If you’ve been working in SEO for any extended period of time, you’ve certainly had to advise on a site transition. When a site is re-launched, it is vital that the potential SEO ramifications are taken into consideration. At the most basic level, an improperly transitioned site can negatively impact a sites rankings, thereby causing a decrease in traffic, transactions, leads, revenue, and just about every other metric that makes your site a money making machine.

New URL Structure Creation

So, how does a skilled advisor (like you!) help a site traverse a potentially difficult site transition? Review these best practices in the context of your current site transition and start the planning and preparation.

With many re-launches, a brand new URL structure is implemented for the site. To do this right, it is important to keep two points in mind:

  1. Create new, relevant URLs.
  2. Properly redirect the old URLs to the new URLs.

Creating SEO-friendly URLs

When building a new URL structure, it is important to keep the following points in mind to have URLs that search engines will love:

  • Keep the URLs short and relevant, using page-specific keywords.
  • If possible, do not include any dynamic parameters in your URLs (this can quickly create duplicate content issues that are no fun to deal with).
  • When separating words in a URL, use hyphens (-) instead of underscores (_).
  • In most circumstances, opt for sub-directories, instead of sub-domains; search engines tend to see sub-domains as different sites altogether, splitting link credibility amongst the numerous sub-domains.

Creating SEO-friendly URL Redirects

You’ve created your short, relevant, and absolutely perfect in every way URLs. Now what? Well, don’t leave those old URLs hanging! Make sure you give them a proper redirect to the most appropriate new URL. Doing so will help you maintain the majority of your site’s existing inbound link profile, ensure that traffic from existing inbound links are is still directed to the right page, and give a great overall user experience.

Having an airtight redirect map in place is one of the most important SEO aspects of a site transition. To do this properly, keep the following points in mind when creating a great URL redirect protocol:

  • Redirect the old URL to the most relevant newly created URL.
  • Use a 301 redirect, not a 302. This tells search engines that the redirect is permanent.
  • Ideally, ensure that all redirects go straight to the new URL, as opposed to maneuvering through a whole chain of other URLs. This can slow down the crawlability of your site.

Create SEO Baseline Reports

Be prepared… you will very likely experience some immediate and temporary traffic/ranking loss with any site transition, no matter how good of a job you’ve done. Now, it could be a negligible amount but it would be unfair to say that you’d experience no losses. If you’ve created stronger URL structures, better internal navigation, and other improved other important organic factors in the site re-launch, your traffic will likely recover (and even continue to improve!).

To help you get a better idea of where you stand after your re-launch, it is advised that you create baseline reports for all of your key site metrics spanning at least the last year. You can make these reports as sophisticated and detailed as you like but – bare minimum – it is recommended that you take a monthly snapshot for the last twelve months prior to the site re-launch. These metrics could include the following:

  • Traffic (Total, Organic, Organic by Engine, Paid, Paid by Engine, etc.)
  • Revenue (Total, By Channel, By Engine, etc.)
  • Transactions/Leads (Total, By Channel, By Engine, etc.)
  • Average Order Value (Total, By Channel, By Engine, etc.)
  • Rankings (# of Rankings, Position, Engine)
  • # of Indexed Pages
  • Inbound link counts for key pages

Additionally, once the site transition is complete, it is recommended that you create a post-launch baseline report to get a better idea of the impacts of the re-launch.

Don’t Delete Any Vital Code or Tagging

If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it a hundred times: a site undergoes a total re-launch or web developers simply change some of the back-end functionality and all manner of things go missing. I’ve seen canonical tags, code for analytics packages, social toolbars, pagination fixes, and Title tags all be deleted or reverted to an earlier version.  Additionally, ensure that your new site is validated for Google and Bing Webmaster Tools.

Make sure you QA the site prior to its re-launch to ensure that all vital tagging, code, toolbars, and other sundry fixes are still in place. You’ll thank yourself later!

Create Proper XML Sitemaps and Robots.txt

If you’re creating a new URL structure, this will change the nature of your sites robots.txt and XML sitemap. You’ll need to reference the new URLs you want indexed in a newly created XML sitemap. This will help with quicker re-indexation of your new URLs. Additionally, with a re-tooling of your URL structure, you will likely need to re-visit your existing robots.txt file and modify the disallow rules you’ve put into place. Also, don’t forget to update your XML sitemap URL reference in the robots.txt file!

Create a 404 Trapping/Error Page

Most sites I see already do a good job with this but it bears making a reminder. Should a user navigate to your domain but enter a non-existent URL, they should be taken to a user-friendly 404 trapping page that lets them know that the URL does not exist and offer them options to  navigate elsewhere in the site. Additionally – and this is important – ensure that these pages deliver an HTTP status code of 404. This signals to search engines that this is an error page and does not need to be indexed.

In Conclusion

Site transitions are a lot of work for everyone involved: web developers, UX designers, content writers, the marketing department, and – yes, of course – SEO professionals like you. Instead of being a source of stress, site transitions should be an opportunity for growth. While there can certainly be some pitfalls if all of your bases are not covered, following the above guidelines can help you have a much more successful site transition.

To learn more about how to successfully manage SEO during a site transition, download our ebook!

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Dalton Finney is a Senior SEO Analyst with Be Found Online in Chicago. You can find Dalton on Google+