Nearly a hundred years ago now, an experiment was carried out by John B Watson and Rosalie Rayner at John Hopkins University in Maryland to prove that humans could experience the same kind of conditioning made famous by Pavlov and his salivating dogs. A nine month old baby referred to today as “Little Albert” was introduced to a range of furry animals including rabbits and rats, which he happily played with. Watson and Rayner began then to strike a suspended steel bar with a hammer whenever Albert played with the animals, startling him and evoking a fear response. After a trial period they stopped the hammer strike but found that simply showing him anything furry like a rabbit, rat or even Watson equipped with a Santa Claus-style beard provoked the fear response anyway. Little Albert had in effect been classically conditioned to react with fear towards furry things.
The experiment was published in the February 1920 Journal of Experimental Psychology and has been causing controversy (over both its astounding lack of ethics and dubious experimental methodology) more or less ever since. What I find interesting about it though is that I see evidence of conditioning of this type pretty much every time I get involved in a website relaunch with a client.
More or less every brand on the planet in ownership of one or more web properties will launch or relaunch a website at least once every three years, and the general reaction I see from marketing teams is generally not too far off that of a certain actress in a certain famous classic movie scene.
One brand I worked with saw their relaunch and website update as a “necessary evil” and was convinced no good could come of it. However while a fear reaction to a website launch is quite rational (unlike poor Little Albert’s reaction to a fuzzy bunny) as there is plenty to be afraid of, with a little forethought and planning you can turn this major investment in your brand into a major SEO opportunity too.
The number one fear I probably come across related to site launches is “loss of rankings” – translated into SEO terms this means mass loss of authority from your website, usually provoked by changing URLs without making use of a comprehensive 301 redirection plan to transit existing authority to your new architecture.
A full site crawl, comprehensive 301 planning and having someone on standby to immediately jump on any post-launch 404s that need mopping up (and there are always some, no matter how thoroughly you think you’ve planned) will actually take care of the majority of this worry, although you should always be prepared to see some fluctuations and drops for 6-12 weeks after go-live. But delving into your site taxonomy for the crawls you need for 301 planning also offers you a great opportunity to clean house and sort out the inevitable creep of orphaned pages, leftover campaign landers and dubious structural decisions that have occurred since you last did this.
A cleaner architecture and fewer dead-ends in your taxonomy means search engines can crawl and index your site more efficiently, which in turn means friendlier bots, better crawler performance and a generally higher organic visibility potential for your website. Not too shabby for an exercise that started as a mad scramble for a list of 301s.
Design & Conversion Path
Design isn’t just about pretty colours and rebranding your logo – it is about the experience your customers have on your website and the ease with which they can do the things you want them to do (consume your content, get in touch or otherwise convert). Too many brands, however, end up with redesigns that are so drastic they see a drop in conversion because their existing customers flee in confusion, or conversion paths that are designed to be pretty-looking but actually turn visitors into confused bumbling zombies because they just don’t work.
There’s a pretty easy way to avoid this happening, though, which is why I generally recommend that any web designer you hire whose first working request is not “can I see your analytics data please” is not a web designer you want to be working with. Remember – only you have the data to prevent conversion-related website disasters.
As well as using your data to make sure nothing goes horribly wrong, you can also use it to effect worthwhile improvements to your conversion paths and user experience, providing additional opportunities for people to engage with your brand through your site. Don’t think of a redesign as a one-and-done – a continuous cycle of measurement, tweaking, improvement and re-measurement is the only sure way to keep up progress. Even better, why not clean up your source code and add some sexy new SEO-boosting markup to your site while you’re rebuilding those page templates from scratch?
What if, when you relaunch your website, your content goes up in flames and users just walk away from it?
This is another common fear, because far too many brands seem to think that a total redesign also means a total content overhaul. Out with all the old, in with all the new. Pro tip: this is not the way to do it. A lot of your site’s authority and equity is stored not just in URLs but the content they hold. So before you wade in with the digital equivalent of an industrial shredder, make sure you understand how your current content is performing so you don’t accidentally obliterate something valuable and tank your SEO as a result.
That’s “how to not mess up your content.” But there’s a lot more you can do to make it work as hard as it should be working for your SEO, your user engagement, your conversion assistance and your brand reach. Here is where you prune – not mow down, but prune carefully – the content you have that just doesn’t do anything. Repurpose it – could it perform better elsewhere? Test, measure, refine and repeat.
Got content that does “okay” but could do better? Rework it, rewrite it, refresh it, send it off to Content Camp to buck up its ideas. Diversify your media use – is now the time to look at that video strategy you’ve been putting off? Could some copy or meta data use a refresh to check it is still optimised for the right queries in the right way? If your website is your rock star then your content should be its lead guitarist – take this opportunity to make sure that really is the case.
The Scary Part
Brace yourselves, this is the scary part. Those of a delicate or nervous disposition may wish to avert their eyes.
This is generally what happens when people feel either insufficient fear (“oh, it’ll be fine, the website will sort itself out”) or too much (headless chicken screaming and panicking rather than sensible risk management and/or use of an experienced agency or consultant to help). Don’t be these guys. They call 4Ps up weeping and asking us to fix the mess (which to be fair we can, but it takes a long time and it is a lot more cost-effective to do it properly from the get-go).
Like these guys who worked with us did.
With all this fuss and excitement it can sometimes seem like once your website is launched the main event is done, but reality is actually the exact opposite. For all the effort and data-crunching, chasing developers with a big stick, smashing of heads against walls and general blood, sweat and tears (and believe me I’ve seen plenty of all of those in the many launches I’ve been involved with), really your website launch is actually not the main event for your brand.
Don’t wait three years until your next relaunch to keep improving and developing your website and its organic search potential. Iterative rolling improvements keep you up to speed with your customers, your competitors and the rapidly-moving search market in general. Your ongoing strategy isn’t the post-credits scene you might want to wait for once the dust has settled. If you do it right, your site launch is just the trailers.
So stick around – the stuff afterwards is where the best action is.
4Ps isn’t just another London SEO agency. To discuss how SEO and content are evolving together in order to keep pace with new developments in user interaction and search algorithms, give us a call on +44 (0)207 607 5650 for a no-obligation coffee and chat about data, marketing and user behaviour across all inbound channels.