How to stop your new website design becoming a disaster for your SEO

If you’re bored with your website, it’s out of date, doesn’t service mobile users adequately, or it’s just plain ugly, you’re possibly considering a website redesign. But getting a new look for your website can have its pitfalls.

Beautiful websites that fall flat

Website design is not just about eye-catching images, refined typography and expertly used white space. It has to work for you in the battle of search on the web. And that means you need to have a new website that considers SEO and content, as well as freshness and your design sense.

The reality is that many designers and developers don’t know about SEO. Why should they? I can’t design for toffee.

At the same time, many designs and themes are sold as being SEO-friendly. But buying in such a theme for a CMS such as WordPress doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a site that Google and the search engines will give the thumbs-up to. And by the time the theme is customised, things can get worse still.

Making your new website as competitive as possible

There are two ways to move the project forward:

  1. Get your website updated or built, and then call in an SEO
  2. Engage an SEO to work alongside your chosen designer or developer.

If you do the site update and SEO separately, you can focus on design, then SEO. That’s probably less of a challenge. But you may introduce problems that will have to be fixed once your SEO audits the site. And that’s a second set of work that can, in turn, feed back into things to fix for your designer/developer.

Having two specialists working alongside each other may be more complex to manage, but you should be able to head off problems before you have finished the redesigned site, and the process should be faster and less demanding on your budget.

Whatever you do, please don’t make a website redesign live unless an SEO has checked it and signed it off with a clean bill of health. Sure enough, you can probably fix some of the issues later. But why should you gamble with your search engine results?

Where to build your website

Ask your developer to build your website on staging on a web server rather than develop it locally on their computer or internal network. Ideally, development should be on the same server as your finished site will be hosted. It’s no good developing a site on a powerful server, then transferring it to overcrowded shared hosting and finding the new design doesn’t perform as well as expected. Although, it has to be said that I’ve seen differing data from staging in the same shared server. You have to do the best you can.

Make sure staging is not open to Google and other search engine spiders. I’ve seen that more than once, and Google ended up with loads of duplicate content in its index. With password protection, your SEO will be able to safely look at the site and test before launch.

None of this should be a surprise to your designer/developer. It’s all good practice, and they should already be doing something along these lines. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions if they resist.

Technical SEO

Your checklist:

  1. Is your new website spiderable?—your SEO will use a tool to emulate search engine spiders
  2. Are the pages served fast?—if they’re not, then there are many possibilities that should be addressed, including server and CSS/Javascript issues and image optimisation (see next point)
  3. Are the images properly optimised and preferably in WebP format?—do they look good after compression? A small tip. Don’t compare before and after because your users won’t be making that comparison. Look at the image in place on the site.
  4. Are the Core Web Vitals (CWV) scores good?
  5. Does the site work well on mobile?—remember, Google now spiders every site (should be, by now, anyway) as if it were a mobile user. If your refreshed site performs poorly on mobile, you’ve wasted your time. Have you looked at the site using your phone and tablet? Does it feel fast or slow? Is it easy to use? Can you read the headings? Do the images fit on the screen?
  6. Are your schema still in place and properly verified?—this shouldn’t be an issue with WordPress or other CMSs, but I’ve seen them disappear in the past
  7. Are your service tags still in place and working?—such as Google Analytics, Google Search Console, Google Tag Manager and other external services.

The checklist varies according to the site and its platform (such as WordPress, Shopify, hand coded-even), and your SEO will probably drill deeper according to their findings.

You’ll be in a good place, and ready to go live if you’re doing well for the above questions.

After launch

The job isn’t finished even when your redesigned site is live on the internet. You need to make some last tests, just to ensure nothing has gone wrong.

  1. Spider the site again
  2. Check page speed (if your site was developed on a different server, you should definitely do this)
  3. Check CWV (again, if your site was developed elsewhere, check CWV here)
  4. Do a good manual check. Get your colleagues and friends to give the site a good thrashing. Can they break it?
  5. While it’s not strictly SEO, test contact form(s) and shopping basket(s). My reasoning? Those are usually the endpoint for your SEO, where you measure your most important KPIs. Where people buy, enquire or sign up for your newsletter. Try:
    1. Making a purchase
    2. Making an enquiry
    3. Subscribing to your newsletter (you do have one, don’t you?)
    4. Check Google Analytics, GSC and external services are working and configured correctly

What’s not here—and why

The biggie: Brand identity. That’s a project that should exist outside of your new website design. I mean, you need to know, understand and develop your branding before you embark on your website redesign. Brand should guide design, rather than being part of it.

And then there’s User Experience (UX). A topic all of its own, and increasingly interwoven with SEO. Yet, I’ve skipped it. If you’re a large site or business or have the investment for your ultimate website, then you’ll have the budget to embark on formal UX testing, but for most businesses, UX is something your website designer will take into account during their process. I’d recommend you ask them about UX before you appoint them.

There’s a lot more I could include in the checklist, but I’ve focused on fundamental issues that will affect your SEO. I’ve assumed the designer/developer has their own checklist or checklists and workflow. It’s not my place to tell them what to do there. Indeed, when I work with a designer/developer, I try to keep out of the way as much as possible. My role is to add value by guiding SEO, not to extend a timeline needlessly.

A site that works for everyone

The end goal is to ensure your new design works for your users, the search engines and yourself (or your team or board of directors).

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A version of this blog post appeared first in David Rosam’s Digital Marketing Thing, the precursor to David Rosam On Digital Marketing. 

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Photo by Halacious on Unsplash.

David Rosam, photographed by the River Arun in Littlehampton.

David Rosam has been working online for more than 25 years, after a career in direct marketing copywriting for the tech and financial services industries.

Today, he specialises in Content-Leveraged Search Engine Optimisation—from audits, through research and strategy to implementation.

He was probably the UK’s first SEO Copywriter.

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