A brand new website. A clean slate! Ohh the possibilities. Don’t blow this opportunity – make sure that all aspects of your marketing strategy are considered. A beautiful site that can’t generate leads or suffers in search engines is not a wise investment.
A new website can give your SEO campaign a new lease on life … or it can destroy years of work earning those search rankings. Here are a few things to consider before launching the next iteration of your company website…
Prior to the Website Redesign
Not all designers and developers remain current on SEO best practices. It’s important to discuss a few key things with them before you even begin the project:
Content Management Systems (CMS) – What CMS is to be used? How easily can you update content? Will you have control over page titles and URLs? We prefer WordPress and Drupal, simply because they are so widely used and well-supported – you’ll never back yourself into a corner if your developer uses one of these.
Blog location – If your existing blog is at http://companyname.blogger.com or even http://blog.example.com, the redesign is the perfect time to consider moving it to www.example.com/blog. Keeping your blog on the same domain as the rest of your site has immense benefits. Just be sure that if you move the blog, you redirect the posts correctly (more on that below).
URL structures – Will they be changing significantly, and what is the plan for redirecting them to prevent broken links. Consider a change from www.example.com/signup.html to www.example.com/sign-up – if old links are pointing to the former, you’d better make sure people are redirected to the latter, or you’re throwing conversions away.
Also, keep in mind that cleaner URLs are always better. Which is more clear to you? www.example.com/search-engine-optimization, or www.example.com/index.php?page=14881 – The first is more obvious to the reader, and also more easy for search engines to understand.
Domain name – Sometimes a new site design is part of a larger rebranding, even including a move to a new domain name. There are good reasons for this, but it’s one of the most dangerous things you can do, SEO-wise. At the very least, be sure to tell search engines you’re moving through Webmaster Tools. Make sure you do it right, though:
You might also consider reaching out to major sites linking to yours to say “Hey, we’ve moved… can you update those links to our site?”
Is there enough text? – Sometimes the creative marketing types get carried away with big beautiful images, or (*shudder*) Flash animations. Just be sure you’re aware of the trade-off: the big beautiful image comes at the expense of having text that search engines can read. Once you have a demo site to review, try running it through SEO Browser to see it through Google’s eyes.
Before the Launch
The new site has been built, tested, and approved. It’s ready to go live. How will you measure success? Take some time to address a few key elements. Otherwise, how will you know if something goes wrong?
Benchmark Rankings – The day before you launch the new design, benchmark your current rankings. Make sure you know exactly where you’re ranking for your target keywords. If something is wrong with the new site, a change in rankings may be your first indication.
Note – rankings often take a dip when you make significant changes to a website. This is normal! Google is like most people – change makes it nervous. Your rankings could drop back a page or two, then rebound within a week or two. If you go from page 1 to page 10 (or completely gone), you may have a problem.
Check number of pages in index – Find out how many pages of your site are being indexed by Google. Simply do a Google search for “site:EXAMPLE.com”:
This is also a good way to find pages on your site that should be removed. Are there pages showing up that should be hidden, password-protected, or deleted?
Look for indexing errors and find broken links – Checking for indexing errors regularly is a good idea, and Google Webmaster Tools is a free tool that does just that.. Most people don’t take the time, but it’s worth reviewing before and after a major site change. GWT can help you identify errors and fix them in the new version of your site:
The above chart indicates a problem with how this site was being managed – hundreds of pages were simply being deleted, leaving many, many broken links out there.
SEOmoz has a more robust, paid tool for tracking this type of issue:
If you launch a new website and see the “Change” metrics skyrocket, you may have screwed something up…
Confirm title tags, descriptions are unique – This is yet another opportunity to improve optimization site-wide. Take a look at the title tags and meta descriptions on each page. Are they all present, and all unique?
Map all old pages to new – If you’re building a brand new site, sometimes content gets lost in the transition. Pages are added, deleted, and renamed. You can really sabotage yourself if you don’t redirect all these pages properly. Consider using a flowchart or even a simple drawing with arrows showing old pages and their corresponding new pages:
Note that even if you remove a page from your site, it should be redirected to the most closely related page, preserving the value of any links that may have been pointing to it. In this example, signup2 and signup3 are being redirected to the new widget-newsletter page.
Create 301 redirects – There are many ways to redirect a page to a new location, but the only one that won’t hurt your rankings is a 301 “Permanently Moved” server redirect. If you’re running on a Linux server, as most sites do, you will perform all the above-mentioned redirects in the .htaccess file in the root of your website. LionSEO wrote a great post about the technical details of 301 redirects. Using the examples above, you’d have a number of lines that look like this:
Redirect 301 /about.html http://www.example.com/about
Redirect 301 /contact.php http://www.example.com/contact-us
For large numbers of redirects, we use an Excel spreadsheet that automatically generates the necessary code. Download the 301 redirect generator and try it out.
If you’re changing a lot of page URLs, you should have an .htaccess file filled with these redirects prior to launch.
Pause and update ad campaigns – If you’re doing any online advertising, make sure all of your ads point to pages that still exist. If you eliminate a page, or change its URL, you could be sending a bunch of ad traffic to pages that don’t exist. Not only are visitors getting a bad first impression, but you’re paying to give them a bad first impression! Double ouch.
I usually suggest putting ad campaigns on hold the day you launch your new site. That way, if there happens to be a catastrophic issue with the launch, at least you’re not paying for ad clicks leading to a broken site. Once you’ve verified that the launch went well, you can turn the ads back on. Just monitor their performance closely the first few days to ensure things are going as planned.
After the Launch
Check robots.txt, sitemap – It’s not uncommon to place something in the code of a site in development that essentially says “Hey, search engines! Don’t read any of this. Just leave, right now.” The logic makes sense – you don’t want people stumbling across your half-finished site when searching for your business.
Sadly, sometimes this code is forgotten, and even after the site goes live, you’re still telling the search engines they’re not allowed in. Awkward.
Once live, make sure all robot instructions are set to index and follow, or risk having massive amounts of egg on your face.
Test page redirects – All those page redirects we talked about? Better make sure they’re working. Try going directly to the URL of an old page, and make sure it sends you to the new location. Again using an example above, www.example.com/about.html should redirect me to www.example.com/about. If it doesn’t, something’s wrong!
Check for indexing errors – Go back to Webmaster Tools 1 day after launch, and again 1 week after launch, and again 1 month after launch. These errors may not show up immediately, so it’s important to keep an eye on the site for a few weeks. If you see a major spike, something’s wrong.
While you’re at it, do another “site:example.com” search on Google. How many pages were indexed? Did you lose any?
Test for speed problems – Occasionally, when launching a new site or moving to a new server, performance will suffer dramatically. This can be a serious problem for both rankings and conversions – Google hates slow websites almost as much as visitors do. Use a site like WebPageTest.org to see how your site is performing:
If it takes a long time for the “first packet” to be sent, that’s an indicator of a bad server. You should also be on the lookout for missing files (i.e. missing images or CSS files being called) and extremely large files (big, beautiful images?).
Benchmark rankings – Just like checking for indexing errors, you should benchmark rankings for the first few weeks after launch. As I mentioned, expect a minor dip in the first week or two, but know that it should all bounce back pretty quickly.
If you see a major drop in rankings, ask yourself why. If a keyword was performing well before, what has changed? Did you remove a lot of content with that term? Did you add a Flash intro to your site? Were pages not properly redirected?
Monitor traffic and conversions – The goal of any site redesign should be to generate more business. If the new site doesn’t generate more traffic and/or better conversions, what have you accomplished? Keep an eye on site traffic and goal conversions. If conversions (i.e. contact form submissions, newsletter signups, purchases) are dropping, take another look at your design. Have your calls to action become less obvious? Have you done anything else to make it more difficult to become a customer?
Launching a new site can be nerve-wracking. With a solid process and a checklist to follow, you can remove nearly all of the worry. As you are planning for a launch, consider these last few details:
- Since a site launch can be stressful and can impact your rankings, it’s best to plan for a slow time of the year. Don’t launch during what should be your peak month for traffic!
- If you’re planning a major change – i.e. changing your CMS, design, hosting company, and content – consider rolling it out in phases. If you do it all at once and your rankings tank, it’s very difficult to determine what caused the drop. Instead, move to the new host a month or two in advance. Smaller steps are less likely to lead to catastrophic meltdown.
- Consider having a complete SEO audit performed on your new site BEFORE it goes live. When it comes to something as critical as a site launch, a second opinion never hurts. Launching under the assumption that SEO was “taken care of,” on the other hand, can be painful.
I’ll leave you with an example from a new client. They had a new website built by a designer who admittedly didn’t know much about SEO. Their site launched, and things went downhill:
Don’t throw away years of progress! Make sure there’s a process in place to preserve your rankings through any major transition.