Guest post by Rand Fishkin
The process of launching a new website is, for many entrepreneurs, bloggers and business owners, an uncertain and scary prospect. This is often due to both unanswered questions and incomplete knowledge of which questions to ask. In this post, I’ll give my best recommendations for launching a new site from a marketing and metrics setup perspective. This won’t just help with search engine optimiztaion but on traffic generation, accessibility, and your ability to measure and improve everything about your site.
Install visitor analytics
1Nothing can be improved that is not tracked. Keeping these immortal words of wisdom in mind, get your pages firing analytics code before your first visitor. Google Analytics is the obvious choice, and customization options abound (for most sites more advanced than a basic blog, I’d highly recommend at least using first-touch attribution).
Google Analytics, or any other package (see some alternatives), needs to be placed on every page of your site and verified. Do yourself a favor and install in a template file you can be sure is on every page (e.g., footer.php). GA’s instructions will indicate that placing the code at the top of the page is key, but I’m generally in favor of leaving it at the bottom to help page load time for visitors (though the new asynchronous GA code is pretty fast).
Set up Google & Bing Webmaster Tools accounts
2Both Google & Bing have webmaster tools programs that monitor data about your site and message it back to you through online interfaces. This is the heartbeat of your site from the search engines’ perspective and for that reason, it’s wise to stay on top of the data they share.
That said, the numbers inside these tools are not perfect and often have serious flaws. The referring keywords and traffic data are, in my experience, far off what analytics tools will report (and in those cases, trust your analytics, not the engines’ tools). Likewise, crawl, spidering and indexation data isn’t always solid, either. Nonetheless, new features and greater accuracy continue to roll out (more of the former than the latter unfortunately) and it’s worth having these both set up.
Run a crawl simulation of your site
3No matter how perfect you or your developers are, there are always problems at launch – broken links, improper redirects, missing titles, pages lacking rel=canonical tags (see more on why we recommend using it and the dangers of implementing improperly), files blocked by robots.txt, etc.
By running a crawl test with a free tool like Xenu or GSiteCrawler, or leveraging a paid tool like Custom Crawl from Labs or the Crawl Service in the Web App (pictured above), you can check your site’s accessibility and insure that visitors and search engines can reach pages successfully in the ways you want. If you launch first, you’ll often find that critical errors are left to rot because the priority list fills up so quickly with other demands on development time. Crawl tests are also a great way to verify contractor or outsourced development work.
Test your design with browser emulators
4In addition to testing for search engine and visitor accessibility, you’ll want to make sure the gorgeous graphics and layout you’ve carefully prepared checks out in a variety of browsers. My rule is to test anything that has higher than 2% market share, which currently means (according to Royal Pingdom): Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera.
There’s a great list of browser testing options from FreelanceFolder here, so I’ll just add that in-person testing, on your own PCs & Macs, is also a highly recommended use of an hour.
Set up RSS feed analytics
5Virtually every site will have some form of structured data being pushed out through an RSS feed. And, just like visitor analytics, if you want to improve the reach and quality of the feed, you’ll need to leverage data.
Feedburner is the de facto software of choice, and it’s very solid (though, good alternatives do exist). Getting your feed and the analytics to track and measure it is typically a very easy process because there’s nothing to verify – you can create and promote any feed you want with just a few button clicks.
One important recommendation – don’t initially use the counter “chiclet” like:
It has a bad psychological impact to see that no one has subscribed to your new RSS feed. Instead, just provide a standard link or graphic and after you’ve amassed a few hundred or thousand readers, use the numeric readout to provide additional social proof.
Tag the actions that matter
6No matter what your site is, there are actions you’re hoping visitors will take – from tweeting a link to your post to leaving a comment to buying a product or subscribing to an email list. Whatever those actions might be, you need to record the visits that make them through your analytics tool. Casey Henry’s post on Google Analytics’ Event Tracking will provide a thorough walk-through.
Once action tracking is in place, you can segment traffic sources and visit paths by the actions that were taken. If you’re pouring hours each day into Twitter mobile but seeing no actions, you might try a different channel, even if the traffic volume is high.
Conduct an online usability/branding test
7Before a formal launch, it can be extremely helpful to get a sense of what users see, experience and remember when they browse to your site for a few seconds or try to take an action. There’s some fantastic new software to help with this, including Clue App, screenshot below:
Last week, I set up a Clue App test for SEOmoz’s homepage in 30 seconds and tweeted a single link to it, which garnered 158 kind responses with words and concepts people remembered from the visit. This type of raw testing isn’t perfect, but it can give you a great look into the minds of your visitors. If the messages being taken away aren’t the ones you intended, tweaking may be critical.
Establish a KPI dashboard
8No matter what your website does, you live and die by some key metrics. If you’re starting out as a blogger, your Key Performance Indicators — RSS subscribers, unique visits, page views and key social stats (tweets, links, Facebook shares, etc.) — are your lifeblood. If you’re in e-commerce, it’s all of the above plus # of customers, sales, sales volume, returning vs. new buyers, etc.
Whatever your particular key metrics might be, you need a single place – often just a basic spreadsheet – where these important numbers are tracked on a daily or weekly basis. Setting this up before you launch will save you a ton of pain later on and give you consistent statistics to work back from and identify key trends.
Build an email list of friends & business contacts for launch
9It’s shocking how a friendly email blast to just a few dozen of your close contacts can help set the stage for a much more successful launch. Start by building a list of the people who owe you favors, have helped out and who you can always rely on. If you’re feeling a bit more aggressive in your marketing, you can go one circle beyond that to casual business partners and acquaintances.
Once you have the list, you’ll need to craft an email. I highly recommend being transparent, requesting feedback and offering to return the favor. You should also use the BCC field and make yourself the recipient. No one wants to be on a huge, visible email list to folks they may not know (and get the resulting reply-all messages).
Create your Google alerts
10The Alerts Service from Google certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s free, ubiquitous and can give you the heads up on some of the sites and pages that mention your brand or link to you in a timely fashion.
Unfortunately, the service sends through a lot of false positives – spam, scraper sites and low-quality junk. It also tends to miss a lot of good, relevant mentions and links, which is why the next recommendation is on the list.
Bookmark brand tracking queries
11To keep track of your progress and identify the sites and pages that mention or link to your new site, you’ll want to set up a series of queries that can run on a regular basis (or automated if you’ve got a good system for grabbing the data and putting it into a tracking application). These include a number of searches at Google, Twitter and BackType:
The queries should use your brand name in combination with specific searches, like the example below (using “seomoz” and “seomoz.org”):
- Google Blog Search mentions
- Google Blog Search links
- Google Web mentions (past 24 hours)
- Google News mentions
- Twitter Search
- BackType Search
You can add more to this list if you find them valuable, but these basics should take you most of the way on knowing where your site has been mentioned or referenced on the Web.
Make email sign-up/subscription available
12Capturing the email addresses of your potential customers/audience can be a huge win for the influence you’re able to wield later to promote new content, products or offerings. Before you launch, you’ll want to carefully consider how and where you can offer something in exchange for permission to build an email list.
One of the most common ways to build good lists is to offer whitepaper, e-book, video or other exclusive content piece for download/access to those who enter an email address. You can also collect emails from comment registration (which tend to be lower overall quality), through an email newsletter subscription offering (which tend to be very high quality) or via a straight RSS subscription (but you’ll need to self-manage if you want to have full access to those emails). Services like MailChimp, ExactTarget, Constant Contact and iContact are all options for this type of list building and management.
Create your site/brand’s social accounts
13Social media has become popular and powerful enough that any new site should be taking advantage of it. At a minimum, I’d recommend creating accounts on the following networks:
- Google Profiles
- YouTube (if you have or will have any video content)
- Flickr (if you have any graphics or images content)
And if you have more time or energy to devote, I’d also invest in these:
- Slideshare (if you have any presentations)
- Scribd (if you have any document content)
- Any industry specific social portals (e.g. in software, this might include places like StackOverflow, Github and Hacker News)
Setting up these accounts diligently is important – don’t just reuse the same short bio or snippet over and over. Spend the time to build fleshed-out profiles that have comprehensive information and interact with peers and those with similar interests to help build up reputation on the site. The effort is worth the reward – empty, unloved social accounts do virtually nothing but active ones can drive traffic, citations, awareness and value.
BTW – Depending on the size and structure of your site, you may also want to consider creating a Facebook Page, a LinkedIn Company Page and profiles on company tracking sites like Crunchbase, BusinessWeek and the Google Local Business Center.
Connect your social accounts
14If you’ve just set up your social account, you’ve likely added your new site as a reference point already, but if not, you should take the time to visit your various social profiles and make sure they link back to the site you’re launching.
Not all of these links will provide direct SEO value (as many of them are “nofollowed“), but the references and clicks you earn from those investigating your profiles based on your participation may prove invaluable. It’s also a great way to leverage your existing branding and participation to help the traffic of your new site.
Form a list of target press, blogger & industry people for outreach
15Depending on your niche, you may have traditional media outlets, bloggers, industry luminaries, academics, Twitter personalities, powerful offline sources or others that could provide your new site with visibility and value. Don’t just hope that these folks find you – create a targeted list of the sites, accounts and individuals you want to connect with and form a strategy to reach the low-hanging fruit first.
The list should include as much contact information as you can gather about each target – including Twitter account name, email (if you can find it), and even a physical mailing address. You can leverage all of these to reach out to these folks at launch (or have your PR company do it if you have one). If you tell the right story and have a compelling site, chances are good you’ll get at list a few of your targets to help promote, or, at the least visit and be aware of you.
Build a list of keywords to target in search engines
16This is SEO basics 101, but every new site should keep in mind that search engines get lots of queries for virtually everything under the sun. If there are keywords and phrases you know you want to rank for, these should be in a list that you can measure and work toward. Chances are that at launch you won’t even be targeting many of these searches with specific pages, but if you build the list now, you’ll have the goal to create these pages and work on ranking for those terms.
As you’re doing this, don’t just choose the highest traffic keywords possible – go for those that are balanced: moderate to high in volume, highly relevant in terms of what the searcher wants vs. what your page/site offers and relatively low in difficulty.
See this post for more tips: Choosing the Right Key Phrases.
Set targets for the next 12 months
17Without goals and targets, there’s no way to know whether you’re meeting, beating or failing against expectations – and every endeavor, from running a marathon to cooking a meal to building a company or just launching a personal blog, will fail if there aren’t clear expectations set at the start. If you’re relatively small and just starting out, I’d set goals for the following metrics:
- Average weekly visits (via analytics)
- Average page views (via analytics)
- Number of new posts/pages/content pieces produced per month
- Number of target contacts (from item #15) that you’ve reached
- Social media metrics (depending on your most frequently used platform)
- Any of the key items from #8 on this list (your KPI dashboard)
And each of these should have 3, 6 and 12 month targets. Don’t be too aggressive as you’ll find yourself discouraged or, worse, not taking your own targets seriously. Likewise, don’t cut yourself short by setting goals that you can easily achieve – stretch at least a little.
Every 3-6 months, you should re-evaluate these and create new goals, possibly adding new metrics if you’ve taken new paths (RSS subscribers, views of your videos, emails collected, etc.)
Plug in the SEOmoz Web App
18I know this one’s a bit self-serving, but I’d like to think I’d add it here even if my company didn’t create it (I recently set up my own personal blog and found the crawling, rank tracking and new GA integration features pretty awesome for monitoring the growth of a new site).
The SEOmoz Web App has a number of cool tracking and monitoring features, as well as recommendations for optimizing pages targeting keywords, that make it valuable for new sites that are launching. The crawl system can serve to help with #3 on this list at the outset, but ongoing, it continues to crawl pages and show you your site’s growth and any errors or missed opportunities. Tracking rankings can let you follow progress against item #16, even if that progress is moving from ranking in the 40s to the 20s (where very little search traffic will be coming in, even if you’re making progress). And the new Google Analytics integration features show the quantity of pages, keywords and visits from search engines to track progress from an SEO standpoint.
Using this list, you should be able to set up a new site for launch and feel confident that your marketing and metrics priorities are in place. Please feel free to share other suggestions for pre- and post-launch tactics to help get a new site on its feet.
What other recommendations do you have?