December 12, 2013: Out with the old, in with the new! We’re only a few weeks away from 2014, and excitement is in the air, as thousands of business owners are wishing for a shiny new website this holiday season.
I know, I know, the prospect of moving over hundreds of pages of content, while maintaining SEO value, can seem daunting (and not so fun). So, to help facilitate a smooth and stress-free transition, we’ve put together the following SEO checklist to help web owners better prepare for a new website launch:
Pre Site Transition
The primary SEO objective during a website transition is setting up 301 redirects for all of the old web pages that are being moved to new the site. Some questions to keep in mind before the transition include:
- Are you moving to a new web / CMS platform? (WordPress, Drupal, Sitecore)
- What type of web server will you be using? (IIS or Apache for example)
Knowing this information is key because the 301 redirect implementation process will differ depending on these factors. To learn more about 301 redirect best practices and how to use them in different situations, check out this helpful “redirection” resource from Moz.
Once this information has been gathered, you can then start thinking about which webpages will need to be redirected. I recommend putting together a URL mapping spreadsheet using these steps:
- Use software such as Screaming Frog to crawl all of the URL’s on your website
- Highlight and identify the URL’s that will need to be transitioned to the new site
- Match each of the old pages to the corresponding URL for the new website
If the URL’s don’t match up exactly, use your best judgment in determining what would be the most relevant pages for users. You gain no SEO value by redirecting pages to unrelated content, so redirect to your new homepage or sitemap only as a last resort.
Unfortunately, even after implementing all of those 301 redirects, there might be some pesky pages which have been taken down, but remain indexed by search engines. You can prepare for this by having a “wildcard” redirect in place, which will redirect any web addresses like that to the homepage / sitemap of your new site. This will serve as a safety net for any missed or hidden pages that exist.
From the URL mapping list, you should also make note of all of the highly trafficked, “high priority” pages. In the weeks preceding the website migration, start monitoring the key page metrics for these pages – this will serve as a benchmark for judging the sites post-launch success.
After URL mapping is complete, you’ll want to identify some of the most important inbound links to your site to make sure they’re not lost during the transition. Google Webmaster Tools’ inbound link report and Moz’s Open Site Explorer are both great resources to use. The former provides a more specific breakdown of inbound links per page, to help in the identification process.
Additional things to consider:
- Partners and organizations that should be notified
- Ways to use social channels and new content to promote the new website
- Creating a branded 404 error page (just in case something goes wrong)
At Site Transition
At this point, you should be thoroughly prepped for the big move. I recommend planning your site transition around a downtime in traffic: a quick scan of your traffic reports should give you a good idea of the slowest days and times.
Once the new site is up, go through the URL mapping checklist and implement the 301 redirects, starting with the high priority pages. The next few hours should be spent QA testing important pages:
- Directly test the URL’s from the pre-launch list
- Test the high priority pages to see if they redirect to the correct places
- Run a site crawl with Screaming Frog to ensure all pages have 301 redirects
- Check web pages using the search query: site:www.domain.com (swapping domain.com for your domain name) to ensure pages redirect properly
For larger websites, this process can take hours or even days, but try to avoid taking shortcuts – a poorly executed site transition can be enough to ruin a business. After the 301 redirects are in place, you should submit an updated sitemap to Google and Bing Webmaster Tools, so both search engines will quickly crawl the new site.
Post Site Transition
Over the next few weeks, you should be monitoring Google Analytics and applicable webmaster tools programs to make sure key metrics aren’t affected by the transition. Important metrics to track include:
- Page view traffic
- Referral traffic
- Keyword positions (Webmaster tools)
- Indexed pages (Webmaster tools)
If there are no problems with the analytics, you can start your link reclamation campaign:
- Use the inbound link report you put together before the site launch
- Send an email to each website thanking them for the mention
- Provide them with the new website URL that you would like them to use moving forward
While launching a new website can be time intensive and stressful, a seamless transition is possible. Hopefully this checklist can serve as a helpful starting point for your planning. For some additional info on website transitions, I recommend looking at the following articles:
- Navigate a website migration like Indiana Jones
- SEO Website Redesign Checklist
- SEO and Website Migrations
Have some additional web transition tips? Let me know in the comments below, or tweet me @Demicohen!