Some people change the appearance of their website every few months, while others keep the same site for years. This article discusses the pros and cons of updating or replacing your website.
Until recently, people with professionally developed websites were likely to keep them for three years or more. Many really good HTML sites have stood the test of time since 2003 or 2004. These early sites are smaller than sites built today, but have all the hallmarks of solid design and thoughtful information architecture.
Two years ago, we began to notice that designs we had built only months previously were being replaced. Not just the design, but all the content thrown out and replaced within months. In an informal survey of showcases for the “Best Websites of 2011”, we found the majority of sites selected as winners in late 2011 had already been replaced with completely new and different designs by early 2012. Now we are seeing the same trend with award-winning sites from 2012 being replaced with completely new sites in 2013.
Why are new sites being changed so frequently?
Web technologies have changed enormously in the past few years. Many people moved from HTML and Flash sites to content management sites built on platforms like WordPress or Joomla so they can do their own updating. Companies with Flash sites were forced to re-do their sites when Apple didn’t support Flash on the iPad and iPhone. People who used free platforms like WIX discovered they couldn’t do SEO work, their sites couldn’t be verified by Google (utterly critical to getting indexed and showing up in a search) and their site didn’t display on iPad and iPhone.
Most people today are redesigning their sites to adapt to mobile devices. Many companies built micro sites specifically designed for mobile, but micro sites have in turn become redundant with responsive web design in 2012. Most of our work in the past year has been spent on designing responsive websites, where the content not only scales down but the layout of the content changes on smaller mobile screens.
WordPress is currently is the number one site-builder, and people with WordPress sites frequently change their designs. One reason is that WordPress allows you to change the “theme” or design of a site while keeping the content, menus and plugins intact.
We also see a fast turnover in WordPress design as a result of owners altering their sites. Not just adding content, but fundamentally altering the layout and design. Several expensive sites we built this year were immediately re-designed by their owners upon completion, simply because the owners wanted to try their own hand at “changing it up” – hacking the responsive designs, breaking links, altering URLs and installing incompatible plugins. WordPress makes it easy for anyone to alter their site design, but the ease comes with consequences and the sites subsequently have to be re-built.
Other people just seek constant change. We’re contacted several times a month by people asking us to look at their sites and tell us what’s “wrong” with them. In most cases these sites have only recently been completed.
In other cases, site owners are approached by “SEO experts” who just plain wreak havoc on a site, drop user-friendly features and greatly change the appearance to the detriment of proper usability and visitor experience.
Sample of website that has been copied and hacked by “SEO experts”
What’s wrong with changing your site as often as you feel like it?
Rebuilding your site too soon, especially if you don’t retain the same URLS, can be disastrous for your search engine results. Search engines need a good couple of years to make a profile of your site and a cache of back links (referring sites). In turn, referring sites can take months and years to acquire. When search engine optimization is done properly and organically, it takes time to “grow” the SEO effectiveness.
One of the most valuable features of an older site is your Google Page Rank. Page rank takes years to build. Even when using 301 re-directs to ensure continuity between your old URLs and your new URLs, you will lose page rank. With the current competition for Google’s attention, you are probably giving up more than you can ever acquire again.
Another valuable resource is repeat visitors. Repeat visitors are worth gold, and they may not be very happy to find your site changed. How often have you re-visited a site for a specific reason, only to find it’s been moved and you can’t find it? Or the page you need has been deleted? Or it looks like an entirely different business?
Branding refers to the process of building up recognition and trust with your visitors. If you follow large sites like Amazon, Old Navy or The New York Times for a while, you will soon see that despite all the money they could spend on new web design, their design alterations are done gradually and carefully so repeat visitors are not confused or annoyed.
For the sake of search engine continuity and branding, we often encourage new clients to keep their sites as is, perhaps with an updated heading, a slide show, or some social media links – features that will improve the visitor’s experience, but not necessarily at the expense of throwing out the whole site or changing the URLs.
So when should you change your website?
We recommend changing a site for the following reasons:
1. When the technologies used for your site are no longer compliant with modern web standards.
2. If your site is on a host or site-builder that does not support search engine optimization. Converting to WordPress is the best thing you can do for your search engine rankings.
3. If your site does not display well on mobile devices such as cell phones and tablets. When your market depends on visitors connecting through mobile devices, it’s time to move to a responsive design.
4. When you need a content management system to be able to add content yourself. If you need to frequently update your site content or want to start blogging, WordPress is the format of choice.
5. If you want to add features that are most easily done using plugins and widgets on a content management site. Building forms, calendars and other functional features from scratch on html sites is considerably more expensive and time-consuming than installing and modifying plugins on a CMS like WordPress.
6. If you need to increase your visitor interaction. Through the use of social media plugins, newsletter signups, visitor polls, Google maps and share widgets, content management platforms like WordPress offer valuable opportunities for increasing your social interaction with your visitors.
The best way to replace your site
When you replace your site, our best advice is to keep the following features intact for the sake of search engines and visitors.
1. Keep the same names for the URLs of the pages.
You want to retain all the search engine benefits your old site has gained, especially if your site is well-indexed on Google. Find out if your site has been well indexed by typing “site:www.mysite.com” into a search box.
2. Add re-directs.
If the URLs of important pages have changed, be sure to re-direct them to the new pages so visitors who bookmarked your site don’t get error messages.
3. Keep your GA ID
Keep the same Google Analytics number by transferring the code to the new site.
4. Contact your referring sites.
If you change your domain name, even slightly, do a links search to see who is referring your site, then contact the designers or webmasters (typically in the footer) and ask that your old domain name be replaced with your new one. To find your referring sites, type “links:www.mysite.com” into a search box.
5. Keep the most popular features of your site.
Check your Google Analytics to see what pages or content has been most popular. If you really don’t want to keep these pages, phase them out gradually from the new site rather than dropping them altogether. Remember that repeat visitors are a valuable commodity.
At Kits Media we believe that websites built with the latest technologies should support the addition of more pages and more features over a period of time. They should be carefully managed and monitored for visitors, search terms, back links, malware and updates during this time. We believe websites are most successful when they start with a long-term plan, and we welcome clients with the same approach.
Comprehensive list of reasons to change your site design
Excellent cautionary tales and tips for moving your site to a new host, retaining dynamic pages, changing urls and more
What you need to know about website re-directs following a site re-design
Outlines a plan for managing the goals, functionality and appearance of a new site design
Video presentation discusses when, why, and how you should redesign your website for both search engine crawlers and end users.
This older article provides some still current advice on changing the design of your site.