This week we launched a new website for a law firm that I’ve been working with for a number of years now. The site provides a fresh and appealing new look for them and we’re pretty stoked with how it turned out. The site was developed in collaboration with Artsum and with contributions from Ruth Zuchter and Mirna Lukic.
There are some things to consider when a new website goes live and I thought it would be useful to discuss some of them in this blog post. I’ve found that these points are often overlooked and I’ve seen recent examples of websites for very large organisations miss these. This is especially important for existing sites that have high value search rankings or online advertising campaigns. Because when overlooked the mistakes can be costly.
When a site is re-designed / re-built, often the way that the content is organised will change along with the look and feel of the site. With these changes, the URL or permalinks (page links if you like) will often change. So for example www.thesite.com/about-us might change to www.thesite.com/our-story. When this occurs, if a search engine has a reference to the About Us page in it’s database, this change of permalink will cause someone who finds this page in search results and clicks on it, to get a page not found (404) error. When this happens, search engines, very quickly drop that page from the ranking and/or remove it entirely, which has a negative impact on the ‘findability’ of the site.
In addition, any other websites that are linking to that page using the old URL will now be linking to a page that doesn’t exist and of course, a web visitor who clicks on that link will end up on the 404 error page as well. Which is a negative user experience that often results in the user abandoning the website and giving up.
As luck would have it, there is a way to handle this scenario where a page URL changes. A redirect can be set up to tell a web browser to send people to the new page when they try to browse to the old one. For the purposes of this post, I won’t go into how to set up the redirect (as it will vary depending on what sort of site one has) – and there are a number of ways to do this; .htaccess files, software plugins and URL mappings just to name a few.
One idea then, when creating a new site is to try to retain the same page URL’s especially for key content pages on the site to minimise the number of redirects required when launching the new site. Inevitably though, there will usually be some page URL changes.
What I do in this situation, is to run a tool that rolls through and lists each of the URLs on an existing website prior to replacing the old website. I use Screaming Frog SEO for this (and other SEO tasks). It’s easy to use, you just give it the web address of your site, and it crawls each of the pages and finds the links to all the other pages on the site. I then save this list of pages and URLs to a spreadsheet and use it to compare the links to each of the pages on the new site, making a note of each page where the permalink (or URL) has changed. This list is then used to setup redirects for each changed page.
Depending on how large the site is, this could be a pretty big list and the setting up of the redirects could be a bit of a process. But I would argue that this is especially important for sites that have a lot of content and where the content is widely syndicated.
Once the new site is launched I will run the Screaming Frog SEO app again to double check that all the site links work, as it can be easy to miss broken links, while the site is being developed. Though ideally most if not all these broken links will be picked up in pre-launch testing.
At this point it’s also a good idea to make sure that Google Search Console is updated and validated for the new website. As Google will notify you if there are pages that are displaying 404 errors, providing another opportunity to resolve these post launch. Linking Google Search Console and Google Analytics will ensure that you can get useful information about visitor traffic to your site and especially what search terms they’re using to find your site.
Another critical consideration is updating the URL’s of any Google Ads you have pointing to the website. Google will notify you if destination URL’s are broken and automatically disable any ads that aren’t working. So be sure to allow time when doing the site launch to go through and update the ads that point back to the site.
Taking this approach to maintaining the searchability and findability of content is important to preserve the value of the effort that have gone into Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) for your online projects.