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5 lessons I learned about website relaunches as an SEO consultant

A relaunch always entails major risks for the SEO performance of a website. As an SEO consultant, you almost inevitably gain a lot of (often painful) experience with relaunches over the years. Here are 5 selected lessons I learned about website relaunches as an SEO consultant.

Lesson 1: Missing content = Missing rankings = Missing traffic.

The first lesson sounds banal, but it is incredibly important: If content is deleted during the relaunch, the corresponding rankings and the traffic generated by them are lost.

In a very large relaunch project that I accompanied as an SEO consultant, everything went like a dream: As SEO consultants, we were involved in the website design right from the start and were on an equal footing with the customer and the extreme communicate with a good technology agency. So we were able to have a great influence on the entire design, usability, information architecture, internal linking, programming, and everything else that makes the SEO heart beat faster. The result is a page that was absolutely state-of-the-art from an SEO point of view at the time and does not have to hide for years.

In the course of the relaunch planning, the customer decided to clean up and slim down the website content, which had grown over many years. At this point we were unfortunately too careless. Here we should have pointed out more clearly what actually seems logical for an SEO:

Anyone who deletes the sub-page on the topic of “catching monkeys in Buxtehude” during the relaunch will also no longer receive any organic traffic on the topic.

After the relaunch, there was of course a lot of screaming when visibility collapsed and a good part of the organic traffic was also missing. Fortunately, we were able to restore the old version within a few months by adding the missing content. However, we would have saved ourselves a lot of trouble if we had pushed this content through with SEO arguments from the start.

Today I start every relaunch project with a status quo analysis: Where is the organic traffic currently coming from? Which contents have good or promising rankings? Which entry pages contribute to the success of my website? This then gives rise to further questions that flow directly into the new website concept: How can we integrate the important content into the new website? How can we improve outdated content to better handle the traffic it generates? How do we replace content that the customer definitely does not want on his new website, but that generates valuable traffic?

If you want to survive a relaunch without losing traffic, you have to start with such an analysis of your content and ensure that the content that generates traffic is carried along to the new website.

Here you will find further reading material on the topic of status quo analysis before a relaunch:
Website relaunch? Identify important content on the old website (with searchVIU)

Lesson 2: Recognize and use the potential of PDFs.

During a later relaunch, I made a bad mistake (at least from my point of view). My heart bleeds when I think about how much short-term potential we left behind because we hadn't properly integrated the PDFs into the relaunch concept.

What happened? PDFs are a special case because the entry traffic that they generate via search engines is usually not measurable with web analysis tools. PDFs do not have a tracking code and therefore do not appear in Google Analytics & Co. So if you rely on the numbers from the web analysis for your traffic analysis, the PDFs will slip through your fingers.

Reasonably reliable data on the SEO performance of PDFs can be found in Google Webmaster Tools and in SEO tools such as SISTRIX and Searchmetrics. The easiest and fastest method to save your PDF rankings via the relaunch would be to pull the URLs of the most important PDFs there and forward them to the new PDF URLs during the relaunch via 301.

BUT:

I'm not a fan of PDFs in the index because, as mentioned above, the entry traffic they generate cannot really be measured, and they usually don't give the user a chance to click further. The only way the user can navigate after landing on a PDF is usually back to the search engine.

THEREFORE:

The content of PDFs that have rankings should be relaunched in HTML pages and embedded in the website architecture.

Of course, the content can continue to be offered in the form of PDFs, but these should not be indexed. The old PDF URLs then have to be forwarded to the new sub-pages with the corresponding content during the relaunch via 301.

With the relaunch, you create a bunch of new sub-pages with interesting content that immediately rank well and, unlike the old PDFs, offer the opportunity to encourage the user to click further and to convert.

Lesson 3: Domain changes always hurt.

The risk of traffic loss is increased many times over if a domain change is added to the website relaunch. The probability of surviving a domain change without any short-term traffic loss is very low.

As an SEO consultant, you can make two mistakes with an upcoming relaunch with a domain change:

  1. Underestimate the risk itself.
  2. Not communicating the risk clearly enough.

How do I know these mistakes can be made? Please do not just ask! : - @% $ #

However, in addition to the risks for many websites, a domain change also brings great opportunities. Internationally positioned companies in particular can achieve long-term traffic gains by consolidating their international website versions on one domain. In this case study you can learn more about the SEO potential of gTLDs (international domains):

Case study: Better SEO performance with international domains

Lesson 4: What to do in the event of a rollback?

Ever heard of a rollback? A customer once panicked me the day after the relaunch by asking me what impact a rollback could have on SEO performance. Since the new website revealed numerous technical problems after the relaunch, which endangered sales, the customer considered bringing the old website back online without further ado.

At this moment the alarm bells are ringing for the SEO consultant: The thousands of 301 redirects that have been painstakingly created are already set up and are gradually being discovered and processed by Google. Some old pages have already been removed from the index and new ones have been added. How can you reverse that?

After a short period of reflection, I recommended that the customer carry out the rollback sooner rather than later, if it was really absolutely necessary. Google always takes a while to process the 301 redirects and the further this process has progressed, the more difficult it is to undo it.

But what happens to the 301 redirects that have already been set up and partially processed? If the rollback takes place, Google will get 404 errors on the new URLs that it has already indexed or marked for indexing while crawling the 301 redirects. A 301 redirect to a 404 page should be avoided at all costs, every SEO knows that.

My recommendation in this case was to completely reverse the forwarding rules that were set up during the relaunch for the rollback and to change them from 301 to 302. All new URLs then temporarily forward to their old equivalents with 302 until the new page goes online for the second time. The new URLs for Google are initially "on hold" for a while and still deliver the right content. In this case, the 302 redirect is used for its actual purpose, namely as a "temporary redirect" until the actual content of the new URL is available again.

Fortunately, this planned rollback never happened, so unfortunately I cannot say anything about the effects. However, I am glad that we have a plan in the drawer just in case.

In the case of sales-sensitive websites in particular, a rollback is always possible if the performance of the new website falls far short of expectations or serious technical problems arise.

Lesson 5: Potential mistakes must be anticipated and prevented.

As an SEO consultant, with every relaunch project you are faced with the difficult situation that you have to prevent potential mistakes from everyone involved. The greatest challenge here is to anticipate the possible errors and to formulate your own specifications accordingly.

Unfortunately, that's harder than it sounds. For example, I never would have thought that the instruction "Please redirect the URLs in the left column to the URLs in the right column via 301" could be misunderstood. That it is not enough to stress over and over again for months that it has to be 301 redirects and not 302 redirects in any case. That you also have to explicitly mention that the redirects must of course take place directly from the old URLs to the new URLs and not the detour of a redirect chain via an intermediate URL. Since a relaunch, which did not go so well with these points, I know better and will communicate even more clearly in the future, because:

The job of the SEO consultant is that the SEO-relevant points are 100% clear to everyone involved and that everything is implemented correctly during the relaunch.

I hope that these 5 lessons can help you a bit with your future relaunch projects. After the relaunch is before the relaunch. Enjoy your work!

If you want to learn more about relaunches and want to have fewer sleepless nights on your future relaunches, I recommend stopping by searchVIU. We will publish more about relaunches there in the next few weeks.

Eoghan worked for us as a consultant until 2016. At our locations in Brussels and Pontevedra, he oversaw international and multilingual online marketing projects. Today he works as a co-founder of searchVIU, a tool for advanced search engine optimization. Watch out! "Eoghan" is Irish and is pronounced like the English first name "Owen". You can find more reading material by Eoghan at www.rebelytics.com.