Previously published on Chief Marketer, 2/27/17
Understanding the aspects of design, technology, and content that affect search engine optimization (SEO) is an essential skill for any web team, but they are particularly important when undertaking a major redesign effort.
During a redesign much can go wrong, from technical issues and change-adverse audience reaction to traffic loss and usability problems. Any one of these problems can severely impact key metrics. Here are 10 simple tips to follow to ensure your website stays on page one after you throw the switch.
1. Use descriptive links.
Designers and marketers know the value of a good call-to-action (CTA). And historical best practice says verb-noun pairs work great for users in terms of setting expectations and enticing action. The problem, from an SEO perspective, is that this practice has led to vague and repetitive CTAs on many homepages.
Homepage CTAs are one of the most important tools available to tell Google which content is the most important. Before you litter your page with “learn more” or “view details” links, consider providing more context. For example, “learn about diamond buying” is a far more descriptive link that just “learn more.”
2. Reduce your links.
What you say in your links matters—and how many links you have also matters. Every link on a page reduces the potential link equity that can be spread to key pages.
This situation can be challenging in a world of mega-menus and super footers that result when everyone wants a piece of the homepage. One way to mitigate this is to avoid over-linking to pages that are unimportant for SEO. For example, multiple policy pages can often be combined into one page. Another way is to be diligent in relegating lessor links to your sitemap.
3. Limit h1 tags to one per page.
Every page should have just one h1 or header tag and it should be specific to the page. The more that it matches a user’s potential search query the better. While it may be tempting to rely on your site’s name and branding for context, specifics help. For example, a page called “How to buy a diamond” is more helpful than “How to buy.”
4. Hand roll your site maps.
It sounds old school in a world of XML sitemaps submitted to Google and Bing, but you’ll want a hand-edited sitemap too. Hand-edited sitemaps give you an opportunity to use different words and phrases than you might use in your space-constrained navigation. This is particularly true for multi-national sites with longer words (i.e., German) crowding navigation menus.
One example is spelling out common acronyms or using long-form references for key topics vs. shorthand ones. This gives search engines more information about your pages. Alternatively, if your page name is rooted in important industry jargon consider descriptors with lay-person language to attract both neophytes and initiates. Since the sitemap has a lot of links into it throughout your site, you could also prioritize how you list the links and keep the more important ones near the top. Hierarchy counts in design, and in SEO too.
5. Use PDFs selectively.
Search engines prefer not to send people directly to PDF pages. This does PDF content a real disservice as it’s a common format for in-depth information like research, specifications, white papers, and thought-pieces—the kind of content Google loves. You can still have the content available in PDF format for easy offline reading, but by integrating it into the page you greatly expand your unique content footprint.
Additionally, if others link to the page, vs. bypassing it and linking directly to the PDF, you improve the site’s overall link ranking.
When using PDFs as lead generation bait, common on B2B sites selling costly software and services, try integrating a strong sampling of the content into your page body. This will not only help Google, it will also help would-be customers determine if they want to provide the lead information sufficient to download the rest.
6. Check your analytics.
Redesigns often entail shifts in content strategy and information architecture. Before you revise your navigation review your analytics. Some long-forgotten pages might be functioning as landing pages and generating valuable organic (free) traffic. Make sure these pages retain a presence in your sitemap so search engines can continue to find them. While you’re under the hood checking your analytics, be sure to look at your goals. Some of those pages might not only be generating traffic, they might be driving real business results. If so, consider elevating those pages, not just retaining them.
7. Be wary of subdomains.
While domain decisions are often the province of IT, there are very real marketing and SEO factors to consider. Google considers a subdomain (anything taht precedesthe primary domain like finance.yahoo.com) as an independent domain. As such, a new subdomain will have little to no initial equity in SEO terms. So, if you’re adding a new platform, particularly if its potentially rich in content, like a blog or forum, add it as a subfolder of your primary domain. This way your primary domain will accrue the SEO value.
8. Go responsive.
Every marketer and designer knows the world has gone mobile, but did you know your site’s mobile friendliness is now an SEO factor? It is. Google’s preferred approach to mobile-friendly design is called Responsive Web Design (RWD). A responsive website adapts to the user’s view port size so they see the same experience on their iPhone as they do their ultra-wide monitor. So, if you’re considering your approach, a responsive site design will provide your customers with a great experience and make Google happy.
9. Install webmaster tools.
It might seem counter-intuitive to clean up any of your current site’s SEO issues before you redesign, but the sooner you get on good footing with Google (or Bing) the better. Install Google Webmaster Tools and the Bing counterpart to diagnose how well, or not, your current site is being indexed. If you see any major errors fix them now. You know the saying “the best time to plant a tree is yesterday?” The same is true of SEO. SEO takes time so start your clock as early as possible.
10. Draft copy with care.
While it might be tempting to give your copywriter free range to express your brand in unique ways, take care to consider the words and phrasing for those who may want to discover your business. Promotional copy that’s doesn’t align with how people think about your product or solution might play great for those who know you, but it might not attract Google and could limit your reach.