Before we jump in, let’s take a quick look at what SEO means and what outcomes can typically be expected by investing in it.

SEO can loosely be defined as any action that is taken to improve performance in organic search results, which in turn helps a business to achieve its goals.

In most cases that means increased revenue, either directly or indirectly. There are of course secondary goals within that – increase rankings which increases organic traffic, but your bottom line is what really matters.

Better rankings and traffic alone won’t pay the bills.

How can it go wrong?

Broadly speaking, we believe there are three main strands to get right in a website project:

UX – it needs to look good and be easy to use.

Technology – it needs to be fast, functional and work on a range of devices.

Performance – it needs to generate high-quality traffic that is relevant to the business. Traffic which converts to revenue, leads, or meets other business goals.

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So, search engines are an enabler, helping visitors find the relevant content that is useful to them, easy to transact and in doing so helping your business achieve its goals.

Developing your strategy for SEO is an activity that we advocate happens at the very start of the process. Aligning your site strategy and structure with your search strategy.

Warning bells should be ringing if you hear, ‘We’re just about to launch our new website, what do we need to do about SEO?’.

Of course, there are no warning bells if you hear, ‘We’ve just launched our new website and need you to do some SEO."

Readers of this column will understand that SEO is more than optimising title tags and writing clever content on a few pages. If a site is ready to launch, or it just has, and SEO is no more than an after-thought, a lot of the damage has possibly already been done.

The best advice at that point may be to not launch the site until some of the major issues have been cleared up. Not what developers want to hear after working on a project for a few months! Nor clients, who have invested considerable budget and are eager to share their new site.

We need to launch now. We can fix this later…

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Decided to build a new website using a JavaScript framework? Nice, but, Google’s crawlers will have a hard time crawling that which means it’s going to take longer to index (large parts of it may not get indexed at all).

JavaScipt has become an essential part of the web which isn’t going to change anytime soon. If developers and SEO’s get together early in a project, it’s much easier to discuss options such as server-side rendering, dynamic rendering, or trying to avoid using JavaScript to render essential content and links that you want Google to crawl and index as quickly as possible. Leaving that conversation to a few days before launch can adversely impact budget if you need to go back and start re-engineering how webpages are being built.

Without traffic, there will be no revenue (from organic sources at least, which usually makes up anywhere between 50-80% of your web traffic).

Finally, once you have your new site, its launched and you have managed to avoid many of the SEO pitfalls that need to be negotiated during the design and build phase of the project. Everything looks good, the old site has been taken down and the new site has been released to the masses.

And then…nothing. Organic traffic virtually disappears overnight.

When the old site is removed and the new one goes live, it is important to tell search engines and users where the old site has gone to. Without redirects, as far as search engines are concerned, it’s just gone nuclear and hit the reset button – any authority the old site had built up in the form of external links have been wiped out and it’s back to square one.

Redirecting your old pages to the new ones is an essential step that needs to take place during the transition from old site to new to minimise loss of rankings and subsequent traffic.

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While the redirects are implemented during the transition from old to new, it is critical that they are planned for as early as possible. Scale is a huge factor in this process – an e-commerce site with a few hundred thousand pages will need closer attention than a site with fifty pages.

Scale also plays a part in how you prioritise which pages to redirect. When dealing with a website with thousands (or millions in some cases) of URLs, how do you decide which pages are most critical? Like any good marketer, you should use data to inform your decision making:

  • Pages that have acquired external links from other websites (use Google Search Console and/or a range of SEO tools; Moz, SEMRush, Ahrefs, etc)
  • Pages that have generated organic traffic in the past 12 months (use Google Analytics or your tracking software of choice)

Links are the fuel that allows your site to be competitive and are currently one of the key ranking factors that search engines use to determine your position in search results. They are usually also very hard to come by and take considerable effort to acquire in the first place, so you want to retain as many of them as possible when migrating to a new site.

Bonus tip

It is also highly likely that a website has been through a re-design, re-brand or some form of major upheaval in the past that has resulted in URLs changing and 301 redirects being implemented.

When planning for an upcoming site migration it is best practice to review existing redirects and update those to the new URLs when the new site goes live. This avoids creating redirect chains – each redirect step loses approximately 10% link equity – so you pass the maximum amount of link equity to your new pages.

Timing is everything

Timing is a critical factor when making and implementing SEO recommendations for any web project. The earlier that developers, SEOs, and clients understand the challenges, and a plan can be devised to overcome them, the greater chance that the project will be a success. In any plan, it is vital to:

  • Get agreement and sign-off on what needs done
  • Get agreement on who is responsible for each part of the project
  • Confirm when each part needs to be completed by
  • Outline consequences of not fulfilling responsibilities

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

Having the foresight to deal with SEO challenges before they become bigger issues is something that should be dealt with from the outset of a development project.

The perception of a shiny new website that looks great can very quickly be forgotten if performance doesn’t follow close behind and you end up paying a fortune in PPC just to get back to where you are.

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There are challenges, trade-offs, and risks in any new web project. While the challenges presented by the complexity of a project are largely dictated by client requirements, managing risk within the project is the responsibility of all stakeholders and is dictated by good planning, communication, and collaboration, or the lack of.

Managing SEO risk is no different.