Launching a website isn’t just a simple flip of a switch after the development is complete. What actually happens during a website launch? There are a number of steps to take to ensure a smooth website launch that doesn’t negatively impact your SEO performance.
The Importance of a Launch Plan
Website launches go awry when there is little to no planning ahead of time. In our digital world, where doing business online is the norm, there is nothing worse than having a site that doesn’t work or that is down for an extended period of time. Prospective clients could be trying to access your website, failing, and moving on to one of your competitors.
Overview of a Typical Launch Process
After you have gone through the wireframes, design, development and content entry stages of the project, you enter the launch phase. Here is a general overview of key steps that should take place during a website launch, broken down into before, during and after the actual launch. At Windmill, we have a detailed launch process checklist, and we meet to review the plan, confirming who is responsible for what during the launch. We recommend that anyone launching a website do the same.
Prep for Launch
- On-Page Optimization
- Quality Assurance (QA)
- 301 Redirects
- Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager
- DNS Change and Site Launch
- Check for Broken Links / Submit Sitemap
- Post Launch QA
- Website Maintenance and Digital Marketing
Prep for Launch
Your first step as you prepare for launch is to confirm that the website is optimized for search engines. We recommend going through and checking the basics for on-page optimization : title tags, meta description, keywords, H1 on each page and alt tags for images. Adding this information to the site will help to make sure it ranks in Google and Bing.
Quality Assurance (QA)
Now you have the website optimized, it’s time for QA: making sure everything works properly. During development, the developers test as they program a site, using the most common browsers and mobile views. But to capture any lingering bugs and test on a wider list of browsers, devices and screen sizes, we always recommend having a dedicated QA specialist (or at least several fresh sets of eyes) go through your website to audit for additional bugs and errors. Their job: try to “break” the site. These are the primary items to test for:
- Browser compatibility, by viewing the site in different browsers on desktop, tablet and mobile devices
- Confirm that links work properly
- Double-checking that the site doesn’t still have placeholder text or images with a watermark
- Filling out the forms and confirming they generate thank-you messages
- Making sure all integrations are working properly (i.e. Pardot, Salesforce, HubSpot)
- Purchasing a product as a guest
- Creating an account and purchasing a product while logged in
A QA specialist will have many more checkboxes, but this list captures the most critical items. At Windmill, after our QA is complete, we encourage our clients to go through the site and QA it as well. That way they can feel confident giving the green light for launch.
The next item that should be in place before launching: 301 redirects. This step is often overlooked, but it’s a critical component in ensuring there isn’t a major interruption to your site’s SEO success. You don’t want the user or search engines to end up on a 404 page because the URL isn’t the same on the new site.
Here’s how it works: once the domain is pointing to the new website and the sitemap has been submitted, Google will recrawl your website. Having the 301 redirects in place tells Google to update their search indexing with the new URLs. Your 301 redirects also create a seamless transition for users who may have bookmarked a page or linked to one of your direct pages from a marketing piece or a social post. Redirects ensure the user will automatically be forwarded to the corresponding page on the new site.
Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager
The last item that should be in place pre-launch is Google Analytics. When launching a new site you want to be able to track how well it is performing. Ideally, you are using the same Google Analytics account as the previous version of the website. That way you can compare, year to year, how the site is performing. Another item to take care of is to “whitelist” your IP address from the analytics; this excludes internal traffic from the reporting so that your data isn’t skewed by that traffic.
DNS Change and Site Launch
Once on-page optimization, QA and redirects are complete, it is time to start the launch process. To actually launch the website, you will need to make sure you have access to your domain’s DNS, and a hosting account and server where you will host the new site files.
There are a lot of options for hosting; we recommend WPEngine for WordPress-built websites. A WordPress-specific host is built to manage multiple environments, daily backups, site speed and performance, and offers a highly secure environment with great support.
To start the launch process, the developer will move the site from a staging or development environment to the production (or live) environment to finish configuring the site, prior to updating the DNS to point to this new hosting server.
The general public won’t have access to the site on its final domain (URL) until the DNS is updated for the domain to point to the production server, either by a developer or an IT contact who manages your DNS settings. After the DNS change has propagated the web, the site will be available to everyone. You can learn more about this step in our guide explaining the difference between your domain, DNS and hosting.
In addition, since users will be browsing the new site, submitting forms and potentially buying products, the site must be secure. Configuring an SSL certificate to the server adds security to keep data private and safe on the site.
Check for Broken Links / Submit Sitemap
After the site is up and visible to the world, it is always a good idea to check the site for broken links. You should also submit the new sitemap to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster tools. Submitting a sitemap will help the pages get discovered by search engines more quickly.
Post-launch QA is necessary because moving a site to the production environment comes with a small risk that something could break. At Windmill, our developers do a quick QA on the site and double-check that Google Analytics is tracking correctly. We recommend clients do this as well.
Website Maintenance and Digital Marketing
Congrats, your new site is up and running! Now what? Since technologies are constantly changing and being improved, you need to make sure general maintenance is being done on the site to keep plug-ins up to date and to keep the site running on the latest WordPress or other release. Staying on top of these updates will ensure your site stays secure and working properly.
Last but not least, promote the new website on social media, send an email blast to clients, and continue to expand on content and keep the site updated with blog posts. Review the analytics, see how the keywords on the site are performing, and track whether you’re getting the conversions you need.
Launching a new website is the final stage of what can be an arduous planning and design process. A step-by-step approach to launch will ensure that the website that represents so much time, effort and opportunity goes out into the world running at its best, ready to attract your ideal customers.