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First question here so apologies if it's not the right place to ask...

I run a very popular website, frequently attracting tens, if not hundreds of thousands of users daily. It's a game, and uptime is of critical importance to most players.

Here's the catch: it wasn't meant to be popular. It was initially a programming exercise that I just threw out there expecting it to get a few users, then die off. I was wrong...

So, in other words, my dog Patches is now almost three years old, and in thorough need of grooming... but with all the attention he's getting, how can I possibly make it work?

I'm thinking the site needs a complete rebuild from the ground up. Heck, it still uses iframes instead of real AJAX! In this way I should be able to build the "new version" and then let users migrate seamlessly. What would be the best way to do this though? Should I have the new version use the same database as the old, or should I clone the database to another server to work on? Should I just work in a subfolder, or subdomain, or a whole new domain?

And what would the users think? I mean, the site's been more or less the same amount of butt-ugly for 32 months, would they be thrown off or even alienated by a full redesign? The last thing I want is for all my hard work to send everyone packing.

Any advice on this matter would be very much appreciated.

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Is this a fundamental change to the backend... data structures / database changes? (Is it even possible to use the same database?) Or more of a cosmetic change? –  w3d Aug 20 '12 at 9:08
    
The database is the only thing that probably won't change (at most it will have another table or two added) –  Niet the Dark Absol Aug 20 '12 at 15:14
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3 Answers

Here is my feedback for each of your question:

What would be the best way to do this though?

The best way to re-design your website is to understand what your user wants by studying competitors website. Market research in your industry; and re-design whole website at once and replace the existing website. If you are having time and man-power; you can create two version of your website and test them using Google website optimizer http://www.google.com/websiteoptimizer/tutorials.html and keep the best version after testing them.

Should I have the new version use the same database as the old, or should I clone the database to another server to work on?

It is depend upon your current database and your requirement. If you are fine with them; there is no need to move them on other server or clone them.

Should I just work in a subfolder, or subdomain, or a whole new domain?

You can work anywhere for new design; but make sure that the place where you are working should be blocked by robots.txt or should not be accessible by search engine crawler. Once you are having new version; overwrite on older one.

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You can have a disaster if not careful. People who are locating you through search engines can be cut off since you've got a different website after replacing the original. That original is sending you all your traffic. I know one NYSE public company who is losing 16% a quarter in sales not counting the 10-20% growth it lost when they did a total site remake in mid-2012. They are still paying for that blunder after the Q1 2013 filing. Sales down 16% due to web changes, they said. All that brand recognition built up over the years inside the search engines is gone now. But hey, long term, they think it will be a good thing. Baloney. They should have kept both sites going and let people either be redirected from the old pages or choose to go to the new pages via links, like Yahoo did with it's new website last year. You had the choice to remain using old Yahoo or not. You pull it all down, kiss the web traffic goodbye for a while. Unless you don't need the money. And don't care if number of users slack off a while. I believe there is a good solution, like using redirects and keeping the original site going alongside the new site until the day you think it's no longer useful.

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Keeping both versions up and letting people choose... That's currently the plan, with an option to migrate to the new site at any time. –  Niet the Dark Absol Jun 23 '13 at 13:44
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Just follow a standard migration plan and inventory your assets, set up the proper 301 redirects, and monitor your site for 404 errors. How you prefer to do your development is up to you. Some people develop locally, some prefer to work on the same server with a separate database. It makes no difference in the end.

You could do user testing and market research, but looking at your site, I don't think that's really needed. Just make the new site better than the existing one. Have a few friends test the new version out if you're unsure, or recruit some current users to beta test the new one while you're developing it.

You could offer users a choice between the two, but you're not Yahoo! or Gmail. From what you've written it's clear that there's no question that you want to update your site. If you follow accessibility and SEO best practices, including keeping or setting up appropriate 301 redirects for all of your important URLs, then you're not likely to get too much of an SEO hit.

If all the content is the same, which it should be, and it's only a design change, then there's no reason for your search ranking to suffer. If there are any content and URL structure changes then the short-term traffic loss is inevitable, and you might as well get it over with so you can start building PR on new pages and regaining your site authority.

If you're absolutely paranoid, you could do the migration gradually in sections. But IMO that's unnecessary.

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