Due to the fast paced nature of the web, a site redesign is an important part of the optimizing your site and creating a better user experience. Best practices today may not be viewed as best practices tomorrow. You don’t want to appear outdated, so once every 2-3 years you should launch a new website or move to a new domain.
But launching a new website is one of the biggest updates you can make online. To avoid SEO disaster, you need to invest in planning before you go live and perform tests at each level to minimize problems when you launch. The following launch guidelines have been separated into the four categories:
- Launch Checklist
- Before the Launch
- During the Launch
- After the Launch
New Website Launch Checklist
To get started, I’ve created a Launch Checklist so you can monitor the website launch process. This checklist should be kept up to date throughout the entire move and you can even include little green ticks ( ) when a task has been completed.
Before the launch
Make sure these steps are taken before the launch!
1. Benchmark Your Current Site Stats
Before launching a new website, make sure you benchmark how your site is currently performing in terms of visits and search engines. Having this data is incredibly important and will allow you to monitor important metrics during the launch process. Ideally, you will want to record:
- Domain authority
- Number of pages indexed by Google (site:www.myoldsite.com)
- Google cache date
- Crawl errors reported in Google Webmaster Tools
Creating a table in Excel is the easiest way to make note of these changes (see example below) and remember to update the spreadsheet weekly before, during, and after the launch.
2. Communicate the Launch Internally
Once the new website process has been established, make sure that it is communicated to all stakeholders and that the responsibilities are understood.
In each website launch I have been involved with, there has always been a delay in the launch due to lack of resources. Senior management just ‘wants to launch the new website’, content managers have too much content to migrate and very little resources are allocated to testing the new website. This leads to issues with redirects, payment problems and navigation. No matter how well planned your web launch process is, there are always going to be delays.
3. Register New Website in Webmaster Tools
In order to increase the process of being indexed by Google and other major search engines, you should register the new website with Google Webmaster Tools and Bing Webmaster Tools. You won’t be able to prepare for everything before you launch, but by registering the website you can find and track crawl errors and optimization issues quickly.
4. Choose your Domain
Canonicalization is the process of picking the best URL for content when there are several choices on a webpage. Most people consider the following example URL the same webpage:
You might have your Home button linking to one of the links above and your brand logo linking to another. Searchers visiting your website will choose either with www or without www.
The problem is that technically, all these URLs are different and if they are live, it will result in site-wide duplicate content. In order to fix this issue, you need to pick the preferred URL and redirect (301) all content and links to the preferred domain. Google doesn’t have a preference on which URL is best, just as long as you are consistent with it.
5. Upload a ‘Coming Soon’ Page
Before you launch a new website, start by uploading a ‘coming soon’ page on your new domain with one or paragraphs that explain who you are, what you do and include a few keywords you are targeting. By doing so you allow Google to start to crawl and index the new site. You’re basically telling search engines that your new site is a real site and not just parked. This should be completed 6-8 weeks prior to the website launch.
6. Inbound Links & Referrals
No doubt, you will have a lot of good, high quality links pointing to your website – You don’t want to lose these. You can review the most important links (80% of traffic) using Google Analytics, Open Site Explorer and Google Webmaster Tools. These can be found under:
- Google Analytics > Traffic Sources > Referral (left)
- Google Webmaster Tools > Traffic > Links to your site (right)
Make sure the inbound links and websites will be pointing towards your new website once launched. You will need to redirect traffic to your new website by following the process outlined next or contact the webmaster and ask them to update the link. Contacting webmasters may take some time so it’s important to start this process before the launch.
7. Map Current URLs to New Site
One easy-to-manage process that allows you to track each page is to use a simple spreadsheet that shows all old page URLs in one column and the corresponding new page URLs in a second column (example below). Every page on your old site should have a corresponding new page on your new site. By doing so, you take control over the correlation process, instead of sending traffic to 404 pages. Start off by mapping your most linked to content first. You can use Open Site Explorer to find the most linked to pages.
8. Upload Content to your New Site
The next step is to upload pages, images, and files to your new site. Start out by uploading the most viewed webpages from the old site to the new site and remember to link each page for better indexing. Any changes in structure, folders, and paths from the old site should be noted in the mapping of URL spreadsheet (Step 6).
9. Create Unique Title Tags & Meta Descriptions
Once the new pages have been uploaded, you want to make sure all title tags, Meta descriptions and h1 tags are all unique to each page on the website. A simple way to view this is to run a report in Screaming Frog SEO Spider and export your title tags, Meta descriptions and H1 tags into Excel. Using the Screaming Frog SEO tool, you can view missing and duplicate Metadata as well as short or long Metadata to ensure your site is optimized for search engines.
10. Implement Google Analytics Tracking
The tracking script placement for Google Analytics is important. You are now collecting traffic data for your new website. Placement is often an issue. Google now recommends the script be placed at the top of the website, before the closing <head> section rather than at the bottom of the website, which used to be best practice. It is also important that the following is updated once live as more often than not, the tracking goals will now have new URLs.
- Event tracking
- Goal tracking
- Site Search
- Webmaster tools integration
- E-Commerce tracking
You can also use Google Analytics Annotations to make a note of when the site goes live or any campaigns you run during the launch period. This gives you a visual of the change and impact. Just remember to analyze what went wrong when you see a dip in traffic.
During the launch
Almost there! Don’t worry; this part is pretty straight forward!
11. Redirect pages from your old site to your new site
Once the content has been uploaded from your old site to your new site, we will need to place 301 permanent redirects at page level, meaning that each page on your old site should be redirected to the URL of the new page on your new site.
Remember to link to the closest matching page to provide a better user experience and any pages that will be removed from the old site should be redirected, not deleted.
Example of a good redirection:
- www.oldwebsite.com/contact-us 301 redirected to www.newwebsite.com/contact-us
Example of a not so good redirection:
- www.oldwebsite.com/category/product 301 redirected to www.newwebsite.com.
Start with part of the site first with a 301 redirect (best to use low traffic content) so you can review if the move went as planned. This means testing the old links to see if you are redirected to the new website page. If not, then you will need to pause the move and find out what went wrong. Remember to use 301 permanent redirects and not 302 temporary redirects.
Another way to check the 301 redirects is to use the SEO Bulk Checker tool, or the Bulk URL Checker which will allow you to copy and paste URLs and view the status code. You can repeat as many times as needed in order to check all redirected URLs.