Web site redesign is an issue that typically generates a lot of feedback. People often write — not before they launch a new version of a site — but shortly after. They’re confused about exactly what should happen during a launch in terms of rankings, crawling, and indexing. In this column, I offer a brief field manual for what to expect during a site relaunch.
The First 30 Days
Similar to how people watch a U.S. president’s first 100 days in office to glean some insight about how the administration will function, you should closely observe the first 30 to 45 days of a new site’s existence to understand how to proceed with the site’s long-term optimization.
First, make sure you’ve prepared for the relaunch as best you can. Read “Updated Techniques for Launching a Redesigned Site” and “Simple Steps for Complex Site Redesign” to learn more. Then, when you finally flip the switch, the first few days of analytics frequently show either large gains or large dives. Most of the time you can relax, because in both cases they usually don’t last long.
After launching the new version of a site, we often see a large spike of organic search traffic for a day or two. Perhaps your site is benefiting from the crossover of old and new URLs. I wish I could offer a more in-depth explanation. Regardless of the logic behind it, the spike typically tapers off after time, often between two days and a week. At this point, traffic settles into what I call its new track. Ideally, this is greater than the old track, and it should then begin a more gradual growth. This longer (but more shallow) growth often represents the gradual processing and evaluation of your new on-page data, navigation, and the consolidation and winnowing of old URLs.
Don’t be alarmed when, for example, Google Webmaster Tools tells you that your site has 4,000 “could not be found” URLs during the long weekend that you launch or that your “time spend downloading a page” shot briefly through the roof. In my experience, if your site is down (or even sluggish) for 15 minutes a year, search engine bots will hit you during that time. Ensure that the pages are fine, then exhale. The gang will come back.
One more caveat: If you’re launching a site for the first time, much of the discussion of relaunch doesn’t apply to you. An initial launch of a site has many more crawling and indexing obstacles that are beyond the scope of this column.
If you see a significant decline in traffic during the first 48 hours after a launch, it’s often just a temporary glitch, and it should at least return to prior levels soon. Still, no one likes to sit on their hands during those long two days, so there are things you can check.
First, don’t just check rankings. Instead, check the traffic sent from specific keywords to specific landing pages, and contrast that with historical data from before the relaunch. This is a far better microlevel diagnostic, and it can help you spot URLs that haven’t been crawled yet, those that have been and are performing well, and those that have been but aren’t yet performing well.
Surf through the new site as a user. Too often, people diagnose launches solely through error logs, header checkers, and Webmaster control panels. Click through 50 or so pages and see exactly what a user sees, including load time, redirection, and overall user experience.
Also, if you see a dramatic fall, make sure it’s real. Is your analytics code installed in your new pages? I typically recommend adding the analytics code during the development stage but enclosing it in comment lines so that all of the testing traffic doesn’t skew the real traffic numbers. Then at launch, it’s very easy to remove the opening and closing comment code.
Similarly, did you change your conversion and funnel URLs so that true conversions actually get counted? I’ve seen several instances of site owners believing their conversions have completely tanked, when in fact, someone simply forgot to update their analytics program to account for the new URL structure.
Similar to most addiction programs, search engine marketing requires a firm understanding of what you can control and what you have little power or influence over. There’s a leap of faith required every time you relaunch a site, and the more you prepare upfront, the softer the landing typically is.
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