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The Risks Of Redesigning A Website

By Matthew Edgar · Last Updated: June 11, 2021

At some point, every website will need a redesign. While there are many good reasons for a redesign—from branding to technology to product launches to things just not working all that well anymore—there are also plenty of bad reasons to redesign a website. Far too often, I see companies dive into a redesign, excited about the new look and the possibilities for what could be only to see the new design fail. Following the redesign, they see decreased search rankings, traffic, engagement, reputation, sales, leads, or other conversions.

Take this website as an example. Yes, analytics was tracking correctly. This redesign, unfortunately, destroyed this business.

In other cases, the drop isn’t as severe but still costs the business. This client was down year over year because of a failed redesign, with a few technical SEO mishaps. This redesign resulted in the company missing a critical peak of traffic. In the graph, the orange line is last year, the blue line is this year with the redesign.

The problem stems from not fully understanding the value in the current website’s design and functionality prior to embarking on the redesign. There is some value within your current website that is causing it to rank in search results and drive conversions. That value can exist even if the website’s current look is ugly or outdated. Before you consider redesigning your website, you want to ensure you understand your website’s value so that you can redesign in the right way and for the right reasons.

Redesign vs. Reskin vs. Restructure vs. Redevelopment

Let’s start by defining terms. A website redesign can mean many different things, but commonly it means one of three things.

  1. Reskin. It can purely be a new look, with the text, 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.
  2. Redevelopment. Along with changing the look, the functionality can change too—with changes to the code. This is referred to as a website redevelopment. A redevelopment can occur with or without altering the look of the site.
  3. Restructure. A redesign can also involve changing the navigation and content. Links are added to and removed from the navigation. Pages are rewritten or removed entirely, while brand new pages are added into the mix. Often, this is called a restructure.

Why Did Your Traffic Drop After a Redesign?

Reskins, redevelopments, restructures and all other manners of a redesign come with risks. If your traffic or conversions have dropped following a redesign (or similar) project, it is worth stepping through the common reasons.

A new design comes with the risk of disorienting people who were familiar with your old design, reducing the number of people who are converting following the launch of the new design. In the worst-case scenario, people don’t even recognize that your site is your site.

Building new functionality risks confusing or frustrating people who don’t understand how this new stuff operates. This frustration and confusion will grow worse if the new functionality has bugs or errors that weren’t corrected during development (no code is ever perfect, after all). These problems lead to a reduction in conversions but can also lead to a reduction in the overall satisfaction people have when visiting your website. These types of issues also make it harder for search engine robots to crawl your newly designed website, which can reduce your performance in organic search.

There are even bigger risks when changing content or navigation as part of a website restructure. People or search engine robots might be looking for a page that you removed from your website. Instead of finding the page, visitors will find a 404 error. Or, if you kept the page but are linking to it in a new way, people may not know where the link to that page now resides.

You can lose traffic by significantly altering a page’s content too. Search engine robots may no longer think the new content is relevant for search queries and you will lose rankings as a result. Similarly, if you rewrote a high-converting page, customers may no longer understand the new content and will no longer convert as a result.

During a redesign, it is also common for URLs to change. You absolutely should use redirects if page’s have moved to a new URL. However, redirects are not a perfect solution. It takes time for Google and other search engines to understand the redirects and takes more time for adjust search results to be updated. Too often, the “update” Google makes is ranking the changed page lower or no longer ranking the page at all.

When a redesign goes south, it takes a lot of time and effort to recover—time and effort that could have been spent gaining something new instead of regaining what was lost. If you are losing organic search traffic, you need to audit your website to determine all the problems that may exist. If conversions are negatively affected, you need to step through your web analytics reports to understand where people are struggling to use your website.

Recovering from a failed redesign can take a long time. Make sure you stick with the recovery process and fix every issue you can find. By doing so, you will slowly start to regain the traffic you have lost. This company started working on recovery, and progress was being made with some rebound in traffic. The leadership grew impatient and paused the recovery work before stopping it prematurely. This led them coming out poorly on the other end.

How to Redesign Without Losing Traffic

Of course, the best way to fix a problem is by preventing it. With that in mind, let’s talk about the ways to do a redesign correctly. It all depends on how the redesign starts…I’ll share two stories.

Story One: A Bad Redesign

A few years back, a long-term client of mine told me she wanted to redesign her website. We started discussing the reasons why—she was tired of the way her site looked and wanted something more modern to represent her company’s brand. The website’s design had only lackluster support for mobile, so a better design was needed for visitors using a smartphone.

She also wanted to get rid of some pages of content that were on her site. While there was traffic coming to these pages, people were just too confused by the text that was there and she didn’t see value in retooling these pages. Of note, some of those pages led to some people contacting her through the lead form but the client insisted these people were poor quality contacts. As a result, it seemed reasonable to remove these pages from the website.

After some back and forth on different options for how to handle the pages she wanted to remove, I helped her locate a designer and she proceeded with the redesign. The new design looked really nice—it was very modern and very clean, exactly what she wanted. The navigation was simplified as well thanks to the removal of several pages from the site. Other pages were consolidated to further simplify the design and redirects were put in place. It certainly seemed like it was easier to move through the website. As well, the mobile version of the website was considerably improved.

Almost immediately following the redesign, her traffic dropped as did her search rankings (this is the graph that opened this article). To an extent, this was expected since she had removed or consolidated some of the pages from her site. But, the traffic decreased to other pages too—even though the text on those pages had remained largely the same. Making matters worse, the number of people contacting her plummeted. The redesign had depleted her budget and she didn’t have the resources to rebuild traffic, especially given the drop in sales. Clearly, this redesign had failed and had caused irreparable harm to her business.

Story Two: A Good Redesign

This story is about another client of mine who embarked on a website redesign but things started quite differently. This client is in the same industry as the first example—selling a similar product and the website is also focused on generating leads via a contact form. Like with the first client, I’d worked with this company for years.

This redesign started with the client and I discussing some systemic problems people were encountering on her website. We had tried a few different changes to the current site to fix those problems but nothing seemed to be working. Along with the problems people were encountering on the site, she was getting feedback saying her company’s brand and her website’s look was disconnected from the quality of her product—her customers were telling her that she needed to refresh her brand. Taking all of this into account, it was clear that this company needed a redesign and redevelopment of the website.

This client was initially reluctant to pursue a redesign, afraid of what negative implications there might be. We took the time to dig in and understand what values existed on the current site. What pages did people want to visit? Which pages didn’t people want to visit and why? What content was helpful and what wasn’t? Which content was Google relying on to rank pages? Where was the traffic coming from and why?

These are the questions that help uncover the value of the current site. Along with digging into the data, we conducted interviews with her existing customers to better understand what they were thinking and what they would want to see change. We found some sections of the site where people were getting confused by the content and figured out a plan to retool—not remove—these pages.

After completing this research, I helped the client locate a designer to work on the new design. The new design looked really nice and did alleviate most of the systemic issues the client had been facing. It offered a nice, new look to the company’s brand. The content was rewritten and the navigation updated. A few pages were removed from the site based on what we’d learned about content while reviewing the data. A few of those removed pages were redirected elsewhere.

Prior to releasing the new design, we worked with the client to clean up a few existing problems on the current website’s design. For example, some of the content changes could be released sooner instead of delaying everything for the design. As well, there were some outdated images that could be replaced. This pre-redesign prep work gave the site a bit of a boost in traffic, including organic traffic, prior to the website releasing. That way, if traffic fell off a bit with the redesign, we would be decreasing from a larger amount of traffic.

Following the roll-out of the new design, traffic dipped slightly, as did contacts. However, there weren’t any huge gains or losses. About a month after the redesign, we started to see a slight dip in traffic—a bit more than normal fluctuations that we’d expect due to seasonality. But, three months after the redesign, we started to see an uptick in traffic, rankings, and an uptick in contacts. Seven months out traffic was up significantly year over year and conversions were up too. This redesign was a success.

Understanding What Works & What Doesn’t

There is a clear difference between these stories—and I’ve seen it play out time and again with redesign projects. In the case of a failed redesign, where traffic drops, it usually starts with internal motivations with the board, founders, executive team, or marketing department wanting something to change. Successful redesigns are more likely to start from external motivations with the people using the website telling you what to clean up or fix. These are broad, general statements—reality rarely fits so neatly into such clean distinctions. Certainly, you can misunderstand those external signals from visitors and miss the mark with a redesign. Just as certainly, you can succeed with an internal push for a new look.

But, to increase the chances of a redesign working, you need to take the time to understand what people really want from your website—those external factors. You need to understand what parts of your website are valuable and need to preserve within the redesign. What is working on your current website? What problems do you really need to clean up? What pages are people accessing and why? What pages are people not accessing and why? Where does your content need clarification or refinement?

To answer these questions, you need to dig into your data long before you consider how to rework content or reskin your design. You want to know what pages rank in search results and what content causes those pages to rank. You want to find out what visitors are really doing on your site and what it is that causes visitors to convert.

After digging into the data, you can figure out how to fix the problems people are facing in a redesign without creating new problems. In the example of the client who had their redesign fail, instead of removing the pages from her site, she should have investigated the problems with those pages more deeply to understand why people were confused and what it would take to reduce that confusion. People were visiting these pages and people were contacting her after visiting these pages…people likely wanted these pages, just a revised version that was clearer. That cleaner version of the page would have probably performed better in search results too.

Equally important is knowing which problems not to fix. In the example of the failed redesign, the people visiting the site weren’t struggling to use her old design. Sure, it didn’t look modern, but people were able to visit the website, read the content, and contact the organization. Where there was a problem was on the mobile website—people using a mobile device were struggling to tap on the navigation. Instead of a full-scale redesign, some small improvements to the mobile design could have resolved many of these problems.

Should You Redesign?

Maybe. Redesigns are risky requiring a huge investment of time and money. When redesigning, you divert funds, time, and focus away from other endeavors. Before redesigning, you need to clearly identify the problems you are improving for your visitors (as opposed to identifying the problems you’d like to solve even though nobody else sees these things as a problem). If you do decide to take the risk and redesign, you need to be prepared for an unfavorable outcome, so have the funds and time ready to invest in recovery. But you also need to accept that maybe you shouldn’t redesign your website. Instead, by making a few small tweaks to your uglier and older site you could see gains with less of the risk.

If you need help preparing for a redesign or need help recovering from lost traffic following a failed redesign, please contact me.

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