You are building a new website and your to-do list is full — design, user-experience, navigation, content, and development. It may seem overwhelming to add one more element (search engine optimization) to the process. As a result, SEO is often pushed to the side as a strategy to tackle after a website goes live. But this isn’t the most efficient nor effective approach.
Building a website is similar to building a house. If you don’t wire for cable at the beginning, for example, you can still circle back and add this feature after the home has been built. You would have saved money, though, had you planned for cable before the drywall was installed. Not only would you have saved money (and time) — you’d also have a better finished product, since the cable would have been installed just right for your own personal needs.
SEO is similar. You can circle back and invest in SEO after a new website goes live. But you’ll see far more value if you start your SEO investment now. After all, you likely want your new website to help grow your business. Which means your website will need visitors. And not just any visitor, but rather qualified visitors that are in your target audience. Google, Yahoo, and Bing are just the ticket.
The secret to adding SEO to your web design/development project without getting overwhelmed is to apply a proven process. Here, we share the SEO action items you should consider both pre- and post-launch. Learn how to do SEO for a new website in the steps that follow. We’ll explore the what, why, when, and how behind each action item.
SEO Checklist for a New Website
Understand the basics of search engine optimization.
What: Before you get started with SEO, make sure you and all of the team members invested in the project have a foundational understanding of SEO.
Why: There is a lot of industry jargon and preconceived notions about what SEO actually entails. This can lead to unrealistic expectations around results and timelines, as well as general confusion. Start your SEO initiative out right by going back to the basics.
When: This is the first step, so now is a good time!
How: Here’s an introduction to SEO that breaks the practice into four approachable pillars. Give it a read and check this step off your list.
Select a content management system.
What: Websites are typically built using a content management system (CMS), which is a software platform for managing your digital content. Common CMSs include WordPress, Squarespace, Wix, Drupal, and many others.
Why: A content management system makes it easy to add and edit new content on a website. It allows multiple people (referred to as users) to access the website and collaborate. A content management system speeds up the web design and development since CMS software already has code in place for basic to advanced web functionality.
When: Start thinking about your content management system early in the design/development process. If you are working with a freelancer or agency, be sure to ask which CMS will be used and why during your sales conversations.
How: Not all content management systems have equal SEO capabilities. You can read more about which CMS is best for SEO. Spoiler alert — our favorite is WordPress, but this doesn’t mean you can’t get found in Google using other CMSs.
SEO is one of the considerations for your business when choosing a CMS. The best way to select a good CMS for your business is to know what you want it to be able to do, then ask your designer or developer questions about which CMS can make that happen. You can ask other business owners in your industry for recommendations.
Know your audience.
What: Make sure you know who you want to reach through the search engines. That “who” is your audience.
Why: If you don’t know your audience, then you won’t be able to reach the right people at the right time in the right place. Your business will fail to thrive.
When: You should be thinking about your audience before you start your new website project since you’ll want your website to appeal to the right people.
How: Focus on three key questions and note your answers on a piece of paper.
– Who are your customers?
– Where are they located?
– What problems does my audience have that my business can solve?
For some businesses, this is a simple exercise because they already have a great awareness around their market. For others, getting to know their audience may be the most challenging step.
Invest in keyword research.
What: Determine which words and phrases your audience already uses when searching for your product or services in Google, Yahoo, and Bing..
Why: SEO is not about getting any old traffic. It’s about getting the right traffic to your website, which will increase sales and conversions. If you think about SEO as hiking to the top of a mountain, then keyword research is the step that will make sure you’re at the right trailhead to lead to the right mountain top.
When: Before you create a sitemap or start writing content, and after you have a solid understanding of your audience.
How: Our approach to keyword research includes the following steps:
- Create Categories — List your services or product categories.
- Brainstorm — Brainstorm clusters of keywords within each category. Tools such as Answer the Public and Google Search Suggest are great resources for ideas.
- Quantify — Estimate how many people search for these phrases each month. Most SEO software — including Pathfinder SEO — includes a keyword research tool to give you these numbers.
- Evaluate — Review and prioritize your list based on the following criteria:Intent – What does someone intend to find when they use a particular keyword?
Competition – Do I stand a chance in ranking for this keyword?
Relevancy – Is this keyword relevant to the content on its paired webpage?
Search Volume – How many people type that phrase into Google each month?
Interested in learning more about keyword research?
Take a step by step approach.
Set Up Google Analytics and Google Search Console.
What: Google Analytics is a free enterprise web analytics tool! It tracks information about your website visitors. Google Search Console is Google's search analytics platform that allows you to monitor, maintain, and troubleshoot your website’s presence in Google search results.
Why: Start collecting information about your current website’s performance so you can make data-driven decisions while building your new one. Collect baseline statistics so you can monitor your growth.
When: If you have an existing website, now is the time to set up Google Analytics and Google Search Console. Do so on your existing, live website. If you don’t have a live website, then wait to tackle this step until you do.
Give your new website structure.
What: Create a sitemap and list all the pages that will be included in your new website. Use a hierarchy of pages and subpages so that your website has structure. Put your homepage at the top.
Why: You are ready to move into design and usability. Organize the content on your website so that you can more easily plan important website elements such as the main navigation. A sitemap is also a good way to get all team members on the same page. The search engines appreciate and reward this kind of structure, too. It helps them derive more meaning from your content, so they can more accurately rank your site.
When: Create your sitemap once you have a good understanding of your audience and keyword space.
How: A sitemap is as simple as a spreadsheet listing the pages for your new website and their relative structure. Learn more from Neil Patel.
Write the website content.
What: Copy, copy, copy. You need to invest considerable effort into the words on each webpage.
Why: Your website visitors expect more than just great visuals on a webpage; they also need great copy. The search engines do, too. This is how you share your expertise online.
When: Dive into content production after the steps above have been completed. Some industry leaders suggest a content-first approach where your web copy comes before web design.
How: Your sitemap can act as your list for content to-dos. With your keyword research in hand, you know which words and phrases to integrate into your copy for each page. Now, it’s time to start writing. Grammarly is great for editing and proofreading.
Customize title tags and meta descriptions.
What: Title tags and meta descriptions are HTML tags that live in the header code for each webpage. The code looks like this:
<title>Your Title Goes Here</title>
<meta name=”description” content=”Meta description goes here.” />
Why: Think of title tags and meta descriptions as ad text. The search engines use these tags to generate the snippets (text displayed) in the results list. Customizing your title tags and meta descriptions allows you to market your webpages in Google, Yahoo, and Bing.
Great title tags and meta descriptions encourage a prospective visitor to click on your page in the Google results. Title tags also influence rankings.
When: Draft your title tags and meta descriptions when your website is 80% ready to go live. The new site should already have enough content loaded that you can apply them. You can also wait until your sitemap and copy are 100% ready.
How: Write your title tags and meta descriptions in spreadsheet columns. Then implement them in your website’s CMS. Learn more about title tags and meta descriptions.
Invest in on-site SEO including headers, alternative text, and internal links.
What: Headers (H1-H6), alternative text, and internal links are on-page elements that give the search engines more meaning from and context for your webpages.
Headers break your content into sections. They make your webpages more visually appealing since they allow a reader to scan a webpage. They also give search engines an outline of your content.
Alternative text is a principle of web accessibility. It is applied to each image on your website and makes it possible for a screen reader to describe an image. The search engines use this field to understand images as well.
Internal links allow your users to seamlessly navigate your website. They are useful for when you have more information to share elsewhere on your website. The search engine crawlers also use these links to crawl and navigate your website.
Why: Headers, alternative text, and internal links help ensure your site is sending search engines the right signals.
When: As you are building the webpages on your new website, you’ll want to integrate these three elements of on-site SEO into the pages.
How: Content management systems such as WordPress make it easy to use these three on-site elements. Here are additional resources:
What: The time required to load your webpages is a measurement of speed or performance.
Why: Google, Yahoo, and Bing care about user experience. Why? Because if a website doesn’t provide great user experience, it reflects negatively on the search engine that sent them there.
So, what is the first benchmark of user experience? Site speed.
Your webpage speed impacts your ranking in the search engine results, and even more importantly, conversion rates.
When: Think about maximizing page speed before your website goes live, then continue to invest in performance improvements over time.
How: Before your website goes live, consider these strategies to improve your site speed:
- Choose the right hosting company for your website. Learn more about hosting + SEO.
- Resize and compress images.
- Use a Content Delivery Network (CDN).
Create 301 redirects.
What: A 301 redirect sends users and search engines to a different URL than the one they originally requested. For example, with a 301 redirect, we could direct a person trying to access www.example.com/cats to www.example.com/pets.
Why: 301 redirects have several benefits. You can:
- Seamlessly send users from old, non-functioning URLs to new, functional ones.
- Transfer page value from old pages to new ones with minimal page authority loss.
- Minimize the number of crawl errors on your site.
When: If you have an existing website but are building a new one, you need to think about 301 redirects before sending your new website live. If your new website is your very first website, you can skip this step.
The search engines have become accustomed to your current URLs. They’ve already been stored. Because of their history, those specific URLs have value and authority.
When your new website goes live, Google, Yahoo, and Bing will want to know of and how your existing URLs have changed. For example, if your contact page was at www.mywebsite.com/contact-us and the new contact page is www.mywebsite.com/contact, then we’ll need to create a 301 redirect to point /contact-us to /contact. This way, Google won’t get lost in the shuffle — and you won’t lose potential visitors.
How: Creating 301 redirects for your new website includes three steps:
- Create a list of your original webpages.
- List the URLs from your new website that match each of these pages.
- Implement the 301 redirects in your website’s CMS.
Learn more about 301 redirects and how to implement them in WordPress. Additional resources include:
Great job! You have been thoughtful about SEO while designing and developing your new website! You have a great foundation to build upon in the coming months and years.
There are a few steps in the SEO Checklist for a New Website that occur post-launch. Let’s take a look.
Create a robots.txt file.
What: A robots.txt file a.k.a. robots exclusion protocol tells the search engines where not to go. It gives the search engine crawlers direction on which pages to avoid crawling and indexing. In short, your robots.txt file says, “Search engine crawlers, stay away.”
It looks like this:
Why: It is extremely important to give the search engine crawlers directions for crawling and indexing your new website. We don’t want to waste valuable crawler resources by sending them down any paths leading to duplicate, private or low-value content.
When: Immediately after you launch your new website.
How: Go to www.mywebsite.com/robots.txt. It’s likely that your content management system will have already created a robots.txt file for you. Your job is to review the file to make sure that the instructions being given to the search engines are correct. Read this Ultimate Guided to Robots.txt Files by Yoast SEO to learn more.
Create an XML Sitemap.
What: An XML sitemap is a list of the pages on your website you do want search engines to crawl and index. It is the opposite of the robots.txt file and it tells the search engines where to go.
It looks like this:
Why: An XML sitemap is similar to a resume for your website. It lists your website’s available content and helps the search engines crawl and index the pages, which is your first step towards getting found in Google, Yahoo, and Bing.
When: Immediately after you launch your new website.
How: Your content management system may have already created an XML sitemap. Your job is to locate the file and customize it. In WordPress, Yoast SEO is a great plugin that makes this task easy. Learn more about how to create and customize an XML sitemap in WordPress.
Return to Google Analytics and the Google Search Console.
What: In your pre-launch work, you set up Google Analytics and Google Search Console for your existing website. If you didn’t already have a website, you skipped this task. Either way, now is the time to return to both Google Analytics and Google Search Console.
As a friendly reminder, Google Analytics is an enterprise web analytics tool — and it’s free! It tracks information about your website visitors and how they interact with your site. Google Search Console is a Google communication channel that allows you to monitor, maintain, and troubleshoot your website’s presence in Google search results.
Why: Data matters. These free tools make it easy to base your marketing decisions on hard data in the weeks and months to come.
When: Immediately after you launch your new website.
If you had GA and the GSC set up for your old website, then all you need to do is make sure the same tracking code (GA) and verification code (GSC) have been added to your new website.
Turn your attention to growing your website’s authority.
What: Having a good-looking, functional, and optimized website is the first step towards getting found on Google. Now, we need to turn our attention to off-site initiatives such as link building, local search, and social media.
Why: A great website won’t guarantee great Google performance by itself. Your website also needs to have strong authority, which gets created outside of your website. You can think of your authority as the quality of your website’s neighborhood. In this case, it’s really important to hang out in a good neighborhood.
If this is your first website, then building authority is even more essential. It’s likely that Google won’t even show your new website in the search results until some kind of authority has been established.
When: This will be an ongoing initiative, and it’s a great one to start as soon as you send your new website live.
How: The best way to start building your online authority is by brainstorming to identify your professional relationships. Who do you do business with? Who do you consider friends within your professional sphere? The goal here is to make sure that Google, Yahoo, and Bing are aware of your professional relationships via links from their websites pointing to yours. Learn more about how to grow your website’s authority with a holistic, long-term approach to link building.
In Conclusion — SEO for a New Website
It’s never too early to start thinking about SEO, whether you’re launching a new website or beginning to revamp an old one!
If you’re looking for more how-to information in conjunction with these steps, consider being guided through the entire SEO process by Pathfinder SEO. We share our custom SEO Checklist and give you monthly homework assignments to get your website found in Google, Yahoo, and Bing. Pathfinder SEO also includes helpful SEO tools (such as tools to dial in your keyword research) as well as monthly calls with a dedicated SEO coach to get and keep you on the right path.
Lindsay Halsey is a co-founder of Pathfinder SEO. She has over 10 years of experience working in SEO with small to large businesses. Lindsay focuses on teaching business owners and freelancers how to get found in Google, Yahoo, and Bing via a guided approach to SEO. Stay in touch on Twitter - @linds_halsey.