It’s not uncommon for businesses to roll out a new website every 2-4 years. Web technologies, styles and best practices evolve. If you want to remain relevant and cutting edge, a new look may be just what the doctor ordered.
For the most part, re-skinning a website is a simple matter. Just slap a slick new template in place and all is golden with the world. But when the new site undergoes a more significant upgrade, a bit more legwork is in order, and I’m not just talking about the design and development end of it.
As an SEO, we have worked with clients spending years building up momentum in their web marketing campaigns only to see it come to a screeching halt because they didn’t get us involved in the new site design and development process. Even if you don’t get an SEO involved from the beginning of the new site development project (which you should), you need to follow a few rules to make sure your site rollout goes as smooth as possible.
Please note that these are not rules for developing a new website. For that I suggest you download The Best Damn Web Marketing Cheat Sheet!, paying particular attention to the Design Considerations, Mobile Friendly Design and Site Architectural Issues checklists. The rules here are specifically to help you not to lose momentum on a site that has already been optimized and has an established web presence.
Rule #1: Don’t ignore old URLs. They will be important later.
If your new site will be updating or changing page URLs, you might be inclined to think that these old URLs won’t matter anymore. Well, you’d be wrong. One of the first things I do when I know we are working on a redesign/development project is to run a spider through the site and grab all the old URLs. I use Xenu Link Slueth, which produces a complete list of URLs spidered. Hold onto these as they will come into play when the new site goes live.
Rule #2: No half-assing your navigation; put the whole ass into it.
New sites often mean new navigation. Make sure your new navigation is better than the last. There are four main things to consider with the new navigation:
- Organization. Your product/service categories should be the main focus.
- Word usage. Speak your customer’s language, not buzz words that only your company insiders understand.
- Interaction. Avoid having too many or too few options. Make sure it’s easy to use, information is easy to find and you don’t try to throw every possible option at the visitor at once.
- Search Engines. Be sure the new navigation helps with link flow and search spidering of content.
Rule #3: Use only an approved URL structure.
By “approved” I mean, approved by an SEO. Almost never should you use the default navigation structure from any CMS or ecommerce platform, as very few of them integrate smart optimization or usability practices. Make sure your URLs are organized like your navigation and breadcrumb trails using the category and sub-categories you’ve already established. As a whole, anyone should be able to read a URL and know what to expect if they follow it.
Rule #4: Share responsibly. Review your internal link equity distribution.
Not every page is a landing page. Assess your internal link structure to ensure you’re passing link equity to the pages that are most deserving of it while keeping other non-essential pages lower on the link value totem pole. Implement robots meta tags strategically to keep unnecessary pages out of the search result while directing search engines to pages that provide more value to your visitors.
Rule #5: Don’t leave optimized content behind.
If you’ve spent any amount of time optimizing text and tags, you want to be sure to take that with you to your new site. Often when a new site rolls out, so does new content. That’s fine for new pages, but with existing pages it’s a good idea to do as few content changes as possible. The reasoning behind this is, inevitably, the new site will have either a positive or negative impact on your rankings. If your rankings drop, you won’t know if it’s because of the new content or a site architectural issue. Keeping the content the same allows you to rule out that possibility.
Once your site rolls out and you see the ranking impact, you can begin to implement new (re-optimized) content on your pages, measuring the impact as you go.
Rule #6: Maintain order. Use proper coding and heading hierarchy.
Browsers and search engines can be very forgiving of poor code, but sometimes what visitors see isn’t communicated to the search engines. Be sure to implement correct HTML with as few coding errors as possible. Maintain proper heading hierarchy, with a unique H1 at the top of each page and H2s and H3s reserved for content only. By and large, search engines interpret code. If that code conveys a message you don’t want, your search impact can suffer.
This is also a good time to make sure you implement structured data. This helps search engines read and display key bits of information that can be a bonus for you in the search results.
Rule #7: Keep to Yourself. Check for duplicate content and canonical issues.
Every content management platform has different quirks. Make sure the system you use doesn’t cause problematic duplicate content issues. This is especially true for ecommerce sites that use filtering, product categorization and breadcrumb trails. All pages should be substantially unique, and every landing page should have unique content and URLs.
If your new system adds new pages to the structure, be sure each has unique text so it can be a solid landing page. In the case where these pages are not good landing pages, implement a canonical tag pointing back to the better landing page that contains similar content.
Rule #8: Go mobile. Implement a mobile friendly and responsive web design.
Any new web site design you roll out today absolutely must be mobile ready and friendly. This is becoming a larger factor in search results, especially those performed from mobile devices. Make sure your site is responsive on a number of different devices, giving the visitor the best experience possible regardless of where they view your site.
Rule #9: Prepare to be tracked. Install analytics code and working RSS feeds.
In order to assess the effectiveness and performance of your new site, you need to make sure you have analytics code in place. Hopefully, you already have this code on the old side, but do not forget to put it in the new one as well. This will will allow you to see the changes in visitor patterns and how the new site improves the visitor’s experience.
Along the same lines, be sure to implement and/or maintain your RSS feeds. This is especially important for your blogs but you can also implement feed for new products, feature updates, etc. If your CMS adds RSS links into your code that you do not use, be sure to remove them before rolling out.
Rule #10: Be at Peak Performance. Check for broken links and page speed.
Do not roll your site out until you have checked for and fixed all broken links. Broken links happen frequently when URLs change and the content linking to those URLs hasn’t been updated. Run some broken link tools through the site (again, Xenu works great for this) to find and fix all broken links.
You also want to check your site for page speed issues. Go back and fix anything that might slow down your site, including changing servers if necessary. Check for oversize images and excessive code bloat to see what you can do to shave milliseconds off the loading time of each of your pages.
Having followed all these rules above, you are now ready to let your site go live. Go ahead and roll that bad boy out, but as you do, there are still a couple more rules to follow:
Rule #11: Be welcoming. Check your robots.txt file.
Rule #12: Employ evasive maneuvers. Redirect your old URLs to the new URLs.
Remember rule #1? Where did you put that list of URLs when you began this project? Go get it and make sure every URL that not longer works is 301 redirected to the new best location. I would suggest redirecting 100% of your old URLs for at least six months. After that you can revisit your data to see if any of those old URLs have any incoming links to them and/or have received any traffic. If the answer is yes, keep the redirect in place indefinitely. If not, you can remove the redirect altogether.
Bonus Rule: Revisit old friends. Specifically, Rule #10.
Issues that you fixed on the development URL may not translate over to the site’s final destination. Run both broken link and page speed checks again and fix any issues that you find.
While we all like to bend or break the rules from time to time, some rules just are not worth the consequences. I would suggest that these are exactly those kinds of rules. Follow them precisely and you’ll make a smooth transition from your old site to your new one. Miss, skip or ignore any of these rules at your own peril.
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