Let’s get right to the point. SEO is a lot of work. A lot of hard work.

If you want to be found, you need to be relevant. You’ll need to research keywords, select the best ones and carefully work them into your content in a way that both readers and search engines will love.

And that’s the easy bit!

You probably know the tricky part is building (and maintaining) your search engine reputation. Many SEO experts believe your website’s reputation accounts for approximately 70% of what Google takes into account in its algorithm, with backlinks from other websites playing the starring role.

Imagine what would happen if one day Google decided not to count your hard-earned backlinks.

Even worse, how would you feel if you realised YOU were to blame for this mistake? This happens more often than you think – especially when you redesign a website and change the URL filenames.

To help you avoid a complete SEO disaster, I have outlined the steps you need to take to maintain your site’s search engine ranking after a redesign.

How and Why Reputation Is Passed through Backlinks

Google has PageRank to thank for its rapid rise in fame. PageRank is part of Google’s algorithm that looks at the quantity and quality of backlinks your website receives from other websites. The reputation of your website depends on the reputation of the websites from which these links originate.

This is how it works.

When a page links to another, it’s as if it is endorsing it or voting for its credibility, which plays a big role in the quality of results Google returns.

As backlinks (links from other websites to yours) pass PageRank, Google uses the gathered data to measure the credibility of the pages on your site. It works just as social proof in real life does. The more reputable people endorse you, the better your reputation is.

PageRank works at a page level rather than a domain level, so Google builds up a history about a page, which is uniquely defined by its URL.

PageRank is also passed through internal links on your site.

When Reputation Is Not Passed through Backlinks

Search engines trust content through websites’ URLs.

If you change a URL’s name and don’t redirect the old URL to the new one, you can lose the reputation of the page very quickly.

Trust me, this is one of the biggest SEO mistakes you can make, and it happens frequently. Especially with website redesigns. You could lose 30%+ of your SEO progress.

So, let’s look at the three common scenarios that could result in an SEO disaster for your newly redesigned site.

Scenario #1: Lack of or No Redirects (and Heaps of 404-Not-Found Pages!)

You’ve come across 404 pages. This is the response code a web server returns when a page cannot be found.

Imagine, a user bookmarks one of your important product pages and revisits it after you’ve redesigned your site. If the URL has changed and there isn’t a redirect, the user will be taken to a “404: Not Found” page. That’s not good. Plus, you have lost a customer, all because you have given the updated page a new URL but failed to redirect to it.

Google will not like this situation either. Before the redesign, there was a page that existed and had a known reputation. Now, Google will have to find the new page and attempt to transfer the page’s old reputation to the new one. It will likely struggle to pass all previously built page-level reputation.

Scenario #2: Not Using 301 Permanent Redirects

If you work with a web development team, you might start to wonder whether they have a vendetta against SEOs. Like when you ask for a permanent 301 redirect – which passes PageRank, but instead, you get a 302 redirect – which doesn’t pass PageRank as well as a 301 redirect does. Some believe 302 redirects do not pass PageRank at all.

This SEO mishap can be very painful. To avoid it, always check what type of redirect has been put in place.

Scenario #3: Blanket Redirects

Blanket redirects are the lazy option for website redesigns. Here’s what Google says about them on its Webmaster Central Blog:

Don’t do a blanket redirect directing all traffic from your old site to your new home page. This will avoid 404 errors, but it’s not a good user experience. A page-to-page redirect (where each page on the old site gets redirected to the corresponding page on the new site) is more work, but gives your users a consistent and transparent experience. If there won’t be a 1:1 match between pages on your old and new site, try to make sure that every page on your old site is at least redirected to a new page with similar content.

Moz illustrates this nicely:

301-redirects-relevance

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Keep the best user experience in mind when matching up redirects to the most relevant pages. Search engines will appreciate it because they can more confidently pass on the trust and reputation of the old pages to the new ones.

For example, imagine you have a pet site (like in the image above), and you decide to remove the Labrador content. You’d need to redirect the Labrador page to the next most relevant page. Often, that page is one level up in the site structure. In the pet site example, you might redirect the Labrador page to the dogs’ page as it’s a pretty good relevancy match. That means more page level reputation and history will be passed to it.

How to Set up Redirects (When You Have to Change Your URLs)

Ideally, you’d redesign your site in a way that will allow you to keep all of your URL names the same. This makes it easier to maintain your site’s search engine reputation and avoids the need for redirects.

If you have to change URLs, which is common when you’re moving Content Management Systems, you’ll need to get a few things right.

Here are 8 tasks you need to complete to set up your redirects properly.

Task #1: Get a List of Every Page on Your Site

There are a few ways you can do this, but my favourite is using a free Windows tool called Xenu Link Sleuth (MAC hack here). It crawls your website in a similar way to a search engine.

One of the things Xenu excels at is gathering every page that is crawlable on your site. In this short video, I show you how to do that and how to export the URLs into Excel:

Task #2: Pay Special Attention to Your Top SEO Pages

To maximise reputation retention, you want to do as many page-level redirects as possible. Sometimes, however, it’s impractical, especially when you have thousands of pages. If that’s the case, it’s important to identify, defend and redirect your top SEO pages.

There are three types of top SEO pages you need to take good care of. Here is how you can identify them:

#1: Top SEO Pages with Backlinks (Using Open Site Explorer)

Moz’s Open Site Explorer is great for showing the top pages on your site that have backlinks (third tab in the image above). These are particularly important to redirect as they transfer PageRank and reputation to your site.

open-site-explorer
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#2: Top Traffic Pages with Backlinks (Using Custom Reports in Google Analytics)

Google Analytics allows you to create Custom Reports. Jill Whalen, from Custom Report Sharing, has been kind enough to share one, highlighting the top traffic pages that have backlinks. You can grab a copy of the report here.

traffic-pages-backlinks

(click image to enlarge)

#3: Top SEO Landing Pages (Standard Google Analytics Report)

Google Analytics has a nifty standard report showing SEO landing pages. These are the pages through which people entered your site because of your SEO.

You will find your top SEO landing pages on the left-hand side of Google Analytics:

Acquisition -> Search Engine Optimization -> Landing Pages

seo-landingpages
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Task #3: Create a URL Redirect Map

url-redirect-map
(click image to enlarge)

Once you’ve gathered a list of all the important pages, you’re ready to create a redirect map. You can do this in Microsoft Excel (see image above).

In the first column, list all the important URLs. In the second column, record the new URLs to which the old ones will be redirected.

Task #4: Implement the Redirects

htaccess-redirects
(click image to enlarge)

First off, if you have a web developer, you’ll probably want to get some help from him or her.

If you plan to go it alone, there are a number of ways you can set up the redirects. It often depends on your website setup and its web server.

Our site is on WordPress, and it’s on a Unix/Linux system. This means we can edit the file called .htaccess and implement the redirects. Here is a .htaccess tutorial.

Be sure to back up the file before making any changes to it.

Tip: Don’t do redirects at the last minute of website launch. Allow time and prepare in advance.

Task #5: Monitor Keywords

You’re probably already aware of your top SEO keywords. Put them in a list and check how they rank just before you make the URL changes and redirects. Then, do it again:

  • Three days later
  • One week later
  • And two weeks later

This will give you a good idea whether you’ve maintained your SEO standing after the redirects. Google will take time to de-index the old URLs and index the new ones. For most sites, this will happen within two weeks, but it could take as long as four weeks, especially if your website is not well known to Google.

Task #6: Monitor SEO Traffic

Use Google Analytics to monitor SEO traffic. You’ll likely experience a slight drop in traffic during the de-indexing and re-indexing of your site, which may last a few weeks.

Task #7: Sweep up Website Errors

If you’ve changed a lot of URLs, it’s likely that you’ll run into a few errors along the way like “404: Not Found” pages.

You’ll want to keep an eye on Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) for reported errors.

One problem with GWT is that there is often a lag between the time when the errors happen and the time when Google reports them. Xenu Link Sleuth crawls your site and reports back errors in real time. Use it to get immediate results.

Task #8: If You Move Domain, Tell Google

GWT has a change of address tool that you can use to tell Google you have moved from one domain to another. This will help with the de-indexing and re-indexing of pages (if you have a new domain name).

Will Redirects Lose Some of the Reputation?

This depends on whom you ask and what type of redirect you put in place.

I’ve mentioned earlier that 302 (temporary) redirects do not pass as much PageRank as 301 (permanent) redirects do. But do 301 redirects pass the same PageRank as the original pages do?

If you ask Matt Cutts (Google’s Head of SEO), it’s a simple yes: 301 redirects do pass the full amount of possible PageRank.

However, I’d assume this only applies to the cases when the redirected page has the same or very similar content to the original page.

Also, with a big website migration, you’ll often miss a few redirects along the way, which might contribute to a slight drop in reputation.

In reality, even if you implement all the right strategies and make all the appropriate redirects, you’ll probably still lose some reputation, but I agree with Neil Patel that you’ll likely maintain around 95% of your organic traffic after a website redesign.

Summary

Moving a website to a new platform can be a little daunting, but with the right planning and implementation, you should find the migration process to be effective at maintaining most of your reputation. Despite the hurdles, you’ll often benefit from a new design, which will put you in a stronger position to grow over time.

Here’s a quick summary of the most important bits:

  • Avoid changing URLs if you can help it.
  • Allow up to a month for SEO traffic and rankings to stabilise (it can happen sooner). Monitor keywords and technical aspects during this time.
  • When changing URLs, set up 301 redirects on a page-by-page basis. Make sure you redirect the old URL to the most relevant new URL.
  • Even if you implement redirects correctly, you might still lose 5% of SEO traffic.
  • Don’t do the redirects at the last minute. Allow time and prepare in advance.

In this post, I’ve focused on maintaining your website search engine reputation. Do you have any tips to share or anything else to watch for during a site redesign and launch?