The word “disaster” probably got your attention and in this case, it’s not the least bit hyperbolic.
Website migrations that don’t account for SEO or are undertaken with hasty and/or weak plans for SEO can be disastrous.
If you’re doing a website refresh, migration, and/or relaunch, you likely have solid reasons for doing it and expectations for improvement in specific areas like UX, brand perception, and conversion goals.
SEO is essential for helping you achieve all of the above.
In this column, you’ll find important pre-launch and post-launch steps to ensure that SEO is prioritized in your relaunch so you can avoid disaster and enjoy the best possible outcomes for your business.
Work through this piece as a checklist as you plan and execute your website redesign.
Think about what it is you’re hoping to accomplish with this investment in reimagining your website.
Whatever else you hope to gain, you definitely want to protect the value and equity your site has built up over time. You don’t want to lose current rankings, link value, or traffic — and you don’t want to spend months to recover or rebuild them, either.
On top of that, you likely also want to improve organic search performance.
Goals & Project Plan
There are likely some pretty compelling reasons why you are embarking on a website redesign.
Those could be tied to:
- Business use-cases.
- User experience improvements.
- Marketing initiatives.
- SEO improvements.
Setting appropriate goals is a key aspect of ensuring the project’s success.
Establish your baseline and benchmarks, as you’ll want to be able to confirm improvements and ROI on the project.
Most web projects follow a specific plan or agile methodology. This plan is typically managed by the project owner whether they are in an account service, project management, product, IT, marketing, or some other aligned role.
Make sure your plan accounts for SEO at every step so you aren’t surprised by any unintended consequences.
Content & Information Architecture
Both the context of the website subject matter overall and sub-topic your themes are critical to SEO success.
This affects the specific content on the site and how that content is organized.
Changes to the information architecture, sitemap, and overall content plan in the redesign can impact SEO, and ensuring that everyone on the project understands how is important.
You want to make sure pages valuable to your SEO strategy are not omitted from the site going forward, and that the overall message and theme of sections of the site are not diluted by the design.
Use a crawling tool (e.g., Screaming Frog or DeepCrawl) to find all pages of your website.
Then, with your team, work from your current sitemap on requirements for the new one. This will be your guide through the rest of the steps in the redesign process for SEO.
Digging deeper to the page level, it’s important that you maintain the relevance of content to the intent of your target searcher.
Once you know what context and overall architecture is changing (or remaining the same), you can work to protect or proactively optimize at the page level for the specific elements that help with relevance. This will include URLs, page titles, meta descriptions, body copy, alt text, etc.
How deep are the changes to your architecture and sitemap? This will dictate how much you need to focus on the relevancy of content to ensure you don’t lose subject matter content on the site.
Optimize your staging site or code-base; do not wait until post-launch to make these updates.
There’s a basic user experience case to be made for ensuring that you map out 301 redirects for all pages that are getting new URLs and those that are going away in the redesigned site.
We never want to serve up a 404 error page to a user if we can avoid it.
Search engines are okay with 404s if we are hoping to have content removed from the index. However, any link equity you’ve will be lost if backlinks to your site result in a 404 error.
Ensure that all pages with links pointing to them are (at the very least) properly redirected, especially if you don’t have control over ensuring that the links are updated to the new destination page URL.
If you have a large website, this could very well be the most time intensive and important part of the redesign SEO process.
Use the crawl that you did earlier for your sitemap planning to determine all URLs that need to be redirected.
You can also gain a lot of insight from Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools as to which pages the search engines crawl on an ongoing basis, to make sure you don’t miss any redirects.
When you have all redirects mapped out, ensure that they are implemented at the server level or in a site plug-in or utility and are ready to go for launch.
It is difficult to do this work after launch, as the damage has often been done with search engines and users getting 404 errors. Every passing minute, hour, and day equals more lost opportunity here.
Even when your SEO professional can use forensics to find the old site URLs and implement redirects, you’ve lost precious time. You’ll have to take the short-term hit and hope to get back the relevancy and authority status you had with the old website.
At launch time, follow along with the go-live checklist and perform any possible quality control checks of the work you have done on the staging site to date.
Don’t give the go-ahead for launch if any of your on-page work or redirects are not in place or tested.
It is much easier to slightly delay launch than to undo damage later or – exponentially worse – to have to roll back to the old website (ouch).
Your first step is to go back to your redirect file, old sitemap, and old site crawl to test and ensure that all old site URLs perform 301 redirects to new site URLs, as you intended.
This is where you can catch any stray 404s and implement additional redirects quickly.
Begin by spot-checking URLs and then go deeper as time permits to work through as many old site URLs possible.
Also, check for other sneaky redirects like 302s or server methods to ensure you have clean 301s.
Make sure that all pages and specific on-page optimization carried over from the dev site to the live site.
This is particularly important for websites with a lot of dynamic content, as sometimes databases and tables get missed in the migration.
For example, if you optimized all title tags on the staging site but the database they are in didn’t go live at launch, you might find missing or default duplicate titles on every page or on product pages, etc.
Code & Performance Validation
Don’t assume that the live website will perform the same as the staging site did.
Run the homepage and key pages through the mobile-friendly testing tool or Lighthouse audits to ensure the site achieves passing grades.
Additionally, run page speed tools to find potential areas of improvement on the new website. Differences in servers, hosting, and other loads on the production site can cause hiccups that you wouldn’t have found on the staging website.
Also, don’t forget about any schema markup you have on the site.
Using validation tools to ensure proper implementation here are helpful in case anything changed between the old, staging, and live sites and how the search engines render them.
Submit XML Sitemaps
Once you are satisfied with your redirects working properly and the implementation of SEO on the live site, it is time to submit the XML sitemap.
Ensure that the dynamic sitemap includes the desired full set of destination URLs.
If you are using a static sitemap, generate a new one now, audit it, and submit it.
Note that you want to be sure that your XML sitemap file(s) are pristine. You want to have zero URLs resulting in 404 errors and ensure all URLs are the destination URLs versus redirects or pages that canonical to another version.
It feels good to be done with the hard work involved in SEO for the relaunch and the migration overall. Now, it’s important to shift your mindset to a monitoring phase.
For the next 1-2 months, closely monitor Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools to watch for reported 404 errors, crawl errors, and any HTML on-page issues detected. Tackle these quickly.
Remember that SEO is not a one-time thing.
Once the dust has settled and the monitoring phase is in motion, you can go back to your original plan and goals and measure the performance of the new site.
From here, you can resume your normal ongoing optimization plan.
Here’s the short list of what we unpacked in this article.
- Goals & Project Plan.
- Content & Information Architecture.
- On-Page Optimization.
- Check Redirects.
- Dev-to-Live Audit.
- Code & Performance Validation.
- Submit XML Sitemaps.
- Ongoing SEO.
Account for some steps taking longer than planned or having to add some as you go. Web projects and SEO don’t always go according to plan!
Beyond that, make sure you take every opportunity you have to use the redesign and relaunch for performance improvement to maximizing the return on your investment in your site.
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