metrics to improve UX and site performance, and we recommend beginning with PageSpeed Insights, which scores websites against Google’s Core Web Vitals and provides key improvement insights. Site performance should be a foundational consideration before any architecture decisions are made or a single line of code is written.
7. Your current site was decommissioned prematurely.
Preserving an accessible version of your current site for debugging purposes is strongly advised. You can move it to a password-protected, temporary domain with crawlers blocked or spin it up on a local environment to ensure it’s only accessible to your internal teams. Either way, being able to peruse your current site in the weeks following the launch of your new one is extremely useful in garnering insights in the event there are SEO issues.
8. Search engines weren’t informed of changes.
Submit your new sitemap to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools as soon as possible following the relaunch of your site. Doing so will tell these search engines everything they need to know about your new site’s structure and allow them to more easily ascertain what’s changed. As a result, new pages should rank sooner than they otherwise might.
Additionally, if your domain name changed as part of this overhaul, there are specific steps to be taken to inform search engines: Google has a Change of Address Tool, and Bing’s Webmaster Tools has a section for this.
If the success of your business is contingent upon organic website traffic, any site change, no matter how small, should be made with meticulous attention to your brand’s holistic digital marketing strategy. Doing so will prevent issues before they occur and help ensure that the changes only positively impact your target KPIs going forward.