All too often, I see organizations start down the path of a new website redesign without first taking into account search engine optimization (SEO). There’s a simple question that everyone needs to ask before reaching the development phase: “Will the website be public facing?”
If the answer is yes, it’s time to roll up your sleeves.
But I Thought SEO was Dead?
Perhaps you heard that artificial intelligence had rendered SEO obsolete. That Google’s vast neural networks had relegated keywords and anchor text a thing of the past, banished to the shadows in the bright light of their keen semantic understanding… Well, yes and no.
Talk to any digital marketer and they’ll tell you that “SEO” has always been a moving target. There are a few famous, or infamous, algorithm updates you may have heard of — Penguin, or Panda, perhaps even Hummingbird. But Google’s algorithm is changing daily, in ways both small and large. There were an estimated 3,234 changes last year alone.
So, specific tactics and ranking factors have continually morphed over the years. And in a growing sea of optimization options, the impact of each individual factor has also been lessened to some extent. But the AI’s haven’t quite achieved sentience yet. In fact, there are a few basic architectural considerations that are more important now than ever.
Where to Start?
There are many, many, many articles on SEO — any of those are a great place to start. It’s important to note that we won’t be going into granular detail in this article. Instead, we’ll be focused on the big picture for new websites — and what questions should be asked to avoid costly re-work down the road.
At the most basic level, stakeholders need to ask themselves:
- How will the website impact business objectives?
- What are the specific goals for the site?
- How will those goals be tracked and measured?
For an eCommerce site, this could be as simple as:
- The website is our primary source of revenue
- Increase traffic & sales and decrease bounce-rate & cart abandonment
- Performance benchmarks will be established and tracked via Google Analytics
This may seem like table stakes, but teams can sometimes lose sight of these points.
Putting Your Goals to Work
The goals you define will inform your next steps. If you’re starting from scratch, there are several important exercises to complete at this time:
- Creating user personas — What are the core demographics that will enable you to achieve your goals?
- Defining a voice for your website — What style of content is going to be most engaging for the aforementioned audience?
- Establishing a visual system for your website — How can you extend your brand in a way that will be appealing to that demographic?
It’s critical to go through an exercise like this to clearly establish your objectives and who you’re servicing.
If you’re performing a redesign rather than starting from scratch, this is still a great time to evaluate your goals and your audience. Perhaps the market has shifted, or perhaps you’re launching a new product or expanding to a new market. Your previously defined segments will likely benefit from a fresh look.
Searching for Meaning
Once you have your general concept, audience, and a clear and measurable purpose, you need to begin outlining the user journey and documenting important points of engagement.
This is the time to consider what your core audience is looking to accomplish, and the online searches they might be making in order to accomplish those tasks. There are many popular keyword tools, and if your business has a Google Ads account you already have a great one freely available to you. Ahrefs, Moz, and Semrush are also great paid options to consider.
Keyword research can help you narrow down popular or trending searches for your particular industry. Again, consider your audience and your goals – Imagine the questions or pain points they might type in Google to reach your particular solution. Focus on defining high-level topic clusters, and digging into the intent behind the keywords, but try not to get bogged down in the minutiae of synonyms and variations just yet.
Moz has a very in-depth article on how to go about this. The purpose of the exercise is to connect the dots between what you’re creating, and what your audience is actually seeking. This will help to inform the pages you build and how you structure your content map.
To Consolidate or Not to Consolidate?
It’s at this stage that you’ll need to begin defining the individual pages of your site and thinking about navigation between them. An important question that often arises is whether to consolidate multiple topics into a single page or to flesh out each topic with dedicated pages of their own.
An individual page is almost always preferable from a pure SEO standpoint. It can be singularly targeted and consistent throughout. The page title, which will appear in search, can be specifically focused on a single question (keyword), as can the headers, images, meta-data, and other content.
An FAQ page is a fantastic microcosm of this particular exercise.
Let’s say that a large portion of your audience is searching for a particular question about your business. You could put the question and answer on an FAQ with a dozen other questions, but by doing so, it only represents 1/12th of that page’s subject matter.
If a competitor dedicated an entire page to that question, you would be hard pressed to out-rank them in search (all other factors being equal). However, not every keyword or question is going to have an explanation worthy of an entire page on your website.
There is no simple rule for how to approach this. But you should only dedicate pages to content if the content is meaningful, and only if your website navigation can support the pages without impeding your user experience.
Almost all modern content management systems will be suitable for building a well-optimized website. That said, I almost always recommend WordPress + the Yoast SEO plugin for small to medium-sized businesses. WordPress remains one of the easiest to use platforms, and the Yoast plugin represents a high water mark in out-of-the-box search optimization.
For measurement, Google’s Marketing Platform remains the best free solution, with the combination of Google Analytics, Google Search Console, Google Tag Manager, and Google Optimize being almost unbeatable.
For design considerations, trust in your UX team and the strategy they employ. But be mindful of the one-page, one-topic rule. A design choice that remains popular is the long, or infinite, scroll. If you’re employing any kind of dynamic content, remember that each product or article still needs to have a unique URL that Google can index.
Old Meets New
If you’re launching a redesign rather than starting from scratch, the final pre-build exercise will be mapping out a matrix of how old pages relate to the new website structure.
Often, old pages will be removed in their entirety, or the URLs will be changed to reflect a new method of organization. When these resources are no longer available at their previous location, users visiting the site from external sources will be met with 404 pages and missing content.
It will be very difficult to find every external reference that links to your website, let alone trying to get all of the links changed. So, the ideal way to solve this issue is to create 301 redirects. Making a redirect will inform Google that the old content has moved to a new location, the 301 lets Google know it is a permanent change.
The easiest way to accomplish this is a simple table that captures your existing URLs in one column, and the proposed URLs for the new site in another. The page selected for the redirects should be as relevant to the old content as possible.
It’s critical to complete this step before launching a new site structure, both for SEO, and to protect your user experience.
If you have an exceedingly large site that would make this exercise take an exorbitant amount of time, you can prioritize pages by the traffic they receive or the number of external sites linking to them. You can also have your development team create automated rules for sweeping changes in site structure, for instance, if you’re moving all the content from /blog/ to /resources/.
When it comes to the actual design and development, there shouldn’t be many concerns. As long as you’ve completed all of the steps above and provided the proper direction to your development team, that is. Just be sure that your developers are following SEO best practices when it comes to on-page meta elements, site speed optimizations, and mobile friendliness.
One detail that is sometimes forgotten is creating an XML sitemap and submitting it to the Google search console as soon as the new website is launched. Google can sometimes take a little time to index all of your new content, especially for very large sites. Manually submitting a sitemap can help ensure that all of your content is visible and accessible to users as soon as possible.
When it comes to SEO, there is a veritable rabbit-hole of additional details and areas for optimization, both on your website and off. You’ll find your organization in a strong position if you follow all of the high-level steps outlined here. Especially if you have a trusted partner that can help you fill in the gaps. If you’re looking to grow your personal knowledge, the MOZ Blog is one of my personal favorite places to read about the subject.
Also, remember that SEO is always changing. One of the reasons for establishing clear goals, and measuring those goals, is to monitor performance and adjust as needed. You should consider your website a living thing, always maturing and growing even well after launch.