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The Risks Of Redesigning A Website

By Matthew Edgar · Last Updated: November 03, 2023

At some point, every website will need a redesign. While there are plenty of benefits of redesigning a website, redesigning introduces major changes to the website. Those changes introduce the risk that the changes will not work. When that happens, the redesigned website will not perform as well as the current website.

Too often, redesigns fail and result in decreased search rankings, traffic, engagement, and conversions. Take this website as an example. Analytics was tracking correctly but the redesign was not managed well and cost this company almost all their traffic.

redesign caused traffic to drop

In other cases, the redesign is not a catastrophic failure but does still lead to performance drops. In the case of this website, the company lost about half of the organic traffic following the rollout of the redesign.

In other cases, the drops do not appear too significant but are greater when you compare post-redesign performance to historical performance. In the next graph, you can see a slight dip on Year 2’s line (the blue line) after the redesign. The drop on the blue line isn’t too bad, though. Certainly not as bad as the first two examples. The drop is more obvious when compared to Year 2, the orange line. In comparing year over year, we can also see that this redesign resulted in the company missing a critical peak of traffic a few months after the redesign. This was a failed redesign but not as obvious.

Redesigns cause traffic drops and missed traffic windows
The orange line is the previous year and the blue line is the year of the redesign

Redesigns don’t have to cause this kind of disruption to traffic or search rankings. Failed redesigns happen when you don’t manage the risks of the redesign properly. Before you consider redesigning your website, you want to ensure you understand the potential risks and take steps to manage those potential risks. In this article, I’ll review the five biggest risks and what you can do to manage those risks.

Redesign vs. Reskin vs. Restructure vs. Redevelopment

Before defining risks, let’s define terms. A website redesign can mean many different things, but commonly it means one of three things.

  1. Reskin. A reskin is a new look, with the text itself, page structures, and navigation largely remaining the same. Often, this is referred to as a “reskin”, since you are changing the skin but leaving the innards the same. This comes with the lowest amount of risk.
  2. Redevelopment. Along with changing the look, a redevelopment changes the functionality too. This may include introducing new features, adjusting how pages are rendered, or moving the website to a new content management system. When moving to a new system, this can also be referred to as a replatforming. A replatforming or a redevelopment can occur with or without altering the look of the website, though often this does include an update to the website design too.
  3. Restructure. A restructure involves changing the navigation and content. Links are added to or removed from the navigation. Pages are rewritten or removed entirely, while brand new pages are added into the mix. A restructure is the riskiest type of redesign and the one most likely to cause drops in traffic and rankings.

Risk #1: Changing URLs

Changing URLs can disrupt search engine rankings. The URL is the main identifier for a page. All the signals Google has collected about the page are connected to that URL. When the URL changes, Google needs to move all the signals from the old URL to the new URL. Not all signals will move over. It can take months for the signals that can move to be fully updated. During that time, the website can lose rankings and traffic.

Importantly, this includes canonical domain changes. For example, a website may currently use www in the domain, as in https://www.site.com. During a redesign, the domain should not drop the www to become https://site.com. Dropping the www would change every URL on the website. If this change happens, either intentionally or by mistake, performance will drop. In this example, the website changes its canonical domain to drop the www at the launch of a website redevelopment. Months later, the new canonical domain continued to perform below prior levels. The company later reverted to the old canonical domain, with www in it, and traffic slowly recovered.

Change in the website's canonical domain caused traffic to drop.
Canonical domain change – Solid line is www, Dashed line is no-www

There are times when URLs need to change during a redesign. For example, when replatforming the website, the new platform may necessitate new URLs. Moving from WordPress to Webflow almost always requires URL changes because the two platforms manage pages in different ways.

When URLs change, redirects can be added to communicate this URL change. The problem is redirects do not provide an immediate solution. It takes time for Google to find the redirect and update rankings. During that time, you can lose traffic.

Even if redirects are added, traffic can still be lost. The following graph shows the results of a redirect. The solid blue line is the old URL that was redirected from when the new website went live. The dashed blue line is the new URL that was redirected to when the new website went live. The old URL shown in the solid line performed better than the new URL in the dashed line.

Drop in traffic following URL change with redirect added.

Risk #2: Removing Pages

Removing pages from the website can result in 404 errors. A page returning a 404 error will fall out of search results. That leads to a loss of search engine rankings and traffic. As much as possible, do not remove pages during the redesign. Unfortunately, this can sometimes happen accidentally if pages are not migrated properly from the old website to the new website. It is important to run crawls of the old and new websites to confirm all pages are present and correctly transferred.

If pages need to be removed as part of a redesign, it is usually helpful to remove those pages separately from other parts of the redesign. For example, a company may want to remove its event calendar and all associated event pages from the new website. Instead of waiting to remove the event pages when the new design is released, the better approach would be to remove these pages before the redesign. That way, Google has time to understand the pages that have been removed from the website and can process that change separately from the rest of the redesign.

Risk #3: Content Changes

Altering page content can affect how robots and visitors perceive a page on the website. When crawling, Google is trying to understand the purpose of each page on the website by evaluating the page’s content. Even something as “simple” as moving some content higher or lower on the page can alter the purpose of the page. When content changes, Googlebot may reevaluate a page and decide that page isn’t worth ranking. If content needs to change, test out those changes first before the new design of the page goes live.

It is also important to remember that this is not only about text changes but also about changes to other forms of content, like images or videos. For example, if images are moved to a new location on the server, Google will need to recrawl those images and update image rankings. Redirects can help in this process but, here again, only change URLs and add redirects when absolutely necessary.

There can also be changes to videos that result in traffic drops. Most commonly, videos may be embedded differently in the new design and it may be harder for Google to locate the video on the page. If Google cannot locate the video on the page during a site crawl, then the video will fall out of organic search results. This can result in a drop in video search traffic, as can be seen in the case of the example website shown in the following graph. The blue line represents clicks and the purple line represents impressions.

drops in video traffic following a redesign

Robots need internal links to find content on the website. Internal links found in the website’s main content help Google understand which pages are the most important on the website. The more links found to a page, the more likely it is that page deserves to rank highly in search results. Changing internal links during a website redesign will change which pages robots crawl on the website and will change how robots evaluate a page’s importance. In other cases, internal link changes can cause pages to no longer have internal links, resulting in orphan pages. These changes can result in ranking and traffic drops.

Along with internal links found in the website’s content, links in the website’s main navigation are also used to help establish the website’s purpose. Changes to the navigation can cause Google to misunderstand the website. To avoid these problems, test out navigation changes before, during, and after the website redesign. This includes usability testing to determine what visitors think of the navigation and if visitors can properly understand the webpage’s purpose based on the new navigation. If visitors can’t understand the website from the navigation, chances are Google won’t understand it either.

Risk #5: Crawl Confusion

A new design means new code and new code means new potential problems for robots when crawling the website. This is especially true if the new website’s design relies heavily on JavaScript and client-side content. Google can process most JavaScript but mistakes can and do happen. Test out the new design thoroughly. Test across multiple devices and connection speeds. Run multiple crawl tools on the new website to make sure robots can find all the pages and access the content on the new website. Test the new website in a headless browser to mimic how Google crawls the new website.

However, it isn’t only about the code on the pages of the website. It is also important to properly handle the other files Google is crawling. For example, JavaScript and CSS files that were used on the old website may still exist on the server after the redesign is launched. Google will continue to crawl these files unnecessarily.

As another example, old PDF files may be left on the server from the old website. If those PDFs were not deleted or redirected to a new location, Google will continue to crawl those old PDF files. Those PDFs may continue to rank in search results long after the redesign goes live. If those PDFs contain outdated or inaccurate information, this can present a problem for your company.

Following the website redesign, you need to monitor what files Googlebot is crawling and ensure that no files are lingering from the old website. The best way to do this is by reviewing the website’s log files or by using Crawl Stats in Google Search Console. If you identify files that shouldn’t be crawled, it is important to delete those from the server or redirect the URLs to a new location.

Main Takeaways: Managing Redesign Risks

  • As best as possible, you want to avoid URL changes. Redirects should be a last resort if you have no choice but to change URLs.
  • Do not change the website’s canonical domain. Keep www or non-www usage consistent on the old and new versions of the website.
  • Remove pages before a redesign so that Google can process that change separately from the other changes made during the redesign.
  • Keep content changes to a minimum to avoid altering the content’s purpose. Test major changes to content before the redesign.
  • Do not change image URLs unless absolutely necessary. If image URLs are changed, add redirects from the old image URL to the new image URL.
  • Do not change how videos are embedded on the page. If changes are made, ensure Google will still be able to crawl to the video on the new site.
  • Be mindful of changes to internal links during a website redesign, including any changes to the website’s main navigation. Internal link changes can alter Google’s evaluation of the website’s purpose.
  • Test out the new website’s code to make sure robots will be able to crawl it without any issues.
  • Monitor what files are being crawled on the website after the redesign is launched. Delete or redirect any files Googlebot should not be crawling.
  • As a bonus tip, make sure you manage your staging or development environment correctly to prevent Googlebot from seeing the website as it is being built.

If you need help preparing for a redesign, recovering from a failed redesign, or testing for problems before the new website launches, please contact me.

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