- Derek Larabee, Bayshore Solutions
The decision to redesign or redevelop your company's website is a big one. The fight to even get approval for the project is exhausting enough, now you have to get the project started. There's so much to consider during a project like this. Is the target market the same? Is your content speaking to that target in the right tone? Does the brand need an upgrade? You name it, and it is on the table during a website launch. Quite frankly, it’s easy to get lost in the chaos and overlook some of the less exciting pieces of the project. A website launch can be a volatile time for certain channels in your website traffic mix. This is true for all channels, but perhaps the most vulnerable is the organic traffic channel.
Search engines make never ending work out of repeatedly crawling and understanding the content on your website. Any change to that understanding, which is always evolving, can cause serious impacts to your organic traffic volume. Depending on the volume of revenue your website sees from that channel, the impacts of not accounting for SEO on a new website could be extremely damaging to your bottom line. In this post, we'll review the most important actions your team or digital marketing partner should be taking to retain organic traffic during your website relaunch:
- Initial Organic Website Traffic Audits
- Architecture & Content Planning
- Preparing For Launch
- Steps After Launch
Auditing Your Current Organic Traffic Mix
How are organic visitors reaching your website? Which pages are they visiting? These are questions you should have answers to before starting the project. Use Google Search Console and Google Analytics to gain insights into these metrics.
- What pages are performing for your website? In Google Analytics, analyze all traffic channels, but specifically Organic search, to identify which pages are driving the most traffic. Does it look like the page is seeing quality interactions from a majority of users (low bounce rate, high time on site, etc.)
- Once you have a good idea on where the majority of your traffic volume is going on your site, you have to dig deeper into how the users are finding your website. At the keyword level, how is the page performing? Using Search Console filtering tools, be sure to look at brand (searches containing your brand name) and non-brand terms (searches containing keywords that directly relate to the products/services you sell) to get the full picture of your traffic.
Once you have your list of top performing pages and the terms users are searching to find those pages, it's time to do additional keyword research. You may have existing keywords that you target in your marketing mix, but it is a good idea to find any long tail keywords or modifiers that can be helpful when building out a new website page.
Conduct holistic keyword research to be used throughout the project. This should be something you have if you are working with an SEO agency or digital marketing partner, But if you have not done this, it is extremely important to help you organize ideas on your website and understand how concepts relate to one another.
While looking for all out rankings, it is also important to check for:
- Backlink equity – Pages with a large amount of credible backlinks
- Competition between pages – Is any of your website content thin, meaning it lightly covers a topic? A website relaunch can be an opportunity to clean up or "prune" some of these pages to clean up your sitemap.
- Review URL structures of the existing website – Determine what must change (to improve architecture on the new website) and what can remain the same (to prevent ranking shake-ups after launch)
Solicit other stakeholders in your organization:
- Are there any unique business cases that supersede any particular content or keyword approach?
- Are there any future marketing efforts that need to be considered for the new website?
The timing of this research should take place prior to planning any new website architecture or pages since the outcomes from this research could influence that approach.
Applying Keywords to Content and Architecture
Now that you have your list pages that perform in organic search, and you've completed any new keyword research to fill the gaps in your coverage, it's time to make sure you are using this information as you develop your new website. Certain keywords and topics fit well together because of their relevance to each other. Think about where the information you provide to clients overlaps. Where are the related ideas? Which concepts help users understand other areas of your product or service? Determining which topics are similar to each other is a great place to start when planning your website architecture.
Remember not to fix what is not broken. It's easy to get carried away and change page locations and URLs as a way to break the mold and try something different, but if URLs that perform can remain intact during a new website build, that page will likely not suffer as much during the relaunch. When you are planning your new website architecture, make sure you are looking for opportunities to:
- Group similar ideas together to prevent overlaps of information on pages. With each page, ask yourself, what is the unique information being provided to the user with the page?
- Ensure there are parent-child relationships in your URL structure so the PageRank from these pages can pass through to other areas within these URL
- Plan for content in your design. Core pages of websites and the child pages that support them need to be able to provide quality information to users and answer questions in detail. Sometimes designs fall short on providing the space to articulate this message.
SEO Considerations While Preparing for Your Website Launch
The research is done, the pages are planned, and the new content is written. It's almost time to launch your new website. But there's a chance the concerns about what this launch will do to your organic traffic volume have only grown throughout the project. This phase of the relaunch is all about letting the search engines know how the website has changed, and ensuring the previous PageRank you've worked hard to accumulate is transferred to the new pages on your website. Prior to your website launching, make sure you are taking the following steps:
URL Structure & Optimization Review
Do URLs on the site have relevant keywords where applicable? Avoid generic naming where possible. You should be selecting a relevant keyword that matches the value the page is providing for the user.
The trend line below shows the year-over-year (YoY) comparison of non-brand clicks for a core keyword in this website's mix. This website launched in March 2020. This May 2020 YoY comparison looks at this non-brand growth for the new website vs. the old one:
301 Redirect Mapping
Imagine moving to a new house, and forgetting to forward your mail. Failing to map page redirects can cause a big upset for your website that can erase all of the ranking authority of your site. Make sure you are mapping any pages where there are URL changes to the new URL destination for users.
NOTE: Be sure to check your existing website settings for any specific URL behavior. If site settings do not force a trailing slash and either URL version (with or without the "/") can be reached, this can cause issues with how your redirects function.
The data below shows the click trend of a website that launched with poor execution of 301 redirects. Large amounts of the pages once ranking were moved to new locations, while only portions of the site were redirected. The click trend on the website started to decline shortly after relaunch.
Inversely, below is the click trend from a website that saw little disruption in their click volume because of a comprehensive redirect effort prior to launch:
Meta Title and Description Write-up
Make sure these fields set a clear expectation about what the user will find on the page when they click the search result. If keyword opportunities present themselves. These fields should contain the focus keyword of the page that is consistent with the URL optimization above.
Image Alt Text Creation
Search engines don't have eyes to view images, so we have to assist by explaining the content within them to web crawlers. Make sure you are selecting images that are relevant to the content of the page. This will make the Alt text you create all the more keyword focused and valuable.
Speed and Performance Testing
Note how your website is performing for users in your development environment. There may be some performance issues here that can be fixed prior to launch. Look at page load metrics noted in the core web vitals section of Google Search Console, including things like:
- LCP (largest contentful paint): How long does it take the page to render the largest visible element on the page for the user to see?
- FID (first input delay): How long it takes for the page to start responding to any user actions.
- CLS (cumulative layout shift): How much does the page's user interface shift while loading?
Tracking Code Transfer and Testing
Take an inventory of tracking codes on the existing website, make sure the codes and scripts needed on the new website are implemented so they are tracking in a consistent manner with your old website. Be sure to:
- Consider how the new website and any changes might affect certain tracked events, and determine a plan to update appropriate event triggers or recorded actions.
- Test this tracking in development prior to launch so real-time user data is not affected.
Post Website Launch SEO Checklist
Following the launch of your new website, it's definitely time to celebrate, but there are also some pretty important checks that need to take place to make sure your efforts to retain your website's SEO value were worth it. The critical success of a website following launch comes down to making sure the website can be seen by search engines. Following launch, websites can see a lot of issues if certain settings are not confirmed.
Are the appropriate pages blocked from search? Is the .xml sitemap included? Are critical pages that should be crawled still being blocked? Since the development website always blocks search engines, sometimes these settings can be carried over when environments change.
Re-Verify Search Console and Bing Webmaster Properties
Make sure your website properties in Google and Bing are set up and recording organic search data. There are many key data points within these dashboards that can help you monitor performance following launch.
Submit .xml sitemaps
Once you have Search Console and Webmaster Tools, make sure you are submitting your .xml sitemap to be crawled by search engines.
Post-Launch Speed and Performance Testing
You checked these performance items prior to launch, but during the migration from development to production environments, the server and/or resources your site uses to perform for users may have changed. If so, checking for performance again is necessary to identify any issues that might have arisen during your launch.
QA 301 Redirect Mapping
Spot check your 301 redirect file to make sure your redirects are functioning properly. Your SEO team or agency partner will also have the ability to crawl the website to check for any issues too, but nothing beats an old fashioned check of the URLs themselves in the search engines.
Crawl the website
Check for any unwanted internal linking from the development website environment. Depending on how links were embedded during the content population, development URLs can mistakenly be pulled into the live environment and crawled in the search engine.
Correct any Backlink Targets
Depending on the level of change to your page URLs on the site, you might have backlinks from third parties passing through a 301 redirect. Gather a list of your quality link sources and determine if this is an issue. If it is, develop a plan to reach out to these link sources to request an update to the way the site is linking to yours.
Following launch, you should be monitoring your website performance in Google/Bing to make sure there are no issues affecting performance. If you see the number of 404 errors rise following launch, be sure to correct these errors with additional redirects—especially for pages that may still hold SEO value. Also take note of your index coverage. If you see sudden fluctuations in the number of pages in this report, you should be digging deeper to understand why.
Don't let the fear of losing organic traffic keep you from rebuilding your website to better suit your users and evolve your message. The most important thing is to make sure you are considering how to improve and retain existing organic traffic. If you need assistance with retaining your organic traffic while relaunching a website, contact Bayshore Solutions today.
Derek Larabee is a digital marketing manager overseeing the SEO department at Bayshore Solutions.