The decisions made in the planning stage of a new site launch can either constrain the site and force it to underachieve or serve as a foundation for seemingly limitless growth.
This guide to launching a new site will help ensure that it reaches maximum potential.
Whether it’s a new site, redesigning an old site, or joining two sites into one, these steps can help your new site perform at its peak potential.
Planning the Site
The first phase of launching a website consists of competitor research, defining the audience and their needs, establishing your goals for the site, planning a content strategy to support the site, and finally, making a promotional plan that works together with the content.
Review the competition and make a list of their strengths and their weaknesses. Competitor research at this phase is simply about understanding what kind of battle your site is entering.
That’s why a review looks at weaknesses as well as strengths. The weaknesses are important because they represent your opportunities to do something better. A link review is useful at this stage, as well.
A full site crawl is not out of order as it can tell you a lot about the sophistication (or lack thereof) of their search engine optimization (SEO) and content strategy.
Does the site contain internal broken links? This may indicate poor SEO.
Are there duplicate title and meta description tags? This may indicate sloppy SEO.
How well or poorly does the site score for Core Web Vitals? A high score may indicate that you’re dealing with a strong competitor.
Competitor research is generally not about reviewing keywords.
It’s about understanding the barrier to entry and thereby getting an idea of whether you have a shot at carving out a comfortable spot in the niche and beating the competition.
Define Your Audience and Their Needs
Sometimes the competition is targeting the wrong end of the user base. It could be they are targeting one gender and excluding the other, for example.
Defining helps to clarify the focus of the content and the visual design and to build a visual identity for the site itself, including a site mascot if you want to go there with it.
Identifying what people need is important for content development, site design, and feature design.
Define Site Goals
Site goals influence content development and site design.
All previous steps to here inform the content strategy. Importantly, the content strategy should be created in partnership with the link strategy.
Websites decide to link to web pages because it fills a need and makes someone excited and enthusiastic about the page.
Identifying what people are linking to adds context to the content strategy.
Will the content attract links?
How will social media work together with the content?
Are there opportunities for acquiring links, particularly opportunities that the competition may have missed?
Successful sites are promoted both online and offline.
Choose a Domain Name
Choosing the right domain is important. You definitely want to avoid negative associations in the words chosen for the domain name.
A popular domain name trend is using a misspelling of a keyword by leaving out a vowel or a consonant or misspelling the word entirely.
But once a trend is copied over and over, it starts to appear more tired than snappy.
For example, in the mid-2000s, SEO companies were branding themselves with the word “Media” as a suffix. So an SEO company called Beagle SEO would become BeagleMedia.com.
Today, naming your SEO company with the suffix “Media” sounds a bit silly because the expectation is that a Media company produces video and audio content.
My perspective on choosing domain names is formed from over twenty years of creating websites, blogs, forums, and consulting for other companies. And having watched trends come and go, I can tell you that following a trend can backfire.
There are (arguably) two kinds of domains:
- Branded domains.
- Keyword domains.
A branded domain is when you have a business name that is a brand name.
A brand name can be based on the founder’s name or surname, or it could be something that communicates usefulness, an aspiration, or subtly communicates affinity with the target audience through the use of jargon or slang.
Keyword domains can be powerful because visitors tend to want what’s in the keyword. My own experience is that a two-word keyword domain can convert at a shockingly high rate.
Having just a single keyword and making it a combination of a branded and keyword domain is a good compromise, like FalafelKing or MattressOasis.
Make the Domain Name Easy to Remember
Avoid complicated domain names. This includes long names, domain names that are difficult to spell, and hyphenated domains.
You can almost never lose by focusing on simplicity and appealing to the widest group of people.
Choose a Domain Name for the Long Term
When choosing a domain name, be honest with yourself as to whether it encapsulates the full scope of what the domain will offer. Branding the domain with the word “shoes” will make it awkward when the business decides to also sell jackets.
Branding the domain with the word “forum” becomes limiting when the publisher decides to expand as a news site.
Sometimes, being less specific or more general is useful because it allows the site greater flexibility to grow.
For more information on domains (including “gotchas” that can drag your business down), read How to Choose a Domain Name.
Design the Site Structure
This is the part where many businesses can end up backed into a corner because of poorly conceived site planning that isn’t flexible enough to grow.
The first part of planning a site is to map out the site structure.
Document what the site intends to publish about; this is the content, services, and products you’ll present to site visitors. This is sometimes referred to as a taxonomy.
A taxonomy is used in science as a way to classify species of animals.
On the top level, you have mammals and then it goes to types of mammals (primates, marsupials, rodents, etc.). From that level, it gets more and more specific.
A taxonomy typically starts at a highly general level (clothes), moves to the category level (shirts, jackets, shoes), and sometimes proceeds to a sub-category level (formal shirts, rain jackets, running shoes), then right on down to a highly specific level (Nike shoes).
This kind of designing taxonomy is similar to the scientific taxonomies in biology. It’s the kind of structure that was used in the old yellow pages and what is used in internet directories.
In the SEO community, this is known as the Pyramid Site Structure. There are other names given to this kind of site structure, but the Pyramid Site Structure came first.
The name is called the Pyramid Site Structure because the site hierarchy resembles a pyramid.
The top of the pyramid represents the home page, which is the most general expression of what the site does (we sell clothes).
The next levels down are the top-level categories and lower down are subcategories then all the way down to the bottom of the pyramid which is wide can consist of thousands of pages devoted to specific products or articles on specific topics.
Read more: John Mueller Recommends Pyramid Site Structure.
Designing the site architecture should follow a similar pattern that can allow for growth, just like with choosing a domain name.
Sometimes it makes sense to give the top-level categories a general and wide topic to allow the opportunity for growth by adding more subtopics later on when needed.
There are three levels of design to consider:
- Overall site level.
- Category level.
- Webpage level.
Overall Site Level
Choosing the CMS
What CMS and theme will be used? This is an important step because it’s going to lock you into whatever system you choose.
When choosing a page builder, theme, or shopping cart solution, try searching for the name of the software plus the word “vulnerability” to get an idea of how well that software is coded.
Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) vulnerabilities are relatively common and seemingly most themes and plugins have had one or two of those.
But if you see a pattern of multiple vulnerabilities every single year, you may want to reconsider that choice.
Don’t just consider what a site looks like or the functionalities or special effects that they come with.
Consider how lightweight the code is in terms of kilobytes or megabytes. See how sites built with that software perform by testing them with Google Lighthouse or Chrome Dev Tools. These tools are recommended for debugging web pages in real-time.
The overall site planning needs to focus on site navigation. Properly planned site navigation and site structure make it usable to site visitors.
Define the user interface features for the header area (top of page), footer area (bottom of page), and along the site.
These three areas are going to help users find the content or products they need. The focus should always be on how the features benefit the site visitor.
Site Functionality and Utilities
Choosing utilities and functionalities that do not overlap or clash with other software is important.
Examples of must-have add-ons:
- Schema structured data.
- Contact forms.
- Anti-hacking defense.
- Newsletter opt-in forms.
- Newsletter subscription management.
- SEO software add-ons.
- Backup utilities.
Planning for site functionality helps avoid overlap between plugins.
Security, anti-spam, caching, SEO, and structured data plugins can all overlap with each other and in some cases may cause in unintended consequences.
No template is ever good enough to use straight off the shelf.
The icons are always never optimized and can be squeezed to be smaller.
With regards to templates, the choice is between:
- Starting with something minimalist and building up what you want.
- Or starting with something that looks like what you want and removing the parts that are not needed in order to get to that magic place that’s your website.
Stakeholders need to agree on a style guide that outlines what everything will look like.
The style manual can include things like fonts, icons, a guide to image assets (widths and heights for images & optimization details), call to actions, buttons, colors, mascot, logo, etc. You want it to cover anything involving the look and feel of the site.
Stakeholders may be those in charge of SEO, web development, content, web design, graphic design, PPC, and whoever are the team leaders.
SEO informs what might be needed for on-page speed and Google’s UX metrics like Core Web Vitals. They can also speak about the optimization of assets and identify what may be problematic before the site is well into development.
Web developers can take the SEO wish list and make it happen. Web developers can identify and remove code bloat, suggest best practices for adding functionality to the site.
PPC can outline what they need a page to look like as can the content side.
All of these considerations should be planned ahead of time in order to have a consistent look and feel and to make it easier to optimize.
For example, determining featured and in-content image sizes makes it easier to create code that will avoid cumulative layout shift by being able to accurately declare height and width dimensions.
It will also help avoid the use of images that are excessively large and of random size, making it easier to optimize images.
The graphic design side can provide feedback on what kinds of images result in the lowest possible weight so that images are measured in kilobytes and not megabytes.
And of course, in the case of a redesign or a site migration where two sites are joined, the SEO and content side need to work together to decide what’s staying and what’s getting redirected to where.
Category Page Level
The Category Level is about defining how you’re going to make it easy to find content within that category.
A structure that makes it easy for visitors to find content or products is important. Sometimes this means showing links to new and popular content or products at the top of the page and lower down presenting an easy way to drill down to subcategories.
Making it easy to navigate to the most popular articles or products within a category is in general a best practice.
If 25% of visitors to a category page are interested in a specific article topic or product section, making it easy to navigate to those sections or specific pages will satisfy 25% of visitors to that category page. That’s a huge win.
The goal for category pages is to give visitors what they want with as little friction as possible.
Every decision made in the design of a category page should be made from within the context of how it serves the site visitor.
Planning in that manner will result in what’s best for Google and Bing and consequently the site’s rankings.
Webpage-level planning is concerned with how the page is structured, what it looks like and how pages interconnect with other pages.
Will there be links to more content at the end of the content, within the content, or to the side of the content?
What kind of content will the product page have?
Will the product or content pages feature reviews?
What structured data is most appropriate for the content or product pages have?
These are the kinds of questions that need to be addressed, answered, and documented so that all the stakeholders can move forward together.
Stage the Site
Minimum Viable Product
Now is a good place to introduce Minimum Viable Product (MVP).
MVP is a product development concept that is a way of forcing a concrete endpoint – goals – for achieving acceptable functionality.
This approach helps to avoid paralysis by analysis, which is where a project remains in a constant state of development and never seems to be ready. A project can extend months longer than it needs to because of the quest to achieve perfection.
By writing down what needs to exist, how pages should look, which pages should be fully complete and functional, a project gains an endpoint that everyone can agree to. It defines when the project is ready to be pushed live.
An example of an MVP decision is not to finish a section of a site that isn’t critical in order to get the site live faster.
The less important section can be a forum, a directory, or some other section that isn’t core to the website’s mission or goals. It can be added in after the site is live and mostly “finished.”
Staging the Site
The final step prior to being pushed live is to stage the site. Site staging can be done online on any server. Just password protect the site and you’re good.
There are also plugins that facilitate staging a site and services that provide a hosted space for staging the site.
For both approaches, moving the site to live is as easy as clicking a button. I tend to like the convenience and ease of a site dedicated to staging the site and being able to push it to the live space once I’m happy with it.
This is the time when A/B testing can be useful for identifying unintended flaws in the site design.
For example, a heatmap app can identify where people are clicking. It can also help identify areas of a web page where people are getting lost or not understanding how to get around.
A/B testing can be as simple as asking people to find something or to read an article and see how they respond as well as asking for feedback.
Sometimes, the font kerning or line height might be off and making it difficult to read. A/B testing might give a clue to these kinds of problems.
Two Tasks Before Launching the New Site
1. Crawl the Site
Before launching the site live, if the current site is replacing an old site or is a joining of two sites, stop and crawl the old site first.
If you’re joining two sites, you need a list of the URLs from the old site (the one disappearing into the second site).
Once the new site is launched, you can now take the list of URLs from the old site and feed them into a site diagnostic software like Screaming Frog.
Screaming Frog will ideally report that all old URLs are redirecting to new pages; they will show up as 301 redirects.
If something went wrong and pages that were supposed to be redirected were not, Screaming Frog will report those URLs under the 404 Page Not Found report.
You can also run all of the usual site audit checks to make sure that the new site is healthy and fine.
The process is the same if you’re just updating the site design or changing URLs.
Run your site audit software (like Screaming Frog) on the site before the update in order to preserve a snapshot of the old site that can be compared to the new site.
2. Back Up the Old Site
The second thing to do is to back up the old site. Download as many files as you can — preferably everything. Download your databases and your images and any other assets.
This backup will be your insurance in case something goes horribly wrong.
For example, if the new site contains malware and backdoors because of an installed plugin, you will have the ability to restore the old site fast and move the new site back to the staging environment.
The Site is Live… Post Launch Diagnostics
Once everything looks good and functions properly, and the MVP goals are reached, it’s time to push the site live. Next comes post-launch diagnostics.
Ideally, all outbound and internal links had been checked while the site was staged. Still, it’s always a good idea to run your favorite site audit software on the live site.
Many people use Screaming Frog and it’s a good software to have for checking a site after it’s been launched. It will tell you about broken links, if redirects are in place, alert you to missing assets, and so on.
But most importantly, you can feed the list of URLs from the old site into Screaming Frog and it will report on missing web pages and other errors.
Mistakes Are To Be Expected
It’s almost inevitable that some issues (usually minor) will present themselves after the site is live.
Some issues can be really bad, such as images downloaded via FTP using the ASCII Data Format instead of the Binary Data Format, resulting in corrupted images.
Most likely, you will discover less catastrophic but still important issues such as pages that display incorrectly, or colors that don’t contrast enough for color-blind site visitors, for example.
Despite our best efforts, issues with the new site are almost guaranteed to be discovered after the site is launched.
Don’t get too upset about it! The important thing is to have the site live and in a 99% (more or less) usable status.
Featured image created by author, April 2021