How can you ensure that your website’s SEO rankings and organic traffic aren’t lost when you’re getting a new website developed? It’s a question we get often from clients, and with valid reason – nobody wants to see their hard-won SEO gains get wiped away. So we’ve come up with a list of essentials that you or your web developer need to address before you flick the switch.
- On-page SEO and Content
- Top Level Domain and Hosting Location
- Website Structure
- 301 redirects
- The Testing Server
- Post Launch Tips
Transfer any page titles, meta descriptions, the use of heading tags over to the most relevant pages on the new website. For example, your new homepage’s on-page SEO should match up with what’s on your existing homepage.
Old Website Homepage Page title: SEO, SEM, Online Marketing | ABC Company Meta description: ABC Company is the number one provider of SEO, SEM and Online Marketing services...New Website Homepage Page title: SEO, SEM, Online Marketing | ABC Company Meta description: ABC Company is the number one company in SEO, SEM and Online Marketing services...
Do not remove large amounts of text content from a page if you want it to keep ranking. It may be part of your redesign strategy to change content to better reflect your brand or services. Modifying content like this is fine, so long as it remains relevant to your existing meta data. However, getting rid most of your current content will not go over well with Google.
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If you’re doing business in Australia, you need to be ranking in Google.com.au, because that’s where your customers are searching. Whether your website gets ranked in Google.com.au or somewhere else like Google.com or Google.co.uk, depends largely on two factors. The first is your top-level domain – always choose .com.au over .net.au, .com, etc.
The second factor is your website’s hosting location. If your hosting company is overseas, you run the risk of your website appearing in the search results for that country, which won’t do you much good if your customer base is in Australia. So when preparing to launch your new website, make sure your hosting location is in Australia.
Other best practices that reinforce to search engines where you are:
- Set your Geo-location in Google Webmaster Tools to Australia
- Set your pages’ Geo-meta tags to Australia
Your new website’s URL structure should be consistent with, if not better than, that of your current website. This is important because it affects how you’ll 301 redirect URLs (more on that below). It also impacts crawlability of the website, i.e. how easy it is for search engine robots to crawl and index your pages. For example:
Your current website may have had a URL such as /shoes-brand-blue You may want to improve the structure of your new website to be something like /brand/shoes/blue
The second structure is easier for search engine robots to crawl and index because it’s based on a clear subcategorisation system – similar to how a supermarket organises each aisle to display groups of related products.
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Implementing 301 redirects correctly is crucial to maintaining your SEO during a website transition. Overlook this step and your rankings and traffic will almost certainly plummet. What you need to do:
- Make sure the most important pages on your current website all have matching or corresponding pages on your new website, and;
- Make sure 301 redirects from current to new pages are in place before the website is launched.
Ideally, every single page should be redirected to its appropriate counterpart on the new site:
Redirect 301 /currentpage.html to /newpage.html
However, this isn’t always possible if, say, one of your current pages is about a product or service that you’re not featuring on the new site. In which case, redirect that page to the category page above it. Going back to the supermarket analogy: if you don’t sell raspberry tea anymore, then point the 301 redirect to your hot beverages aisle.
As a last resort, you can redirect to the homepage. This should only be done if there is no other relevant or semi-relevant new page available.
To manage your redirects effectively, I recommend creating a spreadsheet with two columns: current and new URLs. You can download a sample here to use. To get a complete list of URLs to redirect, simply run a sitemap scan on your current and new websites and go from there. Another option would be to use a crawler program such as Screaming Frog SEO, which will crawl your current website and spit out a list of URLs, along with the meta data for each.
Developing a new website usually involves building it in a testing server. This can be hosted on a subdomain of your current website, e.g. test343.ewebmarketing.com.au. However, if your web developer doesn’t deindex this testing server from the search engines, you may end up with duplicate content issues or even security problems.
The easiest way to prevent search engines from indexing pages being built on the testing server is to implement a robots.txt file containing the following code:
User-agent: * Disallow: /
This simple step can save you a lot of problems down the track.
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<style type="text/css"> pretty colour stuff goes here </style>
Have a look at the source code yourself through your web browser, by right-clicking on the page and selecting View Page Source. If you notice a lot of code like the examples above, ask your web developer about the purpose of it, and if it can be externalised.
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Although not quite to do with SEO, another important aspect is making sure your tracking data is transferred to the new website, or you won’t be able to measure the effects your new website has on your business. Copy over your base Google Analytics code at a bare minimum, as well as:
In most cases, you should not see any drop in rankings or traffic if all these best practices are followed. However, nothing is certain in love, war and Google! From time to time a drop does happen, even if you take every precautionary measure. This is very rare, and your rankings and traffic will usually pick up again within only a few weeks.
I recommend that you monitor your new website daily for the first few weeks after flipping the switch. Things to watch for:
- A sudden influx of 404 errors, crawl errors or general website errors in Google Webmaster Tools
- Traffic and rankings dips, especially for your most important keywords
- Whether your website’s most important pages are still being indexed. You can check this by searching for the new URL in Google to see if it appears. Or you can check cache:yourdomain.com.au to see when Googlebot last visited that page.
By doing your due diligence in following these steps, I’m confident that you’ll be able to transfer your SEO to your new website with next to no problems. If you made it all the way to the end – thanks for reading! I hope you find this list of tips valuable when switching over to a new website. If you have any other questions that I haven’t answered in this post, please ask them in the comments.