Making major changes to your website is very likely to reduce search traffic following launch. Very often organizations will come to us just after they have launched a redesigned website and found that their organic search traffic has dropped, and sometimes dropped significantly. We’ll work with them to figure out why, and what can be done to recover it, but so much more can be done for organizations that come to us before they embark on a new site build and make SEO a part of their redesign process.
The scale of this problem varies, and how much it matters to your organization depends on how much search traffic you originally had and how valuable it was to your organization to begin with. We find that organic search tends to send the largest single share of traffic to NGO websites, and it is a key source of new audience members, so it’s usually worth investing time and resources to make sure your upcoming site launch doesn’t cannibalize your search traffic.
The most informative thing you can do to understand and address the SEO impact of major changes to your website is to conduct an SEO audit after, and perhaps more importantly before you launch. In our audits we use an automated web crawler to inspect every page of your website to evaluate how well it performs in search results and whether it adheres to best practices for content and coding. This results in a prioritized list of next steps to improve your search traffic over the long term, but having a pre-launch audit makes a world of difference in a few ways:
- A pre-launch audit will help you understand your existing SEO weaknesses that can be addressed during the redesign
- A pre-launch audit will highlight existing SEO strengths that you should try to leave intact, if possible
- Having a before and after look at your SEO health will help understand what post-launch problems are the result of the redesign, versus what post-launch problems already needed to be fixed anyway
Declines in search traffic are common for redesigned websites, especially if your change includes a whole new set of URLs for your content. Google depends on its understanding of your page paths, the relationship between them and their relationship to other websites out there on the web, so any major update to site architecture means Google has to “start over” with your content. An important step to help this process is to submit an updated sitemap to Google after you launch to help its search engine adapt.
This challenge is even greater if you are planning to move your site to a totally new domain, or even to a new sub-domain (e.g. moving from example.com to newexample.com, or even from example.com to www.example.com!) Google sees these as totally unrelated websites, so if your site launch includes a change like this, consider using Google’s own Change of Address tool to help mitigate the SEO damage.
With all of this in mind, it is crucial to make search optimization and recovery a part of your planning process, rather than an afterthought. With careful preparation, you can mitigate the SEO risks and focus on the rewards of improved user experience and sustainable publishing practices—business values of launching a new site that will help you stand out. This way, even if your search traffic takes an immediate hit after launch, having thought of SEO from the start will help position your site for long-term growth (either a growth in quantity, or a growth in quality!)
And finally, bear in mind that SEO is inherently labor intensive and will require commitment to complete correctly. Optimizing your content often means making several changes to every piece of content, so our approach to search optimization is often as focused on business process and publishing workflows as it is on technology. If you are seeking funding for your website redesign (or if you are a funder supporting your grantees’ redesigns) be sure that you budget for SEO as an additional piece of a successful relaunch.
If you are about to embark on a major site redesign and want to make sure that you protect your organic search legacy, let us know and we can help you chart a course to a sustainable SEO future!