8 Things You Need to Know About a Website Migration for SEO
Migrating a website is never easy; it’s a big project that involves a range of stakeholders, teams, and considerations — and everyone thinks that their job is the most important one. For any business that relies on their website for enquiries and income, hiring an SEO consultant or team to oversee their website migration is a must. Without proper supervision, a migration can go disastrously wrong and result in lost revenue.
But even with all the best plans, checks, balances, and experts in place, there are still a lot of things that can backfire – from URL redirects to archiving old content. Here is what you need to know about your upcoming migration project. Get clued up on migration and SEO to secure the future of your site.
The sandbox is real and you are in it
The sandbox effect refers to an unofficial period after the launch of a new website when search engines treat it with caution. Search engines need to ensure that your website is genuine and not built by spammers, and you may struggle to gain ranking traction during the initial sandbox period. It’s easy to see why any large scale changes to domains should be treated with potential mistrust by Google — it could be the sign of a site takeover or a change of business direction.
Your domain will be no exception, and you should be prepared for a short tricky period during which Google will be re-indexing your site, and your rankings will fluctuate. They will (hopefully) return to a more stable state as the situation settles down, but it’s advisable to avoid any over-engineered link building in this period in order to not aggravate the issue.
The fewer site changes you make, the more stable this period will be. At the same time, however, sometimes big site overhauls are unavoidable.
Make the transition as easy as possible for search engines: submit your site to Google for reindexing via Search Console, make sure everything is correctly tagged up, and ensure that you’ve got a robust migration plan that leaves no room for technical SEO blunders.
The truth of the matter is that most websites do take a small rankings hit during migration. While some of them recover, others come back to the search engine result pages in slightly different positions. If you migrate your website to a completely new domain, you will lose your trust track record and link equity as long as you don’t redirect the old domain to the new — and even then it’s not a 100% transfer. Just switching on a new web design with fresh content is slightly easier for search engines to process, but large scale on-page changes will still invite scrutiny.
Just be realistic about where your rankings are going to be a few weeks after the launch, set up some rank tracking tools, and keep coming back to them to see how things are fluctuating.
Be careful about archiving old content
A lot of businesses feel tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to old content during a migration.
It can be very tempting to throw out older blog posts, but if your site is filled with niche-relevant content, especially content that attracts visitors, you should think very carefully about axing a whole lot of posts.
Even if things you wrote three or four years ago don’t seem relevant to you today, they still give your brand a great context and backstory — and users may still be landing on your earlier, more ‘basic’ posts for information. Even if a blog post ranks well for random keywords that don’t have commercial value, it’s still good to get traffic to your site — the users might stick around and see what else you have to say.
If retaining a big part of your older content is unavoidable, it’s recommended that you have a thorough content audit before migration. The audit will allow you to figure out what exactly needs to be redirected and where, and which posts are redundant. Be very cautious about getting rid of niche-relevant content — irrelevancy is a good reason to get rid of something; personal preference, less so.
If you are consolidating service pages or landing pages into one or spreading them out into multiple pages, make sure that your improvements are focused on the user and their ability to better navigate your site. Creating a site that is less user-friendly than the previous iteration is definitely not a good idea. Carefully consider any new menus and information architecture — are you making these clearer for crawler bots and users?
Even if the latest web design trends are geared towards complete minimalism, be cautious about axing lots of copy from your website; this is one of the key ways in which Google prioritizes and ranks websites.
Preparation is everything
Clients often come in wanting a migration to happen at a drop of a hat, but it’s much better to delay the migration and sort out any issues that go live with a less than perfect website — otherwise, your business may never recover.
The devil’s in the details — little things can make a big difference to a migration project. It’s important that even minor issues that seem obvious are documented somewhere — checklists are recommended!
In order to avoid frustration and unnecessary delays, it’s really important that all stakeholders, from developers and managers to designers and copywriters, have a clear pathway in front of them. When I am managing a site migration, I like to share my checklists on Google Drive so that everyone has ‘live’ access to the migration progress. Some migration tasks can be handled independently by an external SEO or development agency, so it’s very important that everyone is aware of what they need to do.
It’s really important to mark tasks in terms of their urgency, and make provisions for any absences. It’s the worst feeling in the world when something specific to you is holding up an entire website migration due to lack of organization. Having frequent meetings is a great way to make sure everyone is on the same page — migration projects tend to drag without a snappy project manager.
URLs, redirects, metadata — take your time
When it comes to having a website that is optimized for search engine crawling and indexing, you need to tick off quite a few little admin details (here’s one good pre-launch checklist to help you).
Sorting out your URL redirects is your biggest job when managing the migration — they need to be carefully thought-out; redirects need to be applied in a logical manner that makes sense for both users and search engines — always go for the least disruptive option.
A migration is also a good time to review your URL structure, and see whether there are ways to make it even better and create more of an SEO silo structure. Introducing little details like breadcrumbs can really help ecommerce stores make the most of migration.
Metadata is especially important as it tells search engines and other applications more about your website and its content. Title tags must be unique and need to be carefully reviewed and potentially re-written. It’s also really important to think about your meta descriptions — they should be focused on the user and unique for each page.
You may also want to think about implementing the structured data. Implementing these code changes and tweaks should not take you a long time, but it could make all the difference when it comes to your rankings!
Brief writers well — it will save you A LOT of grief
Especially when it comes to organizing any new content, you ALWAYS need more time than you think.
Writers will need water-tight briefs from an SEO in order to digest keyword data in a productive way. Writers may be tempted to repeat keyword phrases, or ignore them entirely if keywords and optimization aren’t explained to them in the right way.
Sometimes the best thing to do is to pick up the phone or have a face-to-face meeting to clarify a complex writing brief. Some elements can get lost in translation when it comes to email and chat. Don’t be afraid to call a meeting if you feel it’s needed for the progress of your project.
Something will not work on launch day
It’s best to come to terms now with the fact that everything won’t necessarily go according to plan on the day of the launch. It’s much easier not to lose your head when you are prepared for this.
What tends to be a challenge on the launch day is sharing your new site on social media. It’s a clever strategy to send lots of social and email traffic your site’s way, but with URLs that have never been shared on Facebook before, and Twitter cards that aren’t yet whitelisted, there’s a potential for a lot of posts that haven’t loaded their previews properly. Get your development team to prepare all the pages for social sharing pre-launch.
It’s also risky to send a huge blast of email traffic towards a new and potentially fragile site without doing some checks first — segmentation may be your friend on the launch day!
Have a launch plan involving pre-written social media posts and emails — just make sure that you have something in place which will allow for an immediate and robust marketing kick-off. A new website is a great excuse for getting in touch with people; it can be used for months and months for PR purposes, engagement, and links. Make a big deal of the launch and all the hard work you put in, and you will definitely see an SEO return.
Design isn’t a ranking factor, but it DOES matter
Over the years search engines have made it quite clear that a website does not stick around JUST because it looks good — an old-school website is totally capable of achieving good rankings if the content is valuable and useful for the user. Design really comes into play when you start looking at your engagement metrics, and your overall brand equity. Funnily enough, it’s often the design that finally pushes people towards a migration, as they feel like they need to keep up with current trends.
It’s definitely not recommended that you spend lots of money overhauling your website purely based on the most recent design gimmicks out there (parallax, anyone?). Chances are, six months later your website will look outdated anyway. It’s a lot better to invest in tried and tested usability conventions, and build a site that has good UX from the ground up.
Focusing on the user in your web design is definitely one of the key things that you need to keep in mind during a migration. If people don’t know how to use your website, on-page engagement metrics like dwell time will fall and bounce rates will increase — not doing your rankings any favors.
There are many options for reviewing and improving your website design, from hiring a web agency or a development team, to investing in web stores that you can build yourself. WordPress is a popular CMS thanks to its mutability, but there are also other smaller local options to consider. Whatever you decide to build your new website in, make sure that you focus on simplicity and don’t over-engineer your web design. Design often gets a lot of attention and budget, at the detriment of content production and marketing. Remember your website is not a brochure; it needs to work hard for you, and content and online sales are a big part of that.
The best bet — make your site WAY better
When it comes to migrating your website, I recommend that you make a pledge to significantly improve your website. There is no point in going through the hassle and expense of the migration for the sake of a few tweaks here and there — it’s much more cost-effective to make a whole heap of SEO changes at once. Audit your website and approach it in a really analytical and critical way.
Always focus on your customers and your audience. What parts of your current website work best for them? What elements of your service or product will they find most interesting?
If you keep coming back to your customers and your audience throughout your migration project you’ll have a lot more clarity on what is the right route to take.
If you are migrating your website — be realistic about an initial drop in keywords, and keep refining and tweaking your website based on the initial feedback you get from your audience. Make sure that your migration is managed by someone who GETS SEO to protect your rankings and SEO equity.