This article was updated 11/2016 to reflect changes in the industry.
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 You don’t want to appear outdated, so once every 2-3 years you should launch a new website design or move to a new domain.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 get it done, 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 issues. No matter how well planned your web launch process is, there are always going to be delays.
Communicating clearly and regularly with your entire team can help alleviate communication issues and speed up the launch time.
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.
(This only applies if you are launching on a new domain.)
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 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.
12. Change Address in Google Webmaster Tools
Login to your old website Google Webmaster Tools account and change the address at site level under change of address. This way, you are telling Google that the transition has taken place for the entire site and not just for specific pages.
After the Launch
Congratulations! Your new website is now live!
13. Post-launch Checklist
Once your new website has been launched, you should immediately answer the following questions:
- Is your robots.txt file blocking access from search engines?
- Do you have any 302 redirects that can be changed to 301 redirects?
- Do Google/ Bing webmaster tools report any messages?
- Is your 404 page returning a HTTP status 404?
- Are you missing any title tags/ Meta descriptions?
- Is your web analytics package recording web traffic?
- Can web visitors complete their goals on site (complete a form, order online, etc)?
- Does your non-www website redirect to your www version (or vice versa)
- If you updated to https, did you redirect or update all http links?
By answering these questions, you are able to quickly diagnose and prioritize your next steps.
14. Check for broken links
Run a crawl on your website and fix any broken links that are reported. You can also check Google Webmaster Tools for Crawl Errors or run your website through Screaming Frog SEO Spider and check Response Codes.
15. Communicate the launch externally
Once the new site is live, you should notify customers and vendors through as many channels as possible. This means making the announcement on your website, in your email marketing, in your email signature, and any automated emails. It can either be a full-blown piece explaining the move and why, or a single line that says you have a new website.
16. Submit XML Sitemaps
Create an XML sitemap for the new website and submit the sitemap to both your Bing and Google (XML sitemap generator) webmaster tools account. You can also include the sitemap within the robots.txt file.
In addition to submitting an XML sitemap, implementing an HTML sitemap will make sure that any pages hidden deep with the site structure are indexed.
17. Launch Search Marketing Campaigns
Google AdWords will play an important role during the new website launch. It’s only natural that your new site might not entirely be indexed straight away, meaning that high-ranking keywords may drop below the first page. A quick solution to this is to run campaigns in AdWords for your top 10-20 converting keywords.
Google AdWords is the fastest and most reliable method of being visible for keywords that may take longer to re-rank. Ensure you allocate a budget before the move to cover the costs and ensure your PPC Team has the new destination URLs to avoid sending paid traffic to your old site.
18. Claim Local Citations
When you have a store and an actual physical location adding your website to local listing directories is very benefitial. Local directory listings not only provide links to the newly launched website but also help you capture a lot of local traffic for searchers on a mobile device.
To begin with, create a Google+ Local page in Google+ and verify your website listing. Next, verify your website in local listing sites such as Yelp, Yell, Get Listed. Be consistent with your business and NAP (name, address, and phone number) listings.
19. Promote the Launch on Social Media
Promote your new website in social media channels including Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Social sharing is still not a strong ranking signal but by promoting the launch on social media sites, your website will get indexed much faster. Social networks also attracts referral traffic and helps spread your launch message.
You can also visit blogs or communities within your industry and post comments and participate by adding value to the conversation. Insightful posts will get you and your brand noticed.
20. Test your Site Speed
An increasingly important factor for any website is site speed. Using Google’s page speed insights tool, test your website site speed. If your site is anything less than 90, send your web developers a link to the report and ask them to follow instructions supplied by Google. In almost all cases of slow websites, Google’s suggestions include optimizing images and leverage browser caching.
21. Check your Mobile Website
As mobile traffic is poised to overtake desktop traffic (in some countries, it already has), you must view your new website on all devices. Priorities on fixing mobile websites should be based on the percent of total traffic from mobile/ tablets.
Updated 2016: Mobile is more important that ever before! Make sure your moblie site isn’t just an after thought.
Website Migration Examples
For web managers and SEOs who follow site migration guidelines, you might not see any loss in organic traffic. Here is a look at organic traffic for brands I’ve worked with that have launched a new website and been able to prioritize SEO pre-launch:
The new website was launched in February 2013 and there is no organic traffic loss.
The new website was launched in March 2013 and once again there is no loss in organic traffic.
However, if you do not follow these guidelines, you will see your organic traffic decrease and I have seen organic traffic drop by as much as 50% when proper planning has not been executed. The chart below is for a website that decided to launch the website first and ignore the guidelines – The impact was so dramatic it could still be seen 6 months post-launch.
The new website was launched in June 2012 and even up until March 2013 traffic has not returned to pre-web launch levels, resulting in a 35% drop of branded traffic. To make sure you don’t see your organic traffic drop, follow site migration guidelines carefully.
Make sure you monitor web traffic, traffic sources, and crawl errors in Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics. In fact, you should monitor your website performance for the next four to six weeks to quickly diagnose any loss in traffic. If you see an increase in crawl errors reported in Google Webmaster Tools, prioritize the issues and get them fixed. Use your Google Annotations to identify what changes may have caused the increase in errors.
Google suggests waiting until both search engines and your web visitors have found the new site before turning off your old site (if you turn it off at all). This process can take up to six months and it is recommended that you check Google Webmaster Tools after 180 days to re-confirm the change of address.
Once your new website has launched, traffic might decrease but within two to four weeks, you should see your website performance return to pre-launch traffic levels. In fact, you should even see an increase based on the improvements made and marketing plan that supports the launch!
If you find that your website traffic does not return to previous levels, chances are you might have missed a step so make sure all points in the launch checklist have been crossed off. By following these guidelines, you will ensure that your traffic remains consistent and your new website launch is successful.
Do you have any stories of website launches that went wrong? What important steps have I missed? Feel free to comment below.
Featured Image: Rawpixel via Depositphotos