There are infinite reasons to redesign or redevelop a website. I won’t get into them all today, but instead, I would like to talk about how to avoid common pitfalls that can put a damper on all of the hard work leading up to your site’s launch.
I’ve been helping clients launch websites for about 10 years. And while that still makes me a bit of a toddler in Internet Years™, I’ve seen enough to know that every launch has its challenges, and I’ve learned something new each time. But, some constants that I’ve seen across many of the websites I’ve helped launch have to do with SEO.
Time and time again, I see “SEO” considered an afterthought and only allotted a small amount of resources or attention before websites are launched. I typically see people end up with a fully approved and functioning staging site who think the last step is to “flip the switch.” Even though that would great, that’s very seldom the case. I’ll walk you through some “must do” tasks before launching your new site. Ok, let’s get started.
Prepare your stakeholders.
The launch of a new website is typically the culmination of months of effort and cross-team collaboration. And once you have a “final” approved website, that’s not the end unfortunately, but rather the beginning. Before your site goes live, there’s still a lot to be done from a communications standpoint.
Websites receive traffic from a variety of channels, including these main ones:
- Organic (searches performed on search engines)
- Paid (clicks on paid ads, on search engines, or social platforms)
- Direct (someone typing in your domain name)
- Referrals (visits to your site from a link on another site)
The volume of referral and direct visits aren’t likely to change, assuming your website has 301 redirects set up properly (more on that in a minute). Organic traffic is the channel at the greatest risk of decline following a site change, and that should be conveyed to the site’s key stakeholders prior to launch.
Knowing and understanding that even a minor or simple redesign is going to potentially have a big impact on organic site performance is critical. I always tell clients to expect a period of up to 4-6 weeks of potential traffic decline to allow for Google to recognize that there’s been a change, understand the change, and update its ranking of pages accordingly. During this period of re-understanding and re-indexation, it’s not uncommon to see traffic declines. Unless user testing was completed as a part of the design process, it’s also possible to see conversion declines. That can be a tough pill to swallow after spending five or six figures on a new site.
As SEOs, we can take steps to mitigate those losses.
Prepare your site.
So, how exactly can we ensure that organic traffic rankings hold steady or even improve? There are a number of items that are great starting points.
Using a crawling tool like Screaming Frog to perform a site crawl.
Look for pages that are missing key SEO elements like title tags, proper heading hierarchy, canonicals, etc. Fix those issues first.
I’ve seen sites almost go live with every single one of the product pages labeled as “Product Page” instead of having a unique title tag. Even if Google kept the page in the exact same ranking position, the click-through rate is going to plummet as “Product Page” is not exactly compelling. Read more about analyzing your site crawl.
Confirm that your 301 redirect map is in working order.
I like to plan a heuristic early on during the site architecture phase to map out existing URLs to their new and improved URLs, but inevitably during development, things change. You should make sure your 301s are still accurate and your implementation method is prepped and ready to go before you go live. A single .txt file utilizing Regex is my preferred method for redirect management.
Only URLs that are changing need to be a part of your 301 redirect plan. I’ve seen sites launch with /page/ redirecting to /page/ which will loop forever and never actually load. Not great.
Keep the same analytics tracking implementation if possible.
By keeping the same Google Analytics view on your new site, you’ll be able to more easily compare data and performance. Of course, if you’re changing URLs that makes the comparison more difficult, but not impossible. Having that historical data will allow you to point out month-to-month patterns, seasonal trend lines, and more to help you decipher what’s noise and what changes in performance deserve your attention.
If you must change your Analytics view, it’s not the end of the world. It’s far better than the alternative of forgetting to add the analytics script altogether!
Don’t sleep on schema.
If your site had schema previously, it’s a good idea to confirm it has been added to your new site. If your previous site didn’t have schema, a relaunch is a good time to add it in. Structured data markup is a way to add more context to your website and webpage content. At Go Fish, we prefer a JSON-LD implementation.
Develop a need for (site) speed.
In a good scenario, your new website will have improved page load times because you’ve compressed all the images, offloaded large resources (by utilizing YouTube for video hosting, etc.), and written succinct code. In an ideal scenario, your site loads – on both mobile and desktop devices – in under two seconds. Google is crawling the mobile version of websites first, so it’s imperative the mobile experience is optimized.
With a launch earlier this year, we took the mobile load times of a homepage from 13 seconds down to two. We did so by removing the large video playing in the background, using SVGs (a next-gen image format), and most impactfully, custom-coding a WordPress theme on top of WP Core, rather than using a popular, off-the-shelf page builder. (You’ll think you want a page builder but resist that urge. They are bloated, frustrating for the site admin, and will cause you much more harm than good.) Read more about how to improve your WordPress page load times.
XML and TXT and WTF?
Alright, it’s acronym time! One of the very last checks you should do before you launch your shiny new website is to create a new XML sitemap and upload it to your robots.txt file. An XML sitemap is a list of all the URLs you want indexed by search engines. It helps crawlers understand and navigate your site architecture. And the robots.txt file ensures you’re allowing search engines to crawl your site and you’re including other allowed/disallowed directives.
First, generate the new XML sitemap, assuming your URLs changed. Then, reference the new sitemap in the robots.txt file. Lastly, submit your new sitemap to Google once the site goes live.
Speaking of after the site goes live, please, please, if you take away one thing from this post, let it be this – once your new site is live, check the robots.txt file to make sure the developer has removed this line (likely in place during development, added so that the staging site wouldn’t be indexed):
We’ve got an excellent post about how to create an XML sitemap if you need further guidance.
Prepare for Launch.
Now that you’ve properly set expectations and communicated them internally, addressed all of the bugs, and set critical SEO elements, you’re ready to launch your website. It’s time for a pat on the back, a round of drinks, and a nap, right? Not yet. Sorry. (Ok, you can have one celebratory beverage – I won’t tell.)
Here’s what you need to do to ensure the continued success of your website.
Map keywords to content.
If you’ve been paying close attention to your organic traffic performance, you’ve also hopefully been tracking the “MVP” keywords that bring in the bulk of that traffic. It’s time to keep a close eye on those keyword rankings and organic session data in analytics. If the content on your site changed. either through page consolidation or marketing re-writes, you’ll want to re-map the target keywords to their new pages or ensure they remain the same.
We’ve had great success in consolidating similar pages to create a robust guide about a particular topic and seeing rankings and performance increase as a result. Read more about keyword strategy.
Monitor, monitor, monitor.
Now that Google is starting to better understand the new site, keep an eye on analytics, rankings, and conversion points, especially in the early days. Analytics should give you a big-picture into overall organic traffic performance and seasonality, but also share some insights on the page level metrics. It’s not uncommon for a page or post to perform poorly and not quite recover. If that’s the case, it can be helpful to look at overall trend lines with that page.
Following a site launch that coincided with a confirmed broad core Google algorithm update, we saw two posts drop over 60% when looking at organic sessions before and after the launch. The posts received a large portion of the overall site traffic, so it appeared as though the entire site was performing worse than before, even though quote requests and other conversions were improved. Once we took out those two posts, organic traffic to the rest of the site was up 15%. We were able to focus on the two posts in question to improve their content and relevance and, in turn, rankings and traffic.
Communicate and pivot.
Lastly, it’s important to over-communicate performance to stakeholders before they start to worry. We know that site migrations and redesigns can be stressful, but we know not to panic as traffic starts to decline. We’ve seen the other side, and given time, we’ve seen the charts moving up and to the right. That being said, if you see performance declines remain for longer than 4-6 weeks, it’s worth taking a deeper dive into the data to determine the cause of the issues.
Ok, now it’s time for a drink. Or maybe it’s time to start dreaming up version 2.0 of your newly launched site. That’s the beauty of a website – much like homeownership, the work is never done. Catch those cracks before they become huge foundation problems, and continue to make incremental changes to improve on the site you just built!