Years ago I had developed a website which was a customized CMS system for a local SMB. They're in the B2B (business to business) space meaning they don't provide products and services to a large market. Their expectations for traffic weren't very high as they have a very specific focus.
They came back to me at a later point asking for some enhancements to their site and we both agreed the site's design could use a major update. It had been a few years and web trends had significantly changed.
After more than two years I took a look at the results and we're both quite happy with them.
Increased Traffic and Page ViewsThe results were instant. The amount of visitors more than doubled after launch and continued to climb for the three years since.
There was also a slight increase in the number of page views per visitor. This isn't some sort of AdSense site and they're not trying to be the next big thing. The goal of the site was to let existing customers get information they needed and help potentially new customers find them and hopefully connect to create new business relationships.
Ignore that big red spike in page views near the middle. A lot of that was from stress testing the new application on it's new home to make sure everything was stable. I'll get to that later as I believe it was an important factor in the success of the relaunch.
A Nod To Good Planning
Giving the website a fresh look was fairly painless. The site was built with Java using a good MVC framework that decoupled the display of the webpage to the browser from the more complex backend work that was needed to gather the information that would be displayed.
Some new functionality was added to the site, but all of the backend classes that were developed years ago remained in the system. If the whole system needed to be rewritten from scratch, redesigning the site wouldn't have been in the budget and they would have lost out on a good bit of the increased traffic.
Putting Important Content FirstLike I mentioned, this was an old site. It favored design patterns that were proven to be more stable rather than newer principles that allowed for more flexible layouts.
The old design used a table-based layout. The new design used a css-based layout which makes it easier to put your important content first in your html. At the time of the website redesign, browser support for CSS had become more consistent. Mostly because the target audience was now using newer browsers. Remember this isn't a high tech blog where 90% of the users are using some pre-alpha version of a Mozilla fork someone just tweeted about.
The main browser visitors use on this site was and continues to be Microsoft Internet Explorer and usually one or two version off the latest and greatest.
The new design put the important content up front where web crawlers could easily find it and know it was an important to the context of the page. The new design also reduced the final page size which made it quicker to download.
Improved Navigation And Page Titles
Now that the target browser for the site was more capable, better navigation could be implemented including dynamic html/css menus. This allowed for a nicer user interface that made it easier for a visitor to find the section of the site they were interested in without having to click, wait for page to load and render, click again wait again.
It wasn't all about looks. The text used in the links and the organization of the links was changed dramatically after analyzing the search keywords visitors used as well as how they navigated around the site once they got there.
This improved search engine rankings of the site but the main goal wasn't to manipulate search engine rankings. It was to layout the navigation in a way that would make sense to visitors based on their past interactions with the site. Sometimes search engines delivered visitors to pages that were not the best page based on their search. Links, text and titles were tweaked to help visitors land on a more appropriate page once they click a SERP link.
Better Internal Linking Structure
Not only did browser versions change over the years, monitor resolutions had generally gotten larger across the board, including for the corporate clients that visited this site.
This added screen real estate provided room to add some additional information on the page. The purpose of the content to provide related links to the user, in cases where the still didn't land on the best page for them, as well as prominently display products and services which the business chose to highlight.
Now if a user landed on a page for "Green Widgets" and it wasn't exactly the page they were looking for along with information on Green Widgets, they would easily be able to navigate to a listing of All Widgets and All things Green. Plus some links to items the company wants to promote.
This sounds very basic today but the site was old and even at the time of the redesign these were things that many small business websites didn't do well.
Matt Cutts preaches that you should design your site for users and not search engines. That was the primary focus of these changes. Considering Google also designs their search results for real people when you wind up doing something good for your visitors it tends to have a positive effect on your search rankings.
Increased Site Performance
One thing I believe had a positive effect on search engine rankings was page load time. In the new website it was dramatically reduced.
Better Than Shared Hosting
The site gets good traffic for it's sector but it's not going to ever be a top site on the web. It was previously on a shared web hosting server. It was affordable but there were issues.
The client was having problems with the shared host. Even though the application I had developed was secure another application running on one of the thousands of other websites hosted on the same web server wasn't. That site was compromised and a hacker was able to get root access to the drive and deface all the websites hosted on that server.
The client's database wasn't effected and correcting the problem only involved uploading the .war file to get the site restored but we didn't want this to happen again.
The website was moved to a server with that was newer, faster and didn't have as many other accounts on it. Web pages were loading much faster.
The new design was much cleaner than the old one. The use of images were limited in general and were also optimized to download quickly.
Each page has quite a few database calls to display the information on the page, generate the page navigation, display featured items, etc. This information doesn't change much and making multiple database per calls really slows a page down.
Caching was used to store the generated information so that subsequent calls to a page did not have to pull the data from the db. The few times the underlying data was changed, the appropriate caches were invalidated so they could be refreshed.
Under normal use a page is downloaded in milliseconds. Even under heavy load I couldn't get the site to fail or deliver a page in less than 1 second. That big red spike in the chart for page views comes from stress testing the new application. What seemed like a large amount of traffic at the time is almost what the site currently receives today. The website is as snappy as ever and Google's Webmaster Tools indicates the site is faster than 93% of sites on the internet.
A few minor changes in the site design gave the company not only gave a more polished presence but also helped deliver more potential customers almost instantly. The costs associated with the website redesign were recouped quickly.
The only changes that were made were directly on the website. No bogus external links, or even legitimate links were added other than the ones that already existed. This site didn't make it to the top of the web, but it doesn't need to. All it needed was to get more of the right traffic without having to pay for it through advertising campaigns.