A new website launch is an ideal time to showcase a revamped strategy, user interface, and design – or it could be a move that leads to significant losses in organic traffic to your site.
As if a new website launch isn’t stressful enough, we’ve seen companies suffer catastrophic losses when SEO is not properly built into their website launch plan. If you’ve been through a website relaunch before, you know. The ever-moving launch date. The constant deadlines and benchmarks. Stress from the top to launch the new site quickly. The sometimes overwhelming feeling when thinking about all the work that goes into a project like this. We get it, and with a solid plan that incorporates SEO best practices for a new website launch, you can save your own sanity, as well as your organic traffic.
Planning far in advance and putting some leg work in now can help to mitigate the inherent risks in launching a new site and can help you avoid the post-launch panic of losing a large percentage of your organic traffic. I’m not going to say it’s easy, but it’s definitely worth it to work with your development resource to nail these best practices now to avoid the consequences later.
Know Where You Stand
Before you push that new site live, set a benchmark on the site’s performance. The immediate goal for SEO coming out of a website launch is no harm done. Setting a benchmark or baseline will help you know how much your site’s organic visibility was harmed/helped with the new site launch.
- Establish an organic traffic baseline. Make sure to account for seasonality. If you have a seasonal business it’s important to factor in busy/slow months when setting your benchmark.
- Review the pages that are currently ranking and driving traffic for you now. If the goal is to mitigate potential losses, making sure you keep a keen eye on important organic landing pages now will pay off in the long run.
Use tools to monitor these metrics before and after the launch to ensure the rankings and traffic remain steady and strong. If you aren’t using third-party SEO tools, Google Analytics alone can provide a wealth of data and insight into the post-launch performance for the site.
Map Out Current Pages
Landing pages that have been successful to this point are naturally going to be important in any future success. Short of using third party tools, Google Analytics and Search Console can help to highlight these pages. In Search Console, you can see the pages that are appearing most in searches and average positions, while Google Analytics will show you which pages drive the most organic traffic.
Organic Traffic = Good Keyword Visibility/Rankings
Create a Page Map for the New Site Structure
Make sure the new site is built to accommodate content moving over from the old site and leaves you room for growth. The last thing you want is to launch a site that can’t support existing content and doesn’t give you the ability to expand. Once you establish where existing content will live and how a user will find it, consider whether the URLs need to be updated. If you are currently using a clean folder structure with descriptive URLs and there is no reason to change them…Don’t. You’ll save yourself a lot of work and added risk if the URLs can stay the same.
As you work through your existing content as it relates to the new site, apply these three filters:
- Maintain the existing URL
- Change the existing URL
- Drop the old content and don’t add it to the new site
Maintain the existing URL: This is the easiest option as the new design and potentially new content will simply replace the existing page. Again, if you don’t have to change the URL, leave them the same.
Change the existing URL: Pages with new URLs must have a 301 redirect in place. This type of redirect tells Google you are permanently moving the old page to a new location, and your organic rankings should update with the new pages. Failure to create 301 redirects during a re-launch is the No. 1 cause of organic traffic losses.
Remove the page entirely: While it’s OK to remove pages that no longer suit your needs, it’s also imperative to know:
- The organic value (organic sessions/rankings) of the page before you ditch it
- How many pages are being removed? Each page of your site contributes to your authority on a topic. If you remove large swaths of content this can have larger impacts than just the traffic to these pages.
- Keep, Kill, Edit
Pages you’re removing can be handled with a 301 redirect that sends visitors to a similar page (if one exists) or a 404 status code that lets Google know the page has been removed. When mapping old content to new, use the Keep, Kill, Edit concept. Some content just needs to be updated and will be a great addition to the new site. Other content might no longer be relevant and will be allowed to 404 (Kill). If you have a page that is not represented on the new site, it should be allowed to 404. Do not try to force a redirect where it doesn’t make sense. Not only will Google view it as a soft-404 anyway, it’s a bait and switch experience for users.
Test Your Page Mapping Where Possible
In some cases, you may have to test to make sure the redirects are correct after the site is already live. If you have an opportunity to test the redirects before launch (Sitebulb can be a great tool at a lower cost), do it. 301 redirects are the most important part of a successful launch. If you’re able to verify they will all work when the site launches, it will make the day the site launches much less stressful.
Review and Improve On-Page Elements
If it’s been a while since the site has been updated, this can be a great opportunity to review on-site SEO elements. This is especially true if you’re using this opportunity to update content throughout the site (See Below). Reviewing these on-page best practices while pages are being ported over is a good way to maximize the effort.
- Use of page headings <h1> to <h5>
- Copy Placement
- Internal Links
- HTML titles
- Meta descriptions
- Canonical tags
- Image ALT tags (For Functional Images Only)
Check and Update Content
If you’re looking for an excuse to update that content you haven’t looked at in years, this is another great opportunity. Often, when you’re making significant changes to a website’s design/layout, the content from the old site just won’t’ seem to fit or look right on the new site. Give the content a refresher and make sure to consider the new content when reviewing and optimizing on-page elements. And before you trash a page, consider how you can update it to make it more effective.
If we’ve learned anything over the years, Google craves new content. Since users are already going to get a new experience on the site with the updated look and feel, why not update the messaging to match where you are today vs. where you were when the old site was built?
This can range from contextual links (links within the actual content) to navigational links (primary, secondary, and footer), but how easy it is for users to find content matters. What’s the next step you want the user to take, and how are you going to get them there is not only critical for the user journey, but it also tells Google which pages you think are the most important. Boiling it down, if Google can’t find it when they crawl your site, why would they serve it up to users in search results? When you’re launching a new site, make sure to consider that user journey and remove friction. If it’s a critically important page like a service offering page or what I affectionately refer to as a “money page” (any page considered one step away from conversion), it should be in the main navigation. We want users and search engines to find this content as quickly as possible.
Tell Google What You Want Them to See
There are a few areas where you get the opportunity to tell Google what you want them to see and index. Pay careful attention to the following elements because they can make/break the launch of your new site:
- Robots.txt File: As one of the first stops for any crawler/bot, this is where you can tell Google which pages you don’t want users to see. Often used for admin pages, development sites, and shopping carts, this tells Google not to crawl sections of the site. You would think we wouldn’t have to say this, but more often than we’d like, the Robots.txt will be set up to block the development site from being crawled (Good), but then it won’t be updated and will block the new site from being crawled (Very bad). Make sure you take off any “disallow” commands at launch.
- XML Sitemap: Now that we told Google what we don’t want them to see, the XML sitemap is where you can tell Google what you absolutely want them to see. This can make crawls of the site more efficient and can ensure the most important pages are regularly crawled/indexed. Once this includes all of the URLs that you want users to be able to find via search (and none of the URLs you don’t), submit it in Google Search Console.
Perform Final Pre-Launch Review
Work this into your development timelines. Some developers like to go into a code freeze prior to launch, so make sure this final review of the site pre-launch gives them enough time to fix anything prior to a code freeze. A comprehensive review of the development/staging site can often get in front of any potential launch issues. While it can feel overwhelming, the more you can identify now, the more confident you can feel launching the site.
While this pre-launch review can be very detailed, since it’s really the last opportunity to put fixes in place, here are a few commonly reviewed/missed items:
- Does each page have an <h1> title?
- Does every page likely to be a key organic landing page have a unique title and meta description?
- Is the sitemap updated and ready for launch with the new URLs
- Are all the 301 redirects correct and in place?
- Is the new site mobile-friendly?
Bonus Tip: Don’t launch the new site on a Friday or a weekend. You want to be all hands on deck when a new site launches for a number of reasons, but for SEO, you will want to check for red flags and prioritize fixes. The site won’t be perfect at launch, and not everything will get done in the development review. That’s okay! But when the site goes live, look for the following:
- Did you update Robots.txt so the site could be crawled?
- Are all of the tracking scripts (Google Analytics, Google Tag Manager, Facebook, etc…) firing/collecting data?
- Are there any inadvertent NOINDEX tags on individual pages?
Perform Post-Launch Review
If you don’t have any remaining red flags to prioritize, let the site breathe a little. If you’ve done these steps, you’ll feel at least somewhat comfortable in what additional items you’ll have to work through, so give the site 2-4 weeks and collect data. You will undoubtedly find that pages were missed in the 301 redirect process or a couple of pages are missing title tags. This is completely normal, but this review after the site launches is really your first glimpse into whether you came out flat, down, or ahead with the new site. If you do this too early, you could be missing crucial data points that may be telling a different (but not bad) story. Now’s the time to lean in and start planning your strategy post-launch.
This isn’t easy if you don’t have support. There are risks anytime you update your site or relaunch a new design, and it’s important that you have a good plan in place to mitigate those risks. The last thing you want is to feel like all the effort you put into your old site is lost and like you’re starting from scratch. If you do find that you need support and expertise, or if you just need someone to tell you you’re not crazy… Yeah, we do that.