A Webmaster's Checklist to Protecting Traffic and Rankings During a Website Redesign!

— by John Heard            website redesign checklist

Every website needs to go through a redesign at some point. Today's Internet crowd is savvy, sleek and needs to have everything they want at their fingertips quickly and seamlessly.

Depending on the amount of planning you and your team put into the process, it can either be a relatively painless endeavor or a gut wrenching nightmare costing your company thousands of dollars or more in downtime, lost rankings, or other issues.

Consider this article direct research from the school of hard knocks that our staff and members have learned through experience. Over the years, the following tips have surfaced as things you need to think about before, during and after a website redesign. No one is perfect and even the best plans can have holes in them. Do yourself a favor - learn from our mistakes and use the following 4 step checklist to greatly improve your odds of getting through this process unscathed.

Step 1. Get Baseline Snapshots & Site Backup

Prior to launching your new website, we recommend doing some baseline reports, to note how much improvement your new site is over the previous design. We've found quite often this data is impossible to get weeks or months after a site launches, making it difficult to chart improvements - or the lack of them. Consider making reports on the following...

  • Load Time.
  • Conversion Rates.
  • Current High Traffic Pages.
  • Up to date Search Engine Rankings.
  • Bounce Rates, especially on top landing pages.
  • The "Hot List" of important inbound links - these are the ones you don't want to break!
  • Google and Bing Webmaster Reports - export the most recent data and save it for future comparisons.
  • Make a full list of all current URL's the site is using.
  • Check the number of indexed URLs in Google Search Console. This count is considered more accurate than doing a site:yourdomain.com search.

Step 2. Before Launch Preparations

Now that we have our baselines and backups ready, we can start the transition.

  • Do you have a game plan to put the old site back up immediately should there be a major issue with the new one? If not, make one and be ready to execute it.
  • Keep the same URL structure if possible. Directory names, file names, and file extensions should be exactly the same if possible for minimal Search Engine impact.
  • Will email accounts or servers be changing during the upgrade? - Do NOT over look what might happen with email accounts during a major redesign - especially if you're moving to a different server. Make sure the businesses email account users are informed about what steps to take to reconfigure SMTP/POP3/IMAP settings if necessary and make it as painless as possible for them to reconfigure their access.
  • Look for Hidden Content - There are often URL's that won't show up in a site scan, such as form confirmation pages, ad landing pages, email reply text files and other not so visible content that may need to be updated. Look for these URLs, and discuss with the team if possible.
  • On & Off Site Landing Pages - Will the site redesign affect external inbound traffic to landing pages, thank you pages, shopping cart confirmation pages etc.? Sometimes website content is replicated off site, it may need to be updated to the new design as well.
  • Have you addressed methods to eliminate duplicate content on the new site? The best way to stop duplicate content is to prevent it from occurring in the first place.
  • Changing forum software? Have you considered how to move the old content to the new forum or how to make sure your members get migrated to the new forum? Be aware of the huge number of links within a forum you need to update, if you're making changes in the URL structure.
  • If keeping the previous URL structure is not possible, have a game plan on how you will handle the switch in file structure and have it ready to launch at the same time the new site goes live. This would include 301 server redirects, updating off-site links, updating marketing materials, updating PPC ads, etc.
  • Do a complete and thorough backup of everything on the site. Don't forget databases and other important server data including .htaccess and robots.txt files.
  • Did you remember custom error pages, such as 404, 500, etc.? Sometimes these pages are generated by scripts in the backend, you'll want to make sure they look and function correctly after the move.
  • Use a spider/link-checker such as Screaming Frog to scan your new design and find broken links. This tool will start at the URL you enter, such as your home page and follow links that it discovers - so you can start it in a development subdirectory. It's a great way to catch typos in your menu URLs and other on-site links. Screaming Frog has the ability to also check your off-site links to make sure they are working, you can also use to detect many other site errors.
  • Review titles and meta descriptions on the new site. New sites often have screwed up or missing titles.
  • Manually check your site with multiple browsers and platforms before launch. Test the site on Mobile and Desktop platforms with all popular browsers. Run sample pages through Google's Mobile Friendly Test. Don't over look testing form compatiblity with different browsers and platforms!
  • Test Structured Data Markup - Make certain to test your pages with Structured Data Markup, including all variations, with Google's Structured Data Markup Testing Tool.
  • XML and HTML sitemaps with new URLs, Dates, etc. If there has been substantial URL structure changes, such as changing from HTTP to HTTPS, it can be handy to create a NEW Google Webmaster Tools Profile for the new site, this would include submitting an XML sitemap for the new URLs to this new profile as well. It's handy to submit the OLD XML sitemap to the OLD Google Webmaster Tools Profile for the site to encourage Googlebot to discover redirects. This method is also very handy for tracking URL changes in the Google index.
  • HTML and CSS Validation tests of the new design are important, just keep in mind that if the page will render in a modern browser, the search engines will almost always crawl it just fine - even if there are validation errors. That said, it can't hurt to test the new design, you may find some glaring errors that need correction. As always, we recommend cleanly written W3C valid HTML code.
  • All web forms and other interactive scripts on the site. Verify they send email where they are supposed to and/or function correctly. Are the email confirmation messages correct?
  • Test the load time on the new site - is it similar to or faster than the old site? Remember Google has said page load time is an important (we believe small) part of the ranking algorithm.
  • Protect your site during development. If you are using a development server or directory on your current server to work and test the new site, be aware of the major problems it will cause if a search engine robot finds the development site. The very best way to keep the engines out of your dev site or directory is to develop it locally. The next best is to password protect it using .htaccess, this will also help keep snooping competitors out of the site while you're working on it.
  • Review existing RSS feed links if present - avoid changing these if you can, as they can be difficult to update.
  • Will your new site work okay with traffic tracking codes such as Google AdWords and Google Analytics? Sometimes these tracking codes will cause all kinds of problems with CMS systems or cause other issues. It's best to test in some way that the codes work before you go live. Are you using the latest version of the tracking code such as the current universal Google analytics code?
  • Have a plan for adding your current analytics tracking code before launch to all your pages. However, this should be your last step so your testing isn't corrupting your live site stats while testing the new site.
  • Switching to HTTPS during the update - Make certain to create a new profile for the site with Google Search Console using the HTTPS version. Also review our HTTPS migration article if you're changing at this time.

Step 3. Launch Time... It's Go Time, Are You Ready?

Hopefully you've done your homework and you're ready to flip the switch on the new site. Here are a few notes to consider at this crucial time...

  • Do you have a good back up of the old site? It can't hurt to double check your backup and make sure you're ready to switch the site back to the old version if something goes wrong!
  • Be sure to update .htaccess and robots.txt files as needed for the new site, so that any 301 redirects or other features will work.
  • Update AdWords and other PPC campaigns, you don't want to kill your quality score by sending people to broken pages.
  • If your IP address changed for the server - did you update payment gateways or other important sites that have an IP or domain name tracker to validate submissions from your site?
  • Test all email addresses associated with the site and verify they are working.
  • Test Error Pages for example, yourdomain.com/blaublaublau - are the pages working correctly? Test them with our HTTP Header Analyzer to make sure they are setting the correct server headers (missing page = HTTP/1.1 404 Not Found for example).
  • Be sure to remove any temporary meta noindex tags, robots.txt and that any other robots control tags are updated if you have blocked something during the development process. We have seen people go months before discovering the site still had hundreds of meta noindex tags on their pages, which were added during the development process to keep the new pages out of the index. Well, those tags keep on working forever until you remove them!

Step 4. Post Launch, How to Catch Any Remaining Tidbits

You're almost ready to kick back and enjoy the new site, but don't get too comfy yet. There are still a huge number of potential errors lurking in the background - the ones that will have the CEO calling you in from your kid's softball game to fix!

  • Run a link spider again as mentioned earlier, such as Screaming Frog, to scan your site finding any broken links. Review the reports generated for broken links, mixed HTTP/HTTP content, missing or bad page titles, etc. Fix where needed.
  • Double check that you put your tracking code/scripts on your new site's pages.
  • Double check for noindex/robots.txt blocks - Are you certain any noindex tags or robots.txt blocks have been removed from the new site now that it's live?
  • Check for Secure Server Errors - If the site uses HTTPS on all or a portion of the site, make sure to test the security certificate using Qualys SSL Labs Tool.
  • Monitor server logs for 404 (missing page) and other server errors. It's almost a given that after a major redesign, you're going to have some broken links, missing images or other errors. Your server logs are key in finding these errors. Remember, unless you've setup Google Analytics to track 404 errors, you won't see them in those reports.
  • Log into your Google Webmaster Tools and Bing Webmaster accounts to look for any errors the bots are seeing.
  • Get any inbound links that were broken after the process either updated at the source of the link or use a 301 redirect on the server to redirect that URL to the best new location.
  • Are your PPC ads still correct? Linking to correct landing pages? It can be vitally important to review your conversion rates, CTR data and other metrics for PPC after relaunching your site to find problems before it costs your company a bundle. Better to do this very soon after launch, rather than waiting a week!
  • XML sitemap - be sure it's up to date with any new or updated URLs and dates then resubmit it - Or, if you've created a new profile for the site in Google Webmaster Tools, submit the new site map to that account (not the old previous profile). You can test the XML sitemap prior to submitting, which is a good idea. Come back the next day and double check the submission later to make sure the engines didn't find any errors in the sitemap file.
  • Check your stats to see how the new site is doing with bounce rates.
  • Ranking reports won't matter a lot until the search engines have done a deep index of the new site. This can take days or even as long as a month before they decide to reindex the site. However your home page will likely get reindexed quickly, so start paying attention to how newly reindexed pages are ranking.
  • At the minimum, manually test as much of the site as possible with the most current Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome browsers. Ideally, you would test with all major browsers, including mobile smartphone and tablet browsers.
  • Manually test every Web form and other interactive scripts on the site.Verify they send their email or  function the way intended. Review all emails these scripts send to make certain links within those emails are still functioning correctly and they are sending emails to the correct addresses.
  • After the engines have reindexed the site, check to see how it looks in the search results. New menu structures can change Google Site Breadcrumbs in the search results. You may need to re-evaluate menu link text after Google has reindexed the site.
  • Again, after the engines have fully reindexed the site, see if the number of pages indexed has improved over your previous numbers by checking Webmaster Tools at Bing and Google Search Console Crawl Reports. Do the numbers look reasonable based on the total pages on your site, and what the previous percentage of indexed pages was? If not and you've seen a big increase, or drop in indexed pages, this could spell trouble and you should investigate further.

So now that you are armed with this set of checklists, you should feel confident in your upcoming site switch. As with the old carpenter adage of "measure twice, cut once" goes double! Triple check each of these steps for the smoothest transition possible.

"Good fortune is what happens when opportunity meets with planning." - Thomas Edison

Here's to your good fortune ;)