Back when I was doing agency work we’d be approached by potential clients who were unhappy with their existing website.
That’s how I landed my first job in Toronto. My employer had a site but couldn’t manage it. Any changes had to go through the developer.
I proposed they hire me to build a new site with WordPress that they could manage on their own. So that’s what happened. We wiped out the old website and replaced it with a clean WordPress install.
But not every project has to go like that. Not every out-of-date website needs a total replacement. Sometimes, what you need isn’t a rebuild. What you need is a refresh.
What’s a website refresh?
A website refresh can be many things. It could be an update to the design — changing fonts, colours, and page layouts. It could be an update to the content – adding, removing, or changing pages and the information within. It could be an update to the functionality – new features for site visitors, users, and admins.
Or it could be a combination of all the above.
What sets a refresh apart from a rebuild?
A website refresh only makes changes where needed. A rebuild, on the other hand, assumes you’re not going to keep anything.
A refresh is a lot like a home renovation. If a house has “good bones”, you don’t want to mess it up. If you want to update your kitchen, you’re not going to tear down the entire house.
And so it goes with sites. If you want to add new features or change the colour scheme, you don’t need to build an entirely new website to do that.
Where do you start with a website refresh?
Start by identifying what the problems are. What isn’t working? I don’t care if you’re doing a refresh for your own site, or if you’re doing this for a client. Write the problems down.
For a business, it may be that the site isn’t reflecting the brand. Or maybe information is out of date. Or maybe it’s not bringing in as many sales as it used to.
Justify the work by identifying the need. Make a case for it.
What are your specific objectives?
By understanding the cause, you can set clear goals. Those goals will then help you determine if the website refresh is working – or if more needs to happen.
Let’s say a business site isn’t generating enough sales leads. You can set a goal to increase leads by X% or a defined #.
What are you referencing to support your case?
You should have some actual evidence to back up your claims. This evidence could be quantitative data, like reports from Google Analytics. Or it could be qualitative, like testimonials from employees or user testing sessions.
This is the data you can lean on to prove your point and justify the work. It’s also the data that you can use as a benchmark for when you complete the refresh.
Let’s say your site isn’t generating enough sales leads. After the refresh, if you’ve configured your reporting correctly, you can point to the uptick in leads.
Together, this before-and-after comparison makes a compelling story. It’ll come in handy if you ever have a need to look back on your work – say for a job interview, or for case studies.
What’s your timeline?
You can approach a website refresh in different ways. You can lump everything together in a single project. You can take a phased approach, breaking down a big project into smaller parts. Or you can make incremental changes over an even longer period of time.
No matter which approach you choose, though, you should have a timeline for doing the work. Scope creep is real. I you’re not careful, a small site update can morph into a giant blob of over-extended resources.
That’s why I like incremental changes. They give you more control over scope and timing. If you want to speed up, or slow down, or make changes to the plan as you go – you’re fine.
That’s how big software companies like Facebook work. There are a ton of developers pushing little changes all the time. Those changes may not look like much, but put together, they’re a never-ending refresh.
Do you have backups?
You should have a backup copy of the site just in case something goes wrong. If you need to cancel the work, or if the refresh makes things worse, restore the backup and roll back the updates.
Be mindful of any changes made between when you create the backup and when the refresh goes live. If there was work done in the meantime, you may lose that work if you restore the backup.
Tip: There are WordPress plugins and services that make site backups a breeze. I’m a fan of the Updraft Plus plugin for site owners. For developers, GoDaddy’s Pro Sites tool includes backups and migrations as an add-on. (It’s free if you’re using GoDaddy hosting.)
What should you include in the website refresh?
As I mentioned before, a website refresh can be many things. What you do will depend on what your needs and goals are.
Here’s a list of common areas and exercises for a refresh:
Who are your users? What are they trying to do on the site? For a business, this may include customers, employees, and the public.Identify who they are, how they use the site, and the tasks they need to complete. This will be helpful for many of the other potential areas described below.
Sitemap / Information Architecture
How is the site structured? What pages do you have? Which are the most important? Can you combine information into fewer pages? Or should you create new pages?
I like to do this as a mindmapping exercise. The main page is in the middle. Every branch represents a top-level page or section of the website.
You can also workshop it with a group. Do it in person with sticky notes, or online with software.
How do users find their way through the site? How many steps does it take to perform important tasks, or find important information? The sitemapping exercise covered the pages you need. This exercise covers how users find those pages.
This area gets overlooked way too often. Content is hard work. It takes time.
I’ve seen site refresh and rebuild plans stop at page titles. But that doesn’t reflect the effort involved in creating the page.
What information do you need to include? In what format? Is it all written, or will you have images and videos as well? Do you have it written or created already? If not, who’s going to create it?
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is at the intersection between content and code. To rank in search, a site needs to hit on a combination of factors. At a high level:
On-site platform optimization. This includes meta information, site structure, URLs (“permalinks” in WordPress), and page speed.
If you change the URLs for your pages, make sure you set up 301 redirects. Otherwise anyone trying to access the old URLs will see an error. This is a major cause of a site losing its search rankings after a refresh.
On-site content coverage. This includes the breadth and depth of information on your site. Quality matters here. The more competitive a topic is, the harder it is to rank for related search terms.
Look at your site’s website analytics. Which pages are bringing in search traffic? Keep those pages and their content. If anything, improve it. And look at other pages that could improve with better content.
Off-site signals. These are external factors that affect how well your site ranks. This includes links from other sites and social media activity. For local business, it also includes points of presence like Google My Business and Yelp.
For a deeper dive into SEO, check out:
How do users interact with the site? Are there forms? Tools? Downloads? Restricted sections?
Consider prioritizing the functionality based on your goals. Separate the need-to-haves from the nice-to-haves. Which features support the goals you’ve set, and how?
How is information and interaction currently presented on your pages? How do those pages look on different types of devices, and different screen sizes?
If you don’t have access to actual devices for testing, you can use the developer tools in your browser. You can also use a dedicated service like BrowserStack.
If you decide to change page layouts, start with low-detail concepts. I’ve done this exercise on a whiteboard, on paper, and with PowerPoint and Google Slides. (Yes, you read that right.)
When you’re ready to add detail, a dedicated app like Balsamiq Wireframes is great. Using WordPress? A page builder plugin like Beaver Builder will let you build new layouts in WordPress.
Styling is the “chrome” – branding, imagery, fonts, typography, colour schemes.
Styling is often the foot in the door for a website refresh. It’s the tip of the iceberg. The first bit of tumbling snow that causes an avalanche.
For example, let’s say a business goes through a rebranding. They decide that their existing site isn’t consistent with the new brand identity. So they approach a web agency to help.
The web agency runs a discovery session. They perform a a full site audit. Then they come back with a recommendation to not just update the styling. but to make changes to content, page layouts, and site navigation.
Whether that’s the right way to go depends on a bunch of factors. It depends on the needs of the business, their goals, their budget. But for the person or agency doing the update, it’s still a first step into a bigger conversation.
Back-End Functionality (Software)
Does the current website software do everything you need? What’s working? What isn’t? What changes need to happen?
Many of my site refresh and rebuild projects included moving clients from an old CMS to WordPress. In some cases, we left the site exactly as it was – the same content, the same styling, the same everything. The only thing we changed was the back-end software.
But by doing that, we opened them up a whole new level of control, and a new world of new opportunities. Feature requests that might’ve cost thousands of dollars in custom development could be handled by an existing plugin.
This is a great first step if you decide to take an incremental, phased approach. Get the foundation in place, then add to it over time.
Another project I worked on was for a specialized product company. They needed a new marketing site to showcase hundreds of product configurations. They stored that information in dozens of spreadsheets managed by the sales team.
We consolidated everything to a single master sheet. Then we built a new site with WooCommerce, treating every product part as an attribute. Users could browse all the products, decide what they wanted, and contact a sales rep for next steps.
Even though we never enabled eCommerce capabilities, the functionality is still there. They just need to turn it on when they’re ready. That sort of foresight is helpful when addressing back-end functionality in a website refresh.
Does the site’s current hosting plan meet your needs? Is it too slow? Too expensive? Too restrictive? Too complex?
For some refresh projects, changing the host is a given. Constant downtime, bad customer service, and inflated prices are all common causes.
In other cases, you may not realize that you need to change hosts until you identify other priorities. Maybe your host doesn’t support software you want to use? Or maybe you need a level of server access beyond what the host provides?
Whatever the situation, don’t go searching for “the best web host”. Define your needs first, then go and look for a hosting provider that will meet those needs.
What tools should you use when doing a website refresh?
A website refresh is like a website rebuild. The tools I recommend here are the same ones I’d use if I were building a new site from scratch.
I like to structure these plans like a proposal.
- Describe the situation. Why are you performing the site refresh?
- Identify the needs and objectives. What are the specific requirements?
- Outline the solution. What are you doing in the refresh? What parts of the site will change? How? What’s the relative impact of each change?
- Specify the execution details. Who’s doing the work? Who’s approving it?
Who’s involved? For a medium-sized business working with a small team, roles may include:
- Project manager: Keeps the refresh moving at a reasonable pace.
- Back-end developer: Handles software, hosting, and
- Designer: Visuals, page layouts, and UX.
- Writer: Written content.
- Subject matter expert(s): Contributes topical knowledge to inform decisions.
- Stakeholder(s): Helps set the priorities based on business needs.
- Decision maker(s): Final say. Usually the one providing the funding.
When is everything happening?
If you’re doing everything together in a single project, set a timeline.
If you’re taking a phased approach, give each phase an estimate of how long it’ll take. Will it take a day? A week? A month?
Even if you’re just ballparking the number, it’s better than nothing. You can refine the estimate when you start doing the work and have a better idea of how long it actually takes.
Project Management Software
You’ll need a way to keep track of all the tasks and commitments, timelines, et al. as the website refresh project rolls out. Every task should a name and due date against it. You need visibility on every step, so you can spot roadblocks preventing progress.
Your project management software could be a simple spreadsheet. I’ve done it with Excel and Google Sheets. You could also use a dedicated PM tool. I enjoyed using Teamwork.com ~4 years ago because it kept everything in one spot. We would even onboard stakeholders to provide visibility + feedback within the app.
You could also do away with software and keep track of everything on a whiteboard or wall with sticky notes. I’ve seen the latter in action at different digital agencies.
My advice? Always start with a website refresh.
There’s a fine line between a total website refresh and a start-from-scratch website rebuild. The main difference is the consideration you give to keeping the existing website intact.
A website rebuild may seem easier at first. You’re not dealing with any existing constraints.
For a web designer or developer, it means you can move fast and build what you know. For a client, it means they can get the shiny new site they want without worrying about the existing one.
For a DIY site builder, like a small business owner, it makes the DIY aspect a lot easier. “Why bother with my old site when I can just build a new one?”
I’ve seen rebuilds end in disaster.
I’ve seen businesses crippled by website rebuilds that ignore the existing site.
Pages disappear. Search rankings tank. The site loses traffic. Sales drop. Revenue evaporates. Emergency funds run out. Employees lose their jobs.
All because of overlooked details. All because nobody asked, “what happens if…?”
When you start with a website refresh as the goal, you can’t overlook the details. You need to think through how the new work fits in with the old. You’re forced to make these considerations.
Start with a refresh and due diligence. Do the work that needs doing. If that includes a total rebuild, great – but consider all the factors that go into a refresh.
Good luck! If you have any comments or suggestions for this guide, please drop a comment below.
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