Get it right, before the launch.
Redesigns are challenging, especially for an SEO team at a company that has not yet done a website migration with SEO properly integrated into every facet of the project. Doing it right is worth the investment and will reap massive rewards. To help guide you through the landmines, I offer a few tips based on the misses I've seen when auditing SEO programs and working on redesign projects. Redesigns are not easy; the level of effort for the SEO team is underestimated by both managers and the SEO team because they do not realize how ingrained in the process SEO needs to be.
Train the Project Team
Bringing in a firm to do SEO training before a redesign project is valuable because it brings SEO concepts to the forefront, and a good trainer knows how to get the team thinking about both SEO concepts and different approaches in the upcoming redesign project. Training doesn't have to be a full day; adjust the scope to the size of the knowledge gaps.
Questions to ask yourself:
Redefine the Keyword Strategy
Overhaul (or create) your targeted keyword list before the redesign and site migration, so that the keyword strategies are consistent with the goals of the new site, and the new site has what is needed to rank high for primary keywords.
Contribute to the Wireframes
Invest the time with designers at the beginning of the design phase to ensure that pages are designed with SEO best practices in mind. Make sure that the designs presented to the project team are SEO approved so that no one gets married to a design that isn't search engine-friendly.
Make the New Information Architecture Keyword Driven (at Least a Little):
Work with the person or team defining the information architecture and taxonomy. Ensure that the content is semantically defined and aligned.
Write the SEO Requirements
Here's one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen when auditing in-house SEO: the SEO gives a few SEO requirements verbally in a meeting, then says "make it search engine-friendly." The problem is that most people do not know what "search engine-friendly" means. To put it into perspective, the baseline SEO requirements that we send to project teams contain over 160 items.
Ensure That the CMS Will Be Search Engine Friendly
Vet the platform and integration vendor thoroughly. Make sure that you understand all of the functionality and inherent SEO risks. Define specific SEO requirements for the CMS and talk with the vendor about them before you sign (many CMS systems are not search engine-friendly out of the box). In particular, ask about customizing and pattern-defining title tags, meta descriptions, and URLs.
Define Search Engine-Friendly URLs
Work with development to understand system URL needs, then suggest a proposed SEO-friendly version of the URL. Watch for parameters, tracking codes, and other common URL challenges.
Define a URL Migration Plan
Define the current information architecture and map against the redesigned site. Focus on strategically passing all page values throughout the new website, with emphasis on semantic alignments.
Conduct SEO Code Checks
Few SEOs are technical enough to conduct proper SEO code checks; as a result, they rarely think of checks, let alone execute them. You can fix many issues during the development phase if you add code checks to the project plan. If you do not have the skills to do this in house, it's worth outsourcing (at the very least for the most important templates on the site).
Improve the 404 Page
There is a good chance that people will hit the 404 page from a search engine after a redesign, so make sure that it drives people into the site rather than to the back button. Some ideas are to link to main sections of the website; customize the content based on content contained in the original URL; and design the page in a way to gracefully display promotions such as free shipping that would encourage the user to take the extra time to find the right page.
QA Test the Site Before Launch, Thoroughly
Too many SEOs either do not QA test a website, or do a spot-check rather than a proper and systematic check. If a site takes months to code, a proper QA test will take several hours and maybe a couple of days. It's worth investing the time to find and fix issues before the launch.
Set up a Monitoring Plan
Before launch, put everything in place to monitor the migration's progress from an SEO standpoint, looking for any signals that indicate an SEO problem to fix.
Jessica Bowman will be giving a presentation, "SEO and Website Migrations: How to Have a Smooth Transition," on Wednesday, March 21, at SES New York.
Want to learn more?
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Jessica Bowman is the director of SEO for Business.com and an independent consultant. Her background includes managing nine websites, in four languages across North America and Europe, in the competitive travel industry. Best known for being an in-house search marketer, Jessica relishes in the human side of SEO - the art of getting things done within an organization, a challenge for most search marketers.
Singapore, 5-6 March
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