When should I start thinking about SEO for a new site? Will I lose my rankings on Google when I redesign my website? What are 301 redirects?
These are just a few of the questions our coaches answer frequently about SEO for a website redesign. In this post, we'll cover the steps needed to position a newly designed site to perform better than an old site in search engines.
The action items are broken into four sections based on when the tasks are best accomplished. Timing is everything when it comes to SEO and a website redesign.
SEO Checklist for a Website Redesign
WHAT TO DO NOW
1. Set up Google Analytics and the Google Search Console. Before you invest in a new website, it's important to collect baseline data about your existing website performance. The two best portals for this are Google Analytics and Google Search Console. Both are free tools from Google.
Google Analytics provides you with general website performance statistics such as how many sessions your website receives, what traffic sources are responsible for, and how each page on the site performs. Here's how to get started with Google Analytics.
Google Search Console is an SEO-specific platform. It helps you understand what keywords are driving traffic to your current website and what pages are most important. It also is a communication channel with the search engine as it provides you feedback on how your site is being crawled and indexed. Here's how to get started with the Google Search Console.
2. Analyze your current organic search traffic. Now that you have Google Search Console set up, it's time to understand the keywords that drive traffic to your site and what pages or posts they correspond with.
Log into the Google Search Console and navigate to the performance section. Look through the list of top-performing keywords. Make notes or export the list.
Change your view so you can see what pages these keywords map to you. You want to make sure to preserve the top-performing pages on the new website. For example, if all of your organic search traffic comes from blog posts, then you'll want to ensure the new site has a blog and that you migrate your old blog content to the new site. Alternatively, if you have strong traffic to services pages, then you'll want to make sure you have a page for each of these services on the new site.
The information you gain in the Google Search Console will inform the site map for the new site.
3. Crawl the live site with Screaming Frog. We want to create a list of all of the pages on your existing website along with pertinent information such as the title tags and meta descriptions. The easiest way to do this is with a tool called Screaming Frog. The free version is sufficient for most websites. Download the tool, scan your website, and export the HTML information. Store this for future use.
4. Dial in your keyword research. We started thinking about keywords in step 2, but now it's time to expand on it. The goal is to have clarity around what keywords you will incorporate into your copy.
Keyword research can be overwhelming. If you aren't already familiar with it, follow the step-by-step process at Pathfinder SEO. We break keyword research into small lessons with actionable assignments. Learn more here.
5. Start tracking your keyword performance. Now that you have a list of the keywords that are important to you, start tracking your rankings. SEO software such as Pathfinder SEO allows you to track your keyword performance over time. We want to start tracking this data now so we have a before and after picture. Learn more about rank tracking.
6. Plan your URL structure. Once you have a site map, you can start thinking about URL structure. You want to ensure your URLs are concise and keyword-friendly. This is an art and a science. Use a spreadsheet to organize your work. Think about nesting similar content into sub-folders to give your website structure.
For example, perhaps all of your blog posts live in /blog/, all of your services pages in /services/, and all products are in /products/. Define the URLs for all of the pages on your website. For frequently updated content such as blog posts, you can follow a standard permalink format like /blog/post-title.
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ONE WEEK BEFORE LAUNCH
7. Create 301 redirects. The search engines have indexed all of the pages on your existing website. They will keep going to these URLs and expect to find the pages intact. These pages also have authority and we want to pass that authority to the pages on your new website. An essential step in successfully launching a new website is creating 301 redirects.
A 301 redirect sends a visitor and the search engines from one URL to a new URL. For example, if your current contact page is at /contact-us and on the new website the URL will be /contact, then we need to redirect /contact-us to /contact.
You have a list of all of your existing URLs from the ScreamingFrog export. Use this list to determine what URLs will be changing. For every URL that changes, select a corresponding new URL that maps nicely.
Once you have your list, you can implement the 301 redirects into your development site. If your site is built on WordPress, Yoast SEO Premium offers easy redirect management. There are also stand-alone plugins such as Redirection that work well. Other platforms such as Squarespace, Shopify, and Wix, have built-in redirection management.
Be sure to have your 301 redirects in place before the site goes live. Here's more information about 301 redirects.
7. Create your title tags and meta descriptions. These are fields in the header HTML of each page on your website. They are utilized by the search engines when they market your pages on the search engine results pages.
Draft your title tags and meta descriptions in a spreadsheet and then implement them on your development site. Here's more information about title tags and meta descriptions.
8. Dial in your alternative text. Alternative text is the written description of an image. It is first and foremost a principle of accessibility. The alternative text on each image is what a screen reader uses to describe the contents of an image.
It is also helpful to search engines. If you haven't already, go through your Media Library and update the alternative text on each image to meet SEO best practices. Here's more information about alternative text.
IMMEDIATELY AFTER LAUNCH
9. Add Google Analytics to the new site. Use your existing Google Analytics account. We like using Google Tag Manager to implement Google Analytics.
10. Verify the site with the Google Search Console. If your domain stayed the same, then likely you'll just need to update the verification method.
11. Create and submit an XML sitemap. This file acts as your website's resume. It includes a list of all of the pages on your new website that you'd like the search engines to crawl and index.
If your site is built with WordPress, you'll want to use your SEO plugin of choice to create and configure your XML sitemap. Here's how.
If your site is built with Squarespace, Shopify, or Wix, you have a built-in XML sitemap. Simply navigate to the help section of your site and search for XML sitemap to get detailed information about how to access it.
Once you have your XML sitemap URL, log in to the Google Search Console and submit it.
12. Test your 301 redirects. Go to google.com and search for site:mydomain.com. This will pull up all of the URLs that Google has indexed. Start clicking on each URL to test to ensure you don't hit any page not found errors. If you do, note it and add a 301 redirect for it.
If you have a small website, this is quick and easy as there aren't many pages to test. If your site is large, then this could be time-consuming. You don't have to test all pages. Just test the top 50 links and look for a pattern. If you only hit one or two page not found errors, then your initial work on 301 redirects was thorough and you're all set. If they are all page not found errors, then your initial work needs additional follow-up as those redirects may not be working properly.
WEEKS AND MONTHS AFTER THE LAUNCH
13. Keep an eye on the results. You have Google Analytics, the Google Search Console, and rank tracking set up. Watch the data on a weekly basis to look for trends. You can expect to see some volatility in a week or two after the site launch. Then, your rankings should stabilize (ideally better than they were before).
14. Communicate with your team. As you watch the results, communicate regularly with your team. If it's good news, then it's fun to celebrate the win with all. If you have cause for concern, it's better to be in front of this. Note what you found and what you are doing in response. For example, maybe you found a rapid increase in page not found errors in the Coverage report of the Google Search Console after launch. Let your team know and get back to work on your 301 redirects.
15. Keep writing content. A new site launch is a time for celebration, but it's not the end of the road. Now it's time to keep evolving. Content is one of the most powerful forms of ongoing evolution for your website. Content is how you share your expertise and it's this expertise that Google values. Learn more about blogging and keep writing.
Follow a Step-by-Step Process
In this post, you've learned a 15-step process to successfully navigate a website transition in the search results. If you are looking to learn more about how to complete each of these steps, consider taking a guided approach to SEO. It includes a series of short, easy-to-follow lessons.
Guided SEO also includes the tools you'll need to do keyword research and track your rankings. And the best part is coaching. Subscribers meet with their SEO coach each month. Get your questions answered and get advice tailored specifically to your business. At $99/month, this can't be beaten.
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