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Best Practices

Death to Website Redesigns Projects

18. 10. 2011

Checklist before going live

This is a must-read before you flick that switch. There are several key pieces of information you should know before you make your new website live to ensure that traffic levels, sales or leads don't disappear.

Whether your website is being updated or redesigned, there are many items that need to be reviewed before the launch of a new website.  Depending on your exact situation, there may be more that is needed than is covered in this article, however many of the key parts are mentioned here.

Alterations to a website that involve large amounts of deleted or moved files, new technology implementation, content modifications, changes in domain names or hosting providers may have a significant impacts.  This could affect current clients, new prospects, partners and often most detrimental, the search engines. Any of these circumstances are potentially a dangerous situation for search engine ranking, which has the ability to cut the life blood of many businesses today.

At a minimum, these should be reviewed to confirm that everything is in order before proceeding.

URLs Are Critical

The main concern that stems from these changes to your website is rooted at the path changes to URLs. For instance, your old website will potentially have hundreds of URLs like www.domain.com/page.php or www.domain.ca/image.jpg.  When a redesign is done and technologies, domain names, hosting providers, file names, or images are changed, this will result in either broken parts or invalid URLs.

Clients, friends, partners, and others, familiarize themselves with URL's, and bookmark pages they like or want to reference again.  The search engines crawl the site and, if designed in a search-engine-friendly way, will find all the files being referenced on the site.  Search engines later place a value and decide how each page, image, video, and/or file will be ranked in the search result pages.  Other websites may then start to link to these different files, referencing images, content, logos, or videos and rely on your website to provide the source of the reference.

Over time, your website becomes a pool of assets for partners, companies, clients, websites and the search engines.  These connections rely on your website to work properly.  A broken site can result in upset clients, poor usability, loss of traffic, sales, prospects and a damaged reputation.

How do you ensure a new website launch goes off without a hitch?

1. Take Inventory. Create a website asset document that outlines who, what, where and when the domain name was registered and hosting provider(s).

2. Domain Name Check. A domain name is a key asset that is the primary link between all of these broken files.  A change to a domain name often has the most dramatic effect.  Make sure you have access to your domain name settings so that when needed, you can change the Name Servers (DNS) or any IP’s.  Note that any DNS changes may take between 24-48 hours for DNS Propagation. That is the time it takes for the update to circle the world and update DNS records at all the different Internet Service Providers (ISP).  It’s only when this is completed that website visitors will see the updated website.  While updating your domain name, it’s also a good time to check the expiration date (and renew, if necessary) and if the WHOIS ownership data is up-to-date.  I suggest renewing your domain name so you have at least a 5 year window before it expires.

3. Setup Website Hosting. Will you be changing your hosting provider?  If so, where is the geographic location of the new provider? If different then your current location, the new location and IP changes can sometimes effect how the search engines geo-target your ranking.  The type of hosting, such as sharing an IP, may also affect the credibility of your site if the IP is the same or in the same range as other poor-quality sites. If you have an SSL, changes in hosting providers will often result in the SSL certificate being re-issuing.

4. Configure Email. If you host your email server with the same provider was your website, the change may affect your email functionality. Get access to your hosting provider’s admin panel and list all of the email accounts and aliases created. Make sure you go through the list and plan changes accordingly to get your email accounts moved to the new server.

5. Have Website Backup. In case anything goes wrong, it is always best to have a back-up plan. Do you have a copy of the old website?  Make sure you have a copy that doesn’t require a connection to the server, commonly needed for databases. This will allow you to easily view any text, images, videos or URLs you need.

6. Create URL List. You should also have a full list of your URLs. Ideally all of them should be indexed by search engines. Are you planning to change any of them? Before the launch is the right time to create a new sitemap and set up permanent (301) redirects to point updated URLs to their new homes.

7. Review 3rd Party Tools. List any tools currently connected to the site.  These may include analytical tools that have code added to each of your pages (like Google Analytics) or any specific files (like verification files for Google Webmaster tools). Third-party sites you are referencing materials from, like YouTube, shopping carts, payment gateways, shipping API, newsletter API, lead capturing or communication applications also need to be included in this list.

8. Adjust Ad Campaigns. Next, review your current marketing efforts. Do you have any ad campaigns driving traffic to your website?  Or even Search Engine Marketing campaigns, such as Google Adwords or Bing AdCenter?  Make a concise list of your efforts and ensure that you have the necessary access and check to see if any changes are need.

9. Update Social Profiles. Also list and review your social profiles.  Links or file references on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the like will need to be revised.

10. Review File Names. If you are able to, it is best to keep the same names of the key pages and files.  This will help keep those files and images intact even though they may have been changed.  The name of the logo file, contact, privacy policy or payment pages, for instance, often have numerous connections.

11. Create a Custom 404 Error Page. A custom 404 error page is just a simple page that matches the design, layout, and main navigation of your site. It’s a page that a visitor sees when they visit a webpage that no longer exists.  It shows a short message of what went wrong and gives clear directions for the visitor of how to find information via the sitemap.

12. Implement 301 Redirects. The safest way to preserve your ranking when web page file names (URLs) have been changed is with the 301 redirect.  In its simplest form, this is a way to tell the search engines that the old page name have changed and to instruct the browser, visitor and/or crawler that any value the old page had be transfer to the new one. The next time the search engines crawls your website, the old domain name or old path should disappear and the new one will take its place.  Note that this does not happen instantly and could take up to a few months, although many of the search engines are vastly improving their crawl rate.

13. Create a Sitemap. Add an XML sitemap via Google Webmaster Central (or Google Webmaster tools) and Bing Webmaster Center (www.bing.com/webmaster/) in order to improve the amount of indexed pages by Google and Bing. These files have special formats and will contain a list of all pages that you would like to get indexed.

14. Analytics Setup. Last, but not least, don’t forget about your analytics.  Ideally you want to keep your same account to preserve the history and evaluate changes based on the same benchmarks. That means you want to make sure you have setup tracking in such way that the same analytics account gets data from the old and new pages. And, obviously, you still have access to your analytics account with administrator privileges.

Now that you have a list of your assets, you are much better prepared for the new launch. You have all of the details to ensure that when you flick that switch to go live things go smoothly.

Even the best of planning has a chance for missed items. Ensure that you have the resources available for any emergency fixes or alterations immediately after the new launch. For this reason, we usually recommend that sites be scheduled to go live in the beginning of the week so that your web company will have their full staff onboard to assist you during the transition.

If done right, your current customers, partners and the search engines should love your new and improved website.  Take it slow and steady.  In my experience, websites that I have launched have almost always improved both usability and crawlability, which improves ranking and ultimately improves the business with higher levels of success.

For more information on website design, check out our Toronto web design or contact us.

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