If your website has been around long enough, you will probably be tempted, at some point or other, to change your website's design. It may be because your tastes have changed. Or you may have learned over time that your website's design is not ideal for your purpose. This article lists some things you might want to look out for when planning a redesign of your website.
Regular visitors to your website generally don't like huge changes to the site design, because over time, they have learnt your site's idiosyncrasies and have figured out how to do things and go places on your website. Arbitrarily changing a site's design on a whim may actually alienate your frequent visitors.
This is not to say that you cannot change the design just to make it look better. When you do so however, you should try to minimize problems for your regular visitors by putting the navigation elements of your site in the standard places. For example, things like the navigation menu bars appear either on the left column, right column, top or bottom of millions of websites around the world. Although there are no rules about where you must place these elements, putting them in the usual places mean that you make it easier for your visitors to move around your site. When you are embarking on a major site redesign, you will want to reduce the irritation long-time users of your site feel when they suddenly encounter a page where many elements have moved.
What are some good reasons for redesigning a website?
I have written a number of articles about the usability of a website. For example, I have mentioned in Is Your Website Design Driving Away Your Customers? Some Basic Usability Tips for Commercial Websites about some things you can do to make your website customer-friendly. In Seven Easy Ways to Annoy Visitors to Your Website (Satire), there is a list of a few usability mistakes some new webmasters make (or are tempted to make). The article on The Paralysis of Choice and How to Improve Sales and Customer Satisfaction talks about how your sales and customer satisfaction can be improved on your site. The page on Appearance, Usability and Search Engine Visibility in Web Design deals with some important elements of website design sometimes overlooked by webmasters.
Redesigning your site to improve its usability or customer-friendliness is a valid reason for changing a site's design. In fact, changing the design in such a case will probably improve your regular visitor's experience rather than detract from it.
Alternatively, you may want to redesign your website to improve its accessibility. Like the above reason on changing the design to improve usability, this is a good reason for modifying your site. In general, such a change also makes a site more search engine friendly (see next point).
Another good reason for changing your website's design is to improve its search engine friendliness.
When redesigning a website, many webmasters feel that they should take the opportunity to fix the lousy URLs or the possibly-ill-thought website structure that they created earlier. For example, over time, you may have learnt that your site can be more logically organised by putting certain files in a particular directory (folder) instead of others. Or you may want to change the filenames of your web pages so that they better describe their contents.
The temptation to do this kind of structural change when redesigning can be overwhelming, and I too have fallen into such a trap.
However, generally speaking, changing URLs and site structure is a bad idea. When you move URLs, the reputation that your old page has established in the search engines is lost since the links pointing to it from other websites will be not be transferred to the new page unless you take special precautions. If you don't know why links from other websites are important, read my article on How to Improve Your Search Engine Ranking on Google.
All is not lost, however, if you strongly feel you have to move an old page. To minimize issues when moving, you will need to redirect all requests from the old page to the new. It is not enough to add a link on the old page pointing to the new. You need to indicate to the search engine and visitors that your old page has permanently changed location. The best way to do this, if your website is running on an Apache web server, is to create a .htaccess file in the directory of the old page, with the following contents:
Replace the file, folder and domain names with the appropriate ones for your site.
Note that the .htaccess file must be an ASCII text file, not a wordprocessor file. Furthermore, your web host must have enabled processing of .htaccess files on your account. If your website is running on an Apache server on a commercial web host, chances are that it is already enabled. If you are not sure, ask your web host's support department or read their documentation.
An alternative to moving the file itself is to do what I did when I redesigned thesitewizard.com some years back. When I first started this site, I dumped all the articles into a single folder. I belatedly realised that this was a bad idea since, as the site grew, the folder became unmanageable. When I redesigned, I organized all new articles into separate folders sorted according to the general topic. Instead of moving the old articles into these new folders, I merely linked to them from the new category index pages.
If your site uses Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to manage the appearance, and you merely want to change the appearance, it is possible to get away without a major reworking by simply modifying the CSS file. Such changes are easy to make since you don't have to go through every page on your site to modify it.
Let's face it. This will not be the last time you redesign your website. At the time I write this, thefreecountry.com has gone through at least 5 different site designs since its creation. Tastes change, as do web dynamics. And as you get more experienced with your site, you may find that things that once seemed like a good idea hinder your site's growth. As a result, the redesign that may currently appear to you like the-design-to-end-all-designs will eventually be changed as well.
To reduce the amount of hassle that you have to go through every time you make a site design change, it's probably best to invest in a sophisticated web editor that is designed to manage such site changes. Most free web editors don't really have the advanced site management tools that a full-blown commercial web editor like Dreamweaver provides. Even though these free editors have "site" or "project" facilities, they are rudimentary at best. Commercial editors like Dreamweaver allow you to change your web design on a single "template" page and have all your changes automatically replicated across all the pages on your site that depend on that template. (See my tutorial on How to Use Templates to Manage Your Website in Dreamweaver CS3 for details if you are interested.) You will thus not need to waste a lot of time doing search and replace operations and manual fixing of the odd page by hand.
Although I have in the past eschewed WYSIWYG web editors to design web sites, preferring to code HTML and CSS by hand, the situation has become mostly unmanageable now that I have so many pages on my sites. Note that contrary to what you may think, you don't need to have thousands of pages for the situation to become unwieldy; a hundred or so pages is enough for it to become a nightmare. As a result, most of the newest pages on my newer sites like howtohaven.com are managed using Dreamweaver's template system. It's true that these commercial editors are expensive, but when your site grows beyond a few pages and you're faced with the need to modify its design, the cost will more than pay back for itself through the time you save.
Unless your site redesign is very minor, it's bound to have some sort of impact on your website. The redesign can increase or decrease the traffic flow through your site - for example, people might now able to find pages previously buried in your site or perhaps they can no longer find those pages. You can monitor this through your site's web statistics by examining the path visitors take through your site. Or the redesign can cause an increase or decrease in your sales or advertising income. Indeed, before you even redesign, you need to understand how visitors use your web page. One way to avoid major fluctuations in the fortune of your website is to test a potential redesign on only a few pages for a limited period of time and examine its impact on your statistics and income.
It is very important that you keep an up-to-date backup of your existing website prior to changing its design. That way, if you find that your new design has undesirable side-effects, you can easily revert back to your old design by re-uploading your backup. For example, if you suddenly find that a large percentage of your visitors no longer go to your Order pages after your redesign, you might want to quickly re-upload your old pages while you figure out what was wrong with the new appearance or structure.
Redesigning a website is a fact of life for many webmasters. Keeping in mind the tips in this article may help you minimize the disruptions caused by a site design change.
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