Launching a new website is a large undertaking and an extremely huge challenge. Just like building a tall skyscraper, building a website requires a strong foundation. This involves extensive planning, research, and monitoring, and you’re still bound to have some ‘gotchas’ along the way.
If not done well, it could result in a serious loss of traffic: Glenn Gabe of G-Squared Interactive, writing on Search Engine Journal, said he has seen some companies lose 60-70% of their natural search traffic after a redesign or migration, and showed this graph to illustrate the drop of one:
In this post we’ll explore the ins and outs of what you should know to lessen those costly gotchas from a traffic perspective. Each stage of developing a website is equally important, but starting off on the right foot will lead the way. Hopefully this post will help put you in the right direction.
Whether you’re in a role at an agency or in-house overseeing a website launch, it’s important to start with an exercise in project planning. This can take many shapes or forms as long as the goal is accomplished: mapping out what the entire project will look like. You might be tempted to skip this step or plan for only the SEO section of the project if that’s your role, but trust me you’ll be missing out. Take the time to really sit down with all stakeholders and build out speculations on what you think will be involved. Everything not just the SEO piece.
I’ve found it helpful at the very beginning of a project to use a large whiteboard, pieces of paper or sticky notes to write down each and every thing that will be required from start to finish of the project and each step in between. Display it and see what’s missing by brainstorming with all stakeholders until everything essential is compiled.
At this point you’re not trying to answer questions of priority, who is doing what, or when it’s getting done; rather this exercise is helpful to get everything down at once and see what is truly necessary for the magnitude of the website launch you’re undertaking. Don’t stop until you think you’ve written down everything your group can think of. An added bonus to the exercise? It makes a pretty nice Kanban board when you get into production and works with most project management methodologies (even non-Agile). “Kanban is a technique for managing a software development process in a highly efficient way” via Kanban Blog.
You won’t know what you don’t know. It might be your first time overseeing a project of this magnitude so there’s a lot of unknowns, but that shouldn’t discourage you. Let the unknown empower you to learn instead of allowing it to be an excuse. Many online resources exist; we encourage you to take the time to get to know the process. That doesn’t mean you can get away with reading one or two articles and be an expert. It means you really need to dive into immersing yourself in the process. Moz has a lot of resources you can check out.
Thinking about SEO before you launch will benefit you in a few ways. First, you’re thinking about a traffic source that sends a lot of very valuable traffic to your website. Spending the extra time to attend to things that are important to search engines will mitigate as much collateral damage as possible when you launch. I’ve heard horror stories over websites dropping 90% of their traffic after launch. Don’t let that happen to you! Secondly, by making SEO a priority you’re also helping address items that are important to usability, website experience, and data tracking. So you see, addressing SEO needs head-on will prove to be beneficial in more ways than one.
SEO Pre-Launch Checklist
- Take baselines for old site
- # indexed pages, # of search queries in Search Console, keyword rankings, page load speed and other KPIs.
- Conduct keyword research and determine keyword gaps, areas of importance, or holes in your content.
- Conduct an exercise to examine content that is redundant, outdated and/or trivial (ROT). It’s likely that not all content will be migrated to the new site. Have your SEO team member (or consultant) be a part of this process too.
- Take the time to improve metadata before you launch, rewriting titles and descriptions to start fresh on the new site.
- When developing Information Architecture make sure an SEO is a part of the conversations for naming URL structure and determining where content is nested; this can play a large role in mitigating traffic loss on launch.
- Ensure that your SEO team member is available for launch day, to review Search Console (Webmaster Tools), conduct crawl, and check for site errors at launch.
- Make sure your SEO reviews configuration in Search Console including: site settings, sitemaps, site links, crawl stats, and problems/errors.
- Conduct crawl on development environment to check for optimization opportunities missed, using a tool like Screaming Frog
- Ensure dev environment isn’t indexed; crawler access should be blocked
- Conduct mobile-friendly test
- Map old pages to new pages if URLs are changing; use this to inform the redirect map
- Export a list of all pages of old site with links using backlink analysis tool
- Export a list of all ranking pages from old site
- Export a list of all indexed pages: content, images, video assets, etc.
- Create a URL redirect map, paying special attention to any content with changing URLs
- Limit redirect loops as much as possible. Don’t forget microsites or old domains too
- Update canonicals if URLs are changing
- Audit redirect map for wildcard and regular expression simplification opportunities
- Review Robots.txt file, verify blocked content
- Test broken links and update anchor text as needed in the dev environment
- Prepare XML sitemap for submission, including for blog/video/images as needed
- Prepare HTML sitemap
- Resolve any duplicate content issues: prev/next, category blog pages, etc.
- Directories with or without a trailing slash, default directory indexes
- Case in URLs
- Accessible IP addresses, URLs on different host domains, internal search duplicates (added ? character to parameter)
- Review in Google Analytics all referrers to your domain and ensure the most important have an updated URL for your new site, if it’s changing.
- Day of: Notify Google and Bing via Search Console & Webmaster Tools of new sitemap and location of website
- Test for broken links
- Submit sitemap
- Ensure crawler access
- Conduct mobile-friendly test
- Crawl new site
- Test for noindex tags and nofollow
- Check XML sitemap for errors
- Test redirects
- Review title tags and descriptions, ensure proper loading
- Test for soft 404s and regular 404s
- Ensure analytics code is on every page
- Monitor real time analytics
- Review internal links and update any broken or incorrect
- Check Search Console (Webmaster Tools) for messages and errors (such as crawl errors)
- Reclaim links, if possible and change URLs on all owned properties
- Check cache for important pages
- Compare performance against baseline data
- # indexed pages, # of search queries in Search Console, keyword rankings, page load speed and other KPIs
- Conduct Page Load Speed tests
- Attempt to get social signals or new links built to important pages to improve indexation
- Run important pages through fetch and render in Search Console
- Test site in all browsers and consider testing with an Ad blocker on, as well as other plugins that are commonly used by consumers
HTTP to HTTPS
- Head over to SeroundTable.com for their HTTPS migration checklist, it’s awesome!
- Update all external plugins to ensure they are HTTPS compliant
- Update ad code to support HTTPS
- Update social sharing counts
- Submit new HTTPS XML sitemaps
- Verify new HTTPS site with Search Console (Webmaster Tools)
- Test site using Qualys Lab tool
- Update canonicals, if in place
- Update all social profiles to include the new URLs, including any feed URLs for auto-posting
- If indexation is taking longer than expected, attempt sending social signals and extra links. Ensure you’ve updated all links on controlled assets (such as social profiles, local citations, microsites, blog, etc.)
- Ensure all old sitemaps are removed from the old site and not being indexed
- Shopping feeds should be updated, along with any other product feeds that have URLs updated
- Check tracking codes and ensure they are updated appropriately. Paid search team should be looped into migration process, when URLs are updated.
- Images are important and mapping them properly is key. If a decision has been made to use a content delivery network (CDN) vs. hosting the images yourself, consider using a CNAME.
- Ensure updates to Google Analytics code are made and that the Search Console account is opened for any new domain requiring it.
- If the prior site was under penalty reconsider some redirects, or discuss with an SEO professional before moving forward with redirects. Penalties sometimes can pass from one domain to another, without careful considerations being paid.
Did we miss a few best practices? Feel free to add to this list in the comments below. We hope this list is extensive, cumulative, and helpful in your journey to launching a new website.