Why Did My Traffic Drop After a Redesign? (And How to Fix It)

James Parsons by James Parsons Updated Nov 3rd, 2023 11 min read

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Redesign Dropping Traffic

Redesigning a website is a difficult task. You need to make a new, better design and ensure it works on various devices and meets modern design, UX, and SEO sensibilities. On top of that, you need to implement your redesign in a way that doesn't ruin your traffic.

All too often, site owners implement redesigns without paying attention to the SEO impact it will have. Then they wonder why they had a massive traffic loss and are struggling to recover.

On the plus side, there's good news.

  • Google is generally smart enough to recognize that your site is the same and restore most of your rankings. This process might take a while, as you'll have to wait for their crawler to stop by a few more times until the dust settles.
  • If you know what you're doing, to can implement some fixes to bring it back faster.

Of course, a lot depends on the changes you made to your site design and if they negatively impact SEO. If you make everything dynamically generate with scripts and hide it within an iframe, there's not much you can do, but at least that kind of redesign is rare.

Let's say you've done a redesign on your site, and now you're seeing a steep drop in traffic. What can you check to fix it and get that traffic back?

Understand the Google Sandbox (and Wait it Out)

First, one thing to recognize is that Google is cautious regarding websites that change dramatically and suddenly. In the past, this kind of change has indicated some exploit, whether a site being sold and redesigned, a website being hacked and compromised, or just a webmaster getting sick of it and turning their site into something malicious.

Google doesn't want to serve a site to users based on former quality; they want to serve it based on current quality.

So, when a site undergoes a significant change, Google will temporarily shuffle it around to figure out what's happening with the new structure. Most of the time, this is temporary, especially once they notice that the majority of the value of your site is still there; it just may have moved.

Google Sandbox Illustration

So, in some cases, you may be able to wait out your traffic drop. It might take a few weeks or months, but it probably won't take longer than that. Unless it does, you have other problems to fix first.

I don't recommend this option, of course. It's always better to be proactive and fix potential problems before they solidify.

I bring up the Google sandbox for one main reason: so you know that everyone will experience a traffic drop when they push a redesign, even when that redesign is executed flawlessly. But, if it takes more than a few days or weeks to recover, you likely have more significant issues to check into.

I recommend a handful of SEO tools for analyzing your site and having multiple devices to test it on. Check out Ahrefs site audits, Moz Open Site Explorer, Screaming Frog for scraping internal link data and looking for errors, and tools like this for analyzing redirects. You can get valuable data from software like this and identify mistakes you didn't know you missed but can fix relatively quickly.

Examine Changes in Your Site Architecture

One key to understanding how Google works is to know that every single page is a unique page as identified by its URL.

Sounds simple, right?

Pop quiz: what happens if you change the URL?

As far as Google is concerned, the old page is gone, and the new page is new - even if the content is identical. This phenomenon can happen if the change to your URL structure is small, like changing your URL from www.example.com/insights/ to www.example.com/blog/.

To you, it might be a minor change. To Google, it changes every blog post URL to a new URL. As far as Google is concerned, your old blog is gone, and your new blog is entirely new, so they have to reindex and re-rank it. All of the old pages will show up as 404 "Not Found" without proper redirects.

"Fun" fact: this can happen even when the URL change is as simple as moving from HTTP to HTTPS.

So, if you change your URLs, you must be highly rigorous with your redirects. I have a guide about moving a blog from one URL to another, which covers redirects in detail, but I'll give you a summary here.

Redirections Advanced Options

You need to know how to implement 301 redirects - 301 redirects are the "moved permanently" redirect, and tell Google that the old URLs are not going to return and that the content at those old URLs is now found at new URLs.

Is this a lot of work? Sure. You need to 1:1 map every URL from your old site to your new site for any page that changed. Otherwise, you lose the SEO value of the old posts, you lose any backlinks pointed at them, and it will take longer for Google to fully index and rank the new pages.

Screaming Frog Checking Results

There are a few common mistakes people make with redirects. Check to make sure you aren't making any of these:

  • Not using 301s. There are other redirect forms, but 301s are the best for maintaining SEO value.
  • Not creating a 1:1 map. It's a lot easier to take all of your old pages and redirect them to your homepage, but that will nuke your SEO value entirely, including basically making your old backlinks meaningless.
  • Canceling your old domain. If you changed from one domain name to another, you still need to maintain the old domain so it can host the redirects. If you moved domains, you'd want to keep the old domain active forever to keep those redirects in place. Any data on it, including your redirects, will also disappear if you cancel or let it expire.
  • Only redirecting some pages. Sure, many older pages might not have organic traffic, but if they had links, it was still a good idea to implement the redirect.

You might consider creating a list of all of your backlinks, identifying the ones pointing to pages that changed, and sending out an email to the site owners who linked to you and asking them to change their links to the new pages. You can "recover" a decent number of backlinks this way, though it won't eliminate the need to implement redirects unless you get a 100% conversion, which won't happen.

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I'll be honest: throughout all of my clients, the many websites I've seen, and people I've talked to, improper redirects cause well over 75% of the lost traffic after a website is redesigned. At least it's a relatively easy fix in most cases!

One final detail that's often overlooked: your sitemap!

Post Sitemap Example

When you change your URLs somehow, you need to generate a new sitemap and resubmit the updated version to Google. If the sitemap Google is using still points to old, now-removed URLs, you will have a hard time. Luckily, this is super easy to fix.

Your New Design is Worse for Speed and Web Vitals

Google's algorithm has, over the last decade, pushed more and more for "function over form" in websites. That is, they care a lot about certain kinds of functionality and don't care as much about what your site looks like beyond that.

What do I mean? It's all about how usable your site is. Things like:

  • Site speed.
  • Page loading times.
  • First and largest content paints.
  • Layout shift.
  • Reliance on scripts.

They don't care if your logo is in the left or middle corner. They don't care if your navigation bar floats with the user, sticks to the top, or lives in a sidebar. They don't care if you use bright colors or grayscale. They care about a fast-loading, responsive, mostly-static-feeling site.

100 Score on PageSpeed

Unfortunately, the people in charge of website redesigns are often more excited about cool dynamic features, bold, up-front media, and other things that make site speed tank, don't work on mobile, or cause other problems. It's easy to lose sight of the fact that, no matter how cool your site looks, your rankings and search traffic will suffer if your current website isn't indexable or doesn't load quickly on slow mobile devices. Most web designers are not digital marketing experts.

My recommendation? Perform a thorough audit using tools like PageSpeed Insights and the Core Web Vitals report and evaluate the various data points you're given in Google Search Console. Google is pretty straight with web admins; they'll just tell you what's wrong if they find a problem. All you need to do is fix it.

PageSpeed Insights for Troubleshooting

Remember, too, that Google uses mobile-first indexing. That means if you have a mobile version of your website (and a responsive website design counts), Google will use the mobile version preferentially to the desktop version to index your page.

A half-assed, barely-functional mobile version is worse than not having a mobile website because that's the primary website that Google sees.

Another common issue is that your fancy new features get in the way of a good user experience. It doesn't matter if you have a fancy new homepage if that homepage now gets in the way of a user trying to find their way to a subpage they want to see. Sometimes, simple "design streamlining" can remove things Google likes you to have, like breadcrumbs. Remember that your user experience is critical, even if it's hard to define.

Your Old Website Still Exists

So, above, I mentioned that if you change domain names, you must keep the old domain around to maintain redirects properly.

One mistake I see is keeping the entire old site around. This practice can hurt your SEO for a straightforward reason: duplicate content.

If your old site exists, and you make a new site with the same content on different URLs, Google might decide that your new site plagiarized all that new content. The original domain has more authority, has been around longer, and is the original author of that content, so it makes sense. For websites in this situation, it's common for search engines to ignore their content and refuse to index it.

Sometimes, the connection is clear enough, and Google won't penalize you for it. They can recognize that changing your domain name to better align with your brand name means it's still you, and if you have redirects in place, the old version wouldn't be visible to anyone who didn't block them somehow.

Example Duplicate Description

You can't rely on sensible judgment. If a human were to review the two websites, you wouldn't have a problem, but robots decide 99% of Google's algorithm, and humans occasionally spot-check the results. Other times, the change is significant enough that the connection isn't apparent. Then, if you add in other problems like improper redirects, you end up with many search engine optimization issues.

You Have Script Errors

On a more technical level, script errors can cause many problems. Even if a broken script is invisible to users, it can cause issues with Google. Alternatively, maybe your scripts work locally but don't work once the site is live, or they work for specific browsers but not others - or they work for desktop but not mobile. Script errors can be wily like that!

Script Errors

One of the most significant script errors that can cause problems is errors with the Google Analytics script. When you change your site design, you might end up with a broken GA tag, duplicate GA tags in your header, or a disconnect between your GA account and the new website property you're tracking.

These can result in broken analysis and reporting. I've seen this a dozen times, where a site owner thinks their website traffic has disappeared, but their Google Analytics is just broken for most of their important pages. It's an easy fix, but you can't recover your missed data.

In any case, performing a thorough audit of the scripts you use on your site can be another way to diagnose and fix issues preventing adequate indexation and search rankings.

Did you recently perform a site redesign and end up losing search traffic? Drop me a line, and I can look to see if there's anything obvious you can fix to get it back.

Written by James Parsons

James Parsons is the founder and CEO of Content Powered, a premier content marketing agency that leverages nearly two decades of his experience in content marketing to drive business growth. Renowned for founding and scaling multi-million dollar eCommerce businesses through strategic content marketing, James has become a trusted voice in the industry, sharing his insights in Search Engine Watch, Search Engine Journal, Forbes, Entrepreneur, Inc, and other leading publications. His background encompasses key roles across various agencies, contributing to the content strategies of major brands like eBay and Expedia. James's expertise spans SEO, conversion rate optimization, and effective content strategies, making him a pivotal figure in the industry.