This week I had a call with a small business owner launching a website redesign in WordPress. He asked me how best to keep his existing SEO and make sure he doesn't lose search rankings during the transition.
I immediately replied that this was a fantastic question. We then talked about common mistakes that occur and how to prevent them from happening with this website redesign project.
Here's the scary part of this conversation: I'm rarely asked about this until the website is redesigned and launched and the damage done. Only then will I receive a website query or Facebook message asking for help.
Unfortunately, that's way too late in the process of protecting your SEO, your search rankings, and your website traffic. By the time you notice a dip in rankings and traffic, the damage has already been done and it's really hard to fully recover.
Since this is such an important topic and one that is often ignored, I thought I would write about it and create a handy website redesign SEO checklist template that can be downloaded and used by website owners and developers.
My website redesign SEO checklist
The best SEO checklist combines content planning and execution with technical aspects such as code and scheme. You can't have a solid SEO without combining traditional content marketing with a solid process and a very strong codebase.
You will see that my list below combines multiple elements before and after the go-live to ensure that website owners have thoroughly reviewed the new website and validated that the existing SEO will survive the transition.
Initial website set up
Set development website to do not track, no index
Check for search engine friendly URLs
Use Dyno Mapper to crawl the existing website to get a complete URL list
Check out Google Search Console or SEMrush to document the list of the best landing pages
Assign targeted or targeted keywords to URLs and create an SEO sitemap
Review the content silos and validate that good parent-child relationships exist
Write updated content of at least 1000 words
Proofread new content for spelling mistakes and grammar
Format new content for readability (eg. Small paragraphs, subheadings, bullets)
Review the content for the proper use of meta titles and descriptions
Double check the top landing pages to validate the high quality content and SEO
Technical SEO Assessment
Check the usage of the header to make sure there is a good overview structure for search engines and human visitors
Check the website on mobile devices to make sure the responsive design and coding is present and working properly
Validate template encoding according to W3 standards
Check the ratio of code to text on live pages
Review and validate schema and structured data
Check images for correct use of alt text
Optimize images for loading times
Update internal links to match the new URL structure
Make 301 redirects for URL changes to existing content
Create a new XML sitemap
Check the Robots.txt file and validate
Website goes live
Do not delete any tracking, no index on the live site
Review the goals of Google Analytics to validate the URL structure and the flow of the new website
Upload the new XML sitemap to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools
Check Google Search Console for any errors and address if necessary
Use Dyno Mapper to crawl the new website and report errors
Download the PDF template
Hopefully my website redesign SEO checklist didn't scare you and you found it filled with standard items that just about any developer or website owner can run.
Many of these steps are done by a human or with a free SEO tool such as Google Search Console. I like free and I like the human touch when working with something as important as SEO and website traffic.
How website design and development goes horribly wrong
I've been working with internet marketing for about fifteen years and I've had a website design company for almost eight years. In that time, I've witnessed a lot of good, bad, and really ugly when it comes to SEO and website development process flow.
In most cases, the process does not fail because someone is lazy or malicious. The process fails due to lack of training and lack of communication.
Here are some real-life examples of where I've found SEO derailed as a result of a website redesign:
The wrong people aren involved in the website redesign project. By the wrong people I mean whether the project is left to the IT department or marketing management and the actual employees working on SEO are completely left out of the process. You can only protect your SEO if the people responsible for the SEO are active participants in the redesign process.
Pretty was considered more important than usability and information. I've watched companies hire an expensive web developer who focused only on large graphics, white space, and today's trends in design. In doing so, they literally removed ¾ of the content, leaving nothing for search engines or human visitors to read and digest. Pretty is great, but it only really works when people can actually find and visit the website.
A company that relied heavily on SEO hired a New York-based design firm that dealt largely with big brands. These brands had decades of exposure and didn't rely on SEO. Because of this corporate client list, the agency completely forgot about SEO and hard-coded critical elements like meta titles and descriptions. Not every website needs SEO, but if your lead funnel depends on it, select a design firm that understands what SEO is and how their jobs play a vital role in protecting it.
The agency created a template based on the client's PSD files and went to a soft launch where the client took over the development website and pushed through content updates. The agency created 301 redirects, but these were irrelevant after the client changed the URL structure during the soft launch. This meant that the hard launch at go-live missed a lot of 301 redirects, resulting in 404s and a loss of search rankings and referral traffic.
In another soft launch scenario, the client used a page builder to create many pages, but in doing so created a mess of subheaders and huge confusion about the content hierarchy. If you've decided to use page builders or even H1 headers in your CMS editor, make sure you stick to best practices and use headers to create an overview for your human visitors and search engines .
The website design and build process was turned over to someone who did not fully understand the CMS software used - in this case WordPress. The freelancer added page builders and heaps of plugins that overridden solid stock-themed coding and created a cluster of low-quality code and SEO. Page content was very heavy in low-content code, CSS formatting was overwritten causing accessibility issues, and multiple SEO plugins created conflicting information for search engines. Don't just go for the cheapest freelancer you can find. If SEO helps boost your revenue stream, make sure your freelancer understands SEO and the impact their actions will have on your ranking and website traffic.
Did my examples scare you or make you cringe a bit? Excellent! Then I've done my job and trained you enough to make sure you keep a close eye on your SEO and don't repeat the sins of other website owners.
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