The website re-launch checklist

by Colin Temple

First, a quick introduction: I’m Colin, an analyst here at Napkyn. I’ve been working at Napkyn for several months now, mainly with some of our Omniture-powered enterprise clients, but this is my first time contributing to the blog.

We’re well into 2011 and coming up to the end of the fiscal year for many businesses. With pressure to plan out the next 12 months in order to continually grow, many of our clients are looking to refresh or relaunch their websites. (We’re looking at doing the same ourselves–we’re doing some cool new things that we’d like to brag about!)

As web analysts, we’ll be the first to tell you that updating a site’s design won’t immediately equal performance improvement. Without planning, it can easily go either way: a relaunch can offer major improvement to your revenue performance, but it can also kill your traffic, and even with an amazing conversion rate, fewer visitors means fewer visitors to convert.

So, here’s the checklist:

1. Look at the data

Obviously, as web analysts, this is near and dear to us at Napkyn. But it’s something every business should do when making changes to their marketing efforts. You essentially have two options when deciding what sorts of changes you make to your website. You can:

  1. guess, or
  2. know.

If you guess, you could throw out the best-converting pieces of your website. Worst case scenario: your business fails entirely. Looking at your current data will let you know which parts of your site are working, and which aren’t. Worst case scenario: You do as well as you did before.

Everybody wants a sexy brand and that’s not a bad thing, but good design is not success. I’ve seen beautiful sites fail and ugly sites make millions. At the end of the day, you probably want changes that make you more money. Look at your data to get insights on what works well for your business and compare it to others’ data and best practices to get a sense for what has worked before.

Of course, not everyone has a head for this stuff, so if you’re not sure about how to move from guess to know, we can help with that.

2. Manage your URLs

Next up, a tactical tip. If at all possible, try to minimize the changes to your URL structure. Keep in mind that search engines don’t index websites, but rather web pages — and they do this by the URL. Every URL that you remove from your site is a page lost from Google’s index. Chances are good that you remember from when you first set up your website, getting good rankings can take a while. You don’t want to risk having to start over. The number one cause of lost traffic after a site relaunch is almost always a drop in search traffic.

There are some cases where keeping your URL structure is not possible. This can happen because you change content management systems or ecommerce software vendors, and the old structure simply isn’t possible in the new software. Many good systems allow you to set the rules for how URLs are generated, but sometimes this isn’t available. Fair enough.

What you’ll need to do is make sure that every URL on your site still goes somewhere. The best way to do this is with an HTTP redirect — specifically, using the HTTP 301 “Moved Permanently” code. This is a message that is sent by your server to a browser, search engine or any other device that visits your site, and tells them that a page moved, and where it went. Other methods, such as meta refreshes and other HTTP redirects are not as effective in keeping search engine listings, so be sure to use this one whenever possible.

If at all possible, configure your server with a listing of all of your old URLs and their new locations. That way, specific product listings, articles or other pages aren’t lost. If you’re raking well in Google for selling blue widgets, don’t redirect your old blue widgets page to your homepage — point it to your new blue widgets page. This will make sure that your search rankings, incoming links, shopping feed listings and bookmarks are all preserved, and will help potential customers find what they’re looking for.

A new website almost always means a change in search traffic. This will help you minimize the risk of a natural search free-fall.

3. Keep your customers in the loop

If your business has tends to bring customers back for more, or you have prominent customer login or customer serviceĀ  areas of your site, you want to be sure that you don’t alienate them with your new changes.

In customer service areas, inform customers early that the site will be re-launching soon. If you rely on customer involvement with your site, pull a Twitter and let them test the new interface with an option to switch back for now. If that’s not a viable option, provide linked messages to customers like this: “Looking for your order history? Our new site files orders right in your user profile.”

This is relevant to my next point, preparing to measure the results. An increase in page views (relative to visits) isn’t always a good thing when you relaunch a site. Often it’s a sign of existing customers or visitors familiar with your site who get lost in your site. Visitors who are already familiar with your site may be looking for something in particular, and if it’s moved, they can become frustrated.

4. Get ready to measure the switch

If you followed item #1, then you’re making these changes for a reason. Don’t forget to close the loop, either — you need to define the metrics that will determine whether or not this change was a good one. How will you know that you’ve won? Make sure that you’re prepared to handle, and try to make predictions about how the flow of traffic.

Then, once your new site has been online for a while, you’ll be able to compare the data against the plan, and learn whether or not the changes you made had the intended impact.

The technical side to this involves making sure that you actually can measure the change with some confidence. If you’re making significant changes to the deployment of your web analytics tool, you’ll want to be sure that you’re not comparing apples to oranges with this change. If you’re switching tools, try running them concurrently for a time to be sure that they’re on the same page.

5. Develop a testing plan

Even the brightest marketing minds don’t get everything right the first time. Your new website may be miles ahead of your old one, but without data on its performance it’s tough to be certain how it will fare. So, once your new site is launched, you’re not done.

When measuring the switch (item 4 on our checklist), you’ll probably notice a few areas that don’t do quite as well as they did before, or didn’t improve as much as the rest of the site. These may be individual products or product categories that perform differently, or specific traffic sources that react differently to your site.

Identifying the less-successful areas of your redesign early gives you an opportunity to ensure that you continue to make the proper revisions. Start testing areas of your redesign by using A/B or multivariate testing tools. If you had two competing layouts for a new page on your site, test both! Sometimes the results will confirm your intuition, other times they will surprise you.

6. Think of everything

Easier said than done to be sure, so that’s a joke. But if you’re tracking your business through high-level metrics, you’re better equipped to understand where major changes fit in and how to avoid missteps. As web analysts, our job is to make the big numbers bigger, so when you’re clear about high-level business performance, the tactical stuff falls into place.

This list isn’t exhaustive, but following these guidelines can help you make informed decisions around your relaunch, and prevent you from throwing out the things that work.

Colin Temple

VP, Product

Colin serves as VP, Product for Napkyn Analytics. A diverse background in data, software and marketing and an education in logic and philosophy give Colin a unique perspective on where the analytics practice is, and where it should be.

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