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8 essential SEO considerations to avoid a site migration disaster

by Kiera Lavington
07th Oct 2016 - 10 min read

In my four years as a search engine optimizer (SEO), I feel as though I have (unfortunately) experienced one too many website redesign disasters. The decisions to improve the site for users, expand the company’s online business offering and, for some, show off a new brand, were made with all the right intentions. The decision to not involve an SEO (or to consider it as an afterthought) was a gross underestimation of the importance of SEO in a website redesign the project, from the beginning.

Here a couple of case studies before some essential advice:

Company #1: “A new website design will bring us more traffic and more sales. Yay!”

This project was indeed undertaken with good intentions: to improve a dated, non-responsive website with an unrefined payment process. Unfortunately, there was very little consideration for the retention of the current historical elements which had built the site’s existing authority. By the time the company realised that they were losing a significant amount of traffic (-60% year-on-year) and thus sales, a severe amount of damage had been done. They realised their need for help and approached the agency I was working for at the time, just prior to their busiest period: Christmas.

The agency reacted with the implementation of a redirect strategy, a scrape of their old website (using a combination of both WaybackMachine and ImportXML) to retrieve their lost category content and on-page optimisation of their most important pages.

Within a couple of months, we managed to get their website into a state which was achieving near to what they were prior to the launch of the new website. But, unfortunately, they had lost so much money during the Christmas period, they were forced to close down.

Company #2: “It’s fine, we’ll just let the SEO agency know about the new website a few days before launch”

The second horror story involves an existing company for whom we did regular SEO work. This company decided not to tell us about their new website until a few days before launch.

This may not have been quite so disastrous if it had been a re-skin project, retaining the current structure or indeed a CMS migration, but neither of those was the case. Instead, we were dealing with a complete rebrand involving a domain move and complete restructure; essentially, an entirely new website. Oh, and they were adding payment functionality the previous website didn’t have.

With no involvement from us, they were missing the critical stitching between the old and new website and, once live, the organic performance of the site swiftly unravelled. There was no redirect strategy, no retention of on-page optimisation, removed pages and even content removal.

We did our best to patch up the mistakes as soon as we were aware of the new site, but, with limited time and resource, organic traffic soon saw an annual loss of over 60%…  We did manage to recover their organic traffic numbers in the end, but at a significant yet avoidable cost.

To help you avoid the potential perils of a website redesign or migration project, we’ve created a list of essential things to consider during your website redesign or migration project:

#1. Factor SEO consultancy into the project budget 

Website redesigns/migrations don’t come cheap and can often be why SEO consultancy is not factored into the overall budget. SEO as part of a redesign or migration is NOT a bonus! Choosing to go without SEO can be costlier than paying for it to begin with.

#2. Plan SEO involvement

Work with the project management and development teams to ensure that SEO inputs are planned into the project timeline at the necessary stages.

Quick tip: Hopefully, the development team will have a good knowledge of SEO – enough to appreciate the importance of doing it and getting it right.

From personal experience, however, I know it can be a challenge to get developers on board with SEO if it is not something they have had to consider before. Don’t just enforce recommendations upon the development team, educate them. Ensure that they understand the importance of SEO and its impact on the overall objectives of the website.

#3. Benchmark current website

Ensure that you have an understanding of how your current site is performing. This is crucial in order to understand the performance of the new website/new changes. Ensure that the following metrics are benchmarked:

  • Traffic: what channels are driving traffic and what percentage does each channel contribute to the overall traffic?
  • Organic rankings: where is your website currently positioned organically?
  • Size of current website: this will help to compare to the number of pages indexed post-launch
  • Number of backlinks: a check of your backlink profile to ensure the same number is maintained after launch

Quick tip: You should already have a good idea of seasonality in regards to how this affects your traffic and sales. Try and ensure that you plan the launch during a low season period so that the switch over is allowed for without impacting during your busiest time.

#4. Keep your test website from being indexed

Simple, but often missed. Indexation of your test website can cause issues both during the test period and once the site has been fully launched!

  1. Add a noindex meta tag to the <head> of every page of the site:
    kiera-1

OR

  1. Block the site from being crawled by adding the following into your Robots.txt file:

User-agent: *

Disallow: /

#5. Get the redirect mapping right

When migrating or redesigning a website, it’s possible that the URLs will change. The URLs on your current website have likely gained authority through other websites linking to them. If the URLs change, this link value will be lost as it will no longer point to a page the correct page. By placing a redirect (301 permanent) from the old URL to the new, we will be able to retain any value/authority that the page has earned.

– Analyse backlink profile to determine pages with good link authority

– Use Google Analytics data to determine high-value pages

– Crawl your website (use tools such as Screamingfrog)

– Map it against new URL structure

#6. Retain existing optimisation 

Ensure that any existing optimisation of pages is carried over to the new website. Hopefully, there will be a level of keyword research and content review to improve upon your current optimisation but at the very least, ensure that whatever exists is retained on the new site.

  • Meta data
  • Page headings (H1s, H2s etc.)
  • Internal linking structure
  • Page content

#7. Conduct a technical audit

Performing a technical audit Once the test website up, it’s time to carry out a technical SEO audit which will help to identify issues which can be fixed prior to the site going live. We have listed some initial things to consider:

Structure and navigation: Are all of the key internal pages easy to get to? Are they navigable from the main menu? Ensure that key pages retain their level of internal link equity by

Internal linking: Are the internal links pointing the correct pages, are there any error or redirected pages being linked to? A crawl can help to identify internal linking issues.

Website speed: Running the test site through speed testing tools such as GTmetrix or Google’s PageSpeed can help to identify critical speed issues which could be being caused by assets such as scripts, imagery or plugins.

Duplicate content: Are there any instances of content duplication? If it is an ecommerce website, check for URLs being created through faceted navigation/product filtering or categorisation, do any of the products live under 2 or more categories on separate URLs?

Thin content: Are there any pages with little or no content? If it is an e-commerce website, check the category pages, are they simply listing products with no on-page copy? Check for any auto generated pages, or parameter based URLs.

Crawlability & rendering: Is the on-page content accessible by search engines? Install a plugin such as Google Chrome’s ‘Web Developer’ to test render the site with JavaScript disabled, you can also use Google Search Console’s Fetch and Render tool to view a webpage as Google would see it.  This can highlight issues of unreadable (and therefore unable to be crawled) content.

Google can penalise websites for having pages with poor content quality. You may need to use canonical tags, or control faceted pages in the robots.txt file.

#8. Post-launch technical SEO checklist

Once the new website is live, it is essential to perform some post-launch checks, this will be crucial to assess the following:

Crawlability & indexation

  • Is the site crawlable by search engines? Be sure to remove anything blocking search engines from being able to crawl your new website.

Quick tip: Use site:yourdomainname.com to get an idea of how much of your website has been indexed by how many results are returned. You can also use Google Search Console’s Index Status to see how many of your website’s pages Google has indexed.

A low number of pages returned could indicate an issue with your 301 redirects or the website’s crawlability (although a low number maybe returned initially as all of the 301s may not be picked up immediately). A high number could indicate duplicate content issues.

For a quick check of your redirect implementation, follow the below steps:

An easy way to do this is to run all of your old URLs through ScreamingFrog and checking what happens when the pages are requested. You can do this by:

  • Open ScreamingFrog
  • Click ‘Mode’ in the main navigation, select ‘List’
  • You can either upload your list or select ‘Enter manually’ where you can paste all of the URLs you want to check
  • You can then use the ‘Response codes’ tab to see what response the server gives when those URLs are requested!
  • Ensure that an XML sitemap is submitted in Google Search Console

Tracking & performance

  • Check tracking is working correctly by looking at Google Analytics data daily and checking Google Analytics Real-time
  • Ensure goal tracking has been correctly migrated or setup
  • Monitor any traffic changes, compare the period post-launch to the same amount of time pre-launch and to the previous year

Quick tip: Annotate Google Analytics with the launch of the new site

  • Keep an eye on rankings – they may take an initial ‘hit’ and fluctuate within the first couple of weeks after launch as Google (and other search engines) will need to crawl the website and take into account the 301 redirects before fully understanding and fully indexing the site.
  • Monitor the number of crawl errors in Google Search Console

If you are undertaking a site migration or redesign and have been convinced that going without SEO in a no-no, then maybe we can help. Further provide a full range of services which can help you to deliver a successful website project with assurance the transition is made as smoothly as possible.
Here are a few quick, cheap/free resources worth checking out:
Google Search Console Google’s webmaster advice provides a huge amount insight about the health of your domains.

Screaming Frog SEO Spider Cheap, powerful and very effective search engine simulating crawler.

Microsoft Excel Vital for analysing data and compiling all-important actionable redirect maps.

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