Website Migrations: Making sure SEO isn’t left behind
Website migrations are a big project many sites have undertaken and will undertake in the future. They can mean a big change for any website and all too often we will see SEO be neglected until the end. This can potentially have harmful consequences for your site. Instead SEO should be discussed the moment your organisation decides to plan a website migration. Here’s how to include SEO throughout your migration process, from start to finish.
When we say pre-pre migration, we’re referring to the very start of your migration journey. This is when you’re having internal discussions with stakeholders, clarifying what you want to include in your migration and what the project objectives are. This is when SEO needs to be introduced into the conversation. At this stage of the migration you will be:
When deciding what you’re doing in the migration, you should keep your site’s targets at the forefront of your mind. Bear in mind how much organic traffic contributes to these objectives.
As organic traffic is usually a top traffic channel for websites, you want to ensure your website migration is SEO friendly. Avoid agreeing to changes that could be detrimental to your organic performance in the long-term. The mass removal of content from the site is a prime example of a change that can negatively affect your SEO.
Confirming what the migration is
A migration can start as one task, but very quickly grow into a big project. How extensive the project is informs how much SEO support it will require.
For example, updating your CMS requires less SEO support compared to a migration where the entire site’s structure and URLs are changing. Understanding the scale of your project, means you can then consider the SEO support you’ll need to budget for.
Be careful when it comes to removing content
We’ve mentioned content removal can be detrimental to your organic traffic. In a migration it can be very tempting to streamline your site by removing content in bulk. As alluring as that clean up can be, we recommend caution and research before making any final decisions.
To conserve valuable rankings, compile a list of pages you want to remove and then check how they perform for organic and other channels. If the page ranks well for relevant keywords and brings traffic in through those keywords, we strongly recommend you keep the page.
If it’s a page that doesn’t rank well or bring in traffic, then removal is unlikely to have a strong impact on your organic performance. You can grab this data through your Google Search Console and Google Analytics properties.
This is where development starts and you’re working on the staging site. At this point, SEO becomes more integrated into the physical work.
You want to ensure any changes being created are reviewed from an SEO perspective to ensure they are optimising the site towards organic performance, rather than creating problems or hindering performance.
Tasks that happen in pre-migration, where you want SEO involved, can include:
Updates to your site structure.
Quite often organisations will use a website migration as an opportunity to review and update the structure of their site. The structure of a website can refer to the navigation menu, the categorisation and arrangement of your pages, and the URL structure.
Site structure is crucial to your SEO, as it has a big influence on the performance of your website. It can impact how easily users and search engines navigate their way round the site to find the content they want. Therefore, when updating the structure of your site you’ll benefit strongly from the input of your SEO team.
Take your URL structure for example. Websites that utilise subfolders provide better user experience as the URL indicates straight away to someone where they are on a site. They can already start to see how content is categorised and navigated to. A flat URL structure, where the file path falls straight off the domain, doesn’t provide this clarification.
With SEO support you can ensure your priority content is easy to navigate to and clearly signposted across the site. You can prevent pages from being (accidentally) orphaned and make sure content is logically structured out and connected. All with your site’s objectives in mind. In doing so, you’ll not only boost your organic performance but your user engagement too; encouraging visitors to click and engage on more content.
Content removal, or changes to URLs
Another frequent update we see in migrations are changes to site content. Often content from multiple pages may be merged onto a singular page, or a page may be moved to sit elsewhere on the site. When this happens the URL for the current page will change.
Whenever any URLs change in a migration you will want to document this in one central place. We recommend creating a URL mapping document, where you have all the current URLs in one column, with the new URL in the adjacent column. Even when a URL is staying the same that should be documented, as this is useful intel to have noted down when it comes to launch day checks.
When URLs are being changed on the site, URL redirect mapping is a must in order to help retain your organic rankings. A common migration mistake we see is that redirects aren’t done and a website will have an extensive list of 404s when their migration goes live.
Missing off redirects can have devastating impacts on organic performance, especially if not immediately dealt with. With SEO support your redirect mapping will be supported and reviewed to ensure all pages are included.
If your site is getting a new look in this migration, then there’s a strong chance your wireframes will be updated. As your wireframes look at the overall layout of your pages, you want them to be optimised for SEO.
Usually, as developers are more focused on the look of the site rather than the contents, templates can be designed that are not fully beneficial to SEO. We recommend developers work alongside your SEO team so your site gets the best of both worlds.
Just some of the factors you should look at from an SEO perspective include:
- Page structure
- Header Tags
- Alt tags
- Internal linking
- On-page content
- Unique vs templated content
Incorporating these considerations into the development of your wireframes enables SEO integration at design level, which can make it much easier in the long-term.
Staging site review
Making changes to the staging site is always going to be quicker, cheaper and easier than making changes to a live site. It’s also more beneficial to your SEO, as it prevents Google from ever seeing and indexing any issues. Therefore, you want SEO support to review the staging site and catch any major technical issues ahead of going live.
There will be some issues you won’t be able to see until you go live, primarily around the indexation of the site. However, some of the technical issues you can flag at this stage include:
- Canonical tags
- Internal links
- Duplicate content
- Page load time
We recommend refining the site as much as you can in staging mode, so there is less repair work required once the site has migrated.
Following all your hard efforts in the pre-migration stages, it’s now time for the migration to go live. You want SEO support on tap here, so any critical issues that occur can be identified quickly and resolved as a priority.
Dubbed our launch day migration checks, the SEO factors you want to review on the day of a launch are:
This is checking out any issues that could impact the indexation of your site. If a page is prevented from being indexed by Google, it will not show in organic search results for any keywords.
If this happens to just one priority page you will see an immediate drop in traffic and rankings. Therefore, one of the first checks SEO support provides is to make sure the website is crawlable and indexable. These checks include looking at factors such as:
- XML Sitemap
- Index vs noindex tags
- Canonical tags
The staging site will be blocked from organic search as a standard. A common mistake with migrations is that the block remains in place on the live site once the changes are finished. Flagging to developers that this needs to be remedied is an easy, but often missed, step.
Time to put that URL mapping document to good use. With redirects now live you want to check that they work and point to the correct page. Often a migration has some bumps when going live: incorrect page redirects often account for a few of those bumps.
If redirects do not point to the right page, this can have an impact on your rankings. Redirects signal where content has moved to. When content has been unpublished, a redirect should point to the most relevant page on the site. If redirects do not point to a relevant alternative page, then your site will see a drop in rankings.
Often sites will be tempted to just 301 redirect to the homepage. Whilst this prevents a 404 error, the SEO and UX benefits of this are nowhere near as great as redirecting on a page by page basis to a relevant alternative.
Redirect chains and loops can also appear if redirects are not managed correctly. These issues can affect page load time and even the indexation of your site – if Google can’t find the final page because there are multiple redirects in play it will give up. Make your site easy for Google to see, ensuring your redirects work correctly plays a core role in that.
Analytics tracking checks
Make sure your data is tracking correctly. With changes going live you want to make sure your analytics platform is still recording your data correctly. You not only want to ensure pageviews fire correctly, but also make your tracked conversions still function and fire correctly.
You will need this data to be able to monitor performance for any changes, so make sure your tracking code hasn’t been removed by mistake.
Is your site’s domain changing in this migration?
Whether it be the domain name itself, or you’re changing from non-www. to www. (or vice versa), you will need to set up a new property on Google Search Console. You can create a new property for a specific prefix using the ‘URL prefix’ option. We also recommend creating a property at domain level: this one property will contain information for your domain and all submains in one place.
If any of these launch day checks are not actioned, you are much more likely to see a change in your data. This is because either data isn’t recording properly, or a technical issue is causing a drop in traffic or conversions.
Post-migration covers the initial 4-6 weeks after a migration. During this time Google will start to index the changes on your site and you’ll have a better view of what the longer-term outcomes of your migration are to organic performance. Post-migration is also the stage where the less critical, but still important, technical checks should be actioned.
You will want SEO support at this stage to help monitor performance and react to any changes in keyword rankings or traffic. If you start to see a reduction in traffic or rankings, your SEO team will be able to delve in and identify where issues could be contributing to the change in performance. We recommend monitoring your top keywords for change; these are the keywords you know to bring in traffic and convert.
SEO post-migration support includes a full technical SEO audit of your site. This audit should be fully comprehensive and covering all technical factors to see where issues are either unresolved still or have emerged following the migration.
This audit will help to not only identify where issues are live, but also prioritise work. You’ll get an understanding of which issues need to be addressed as a priority and which are more long-term tasks.
What happens when you don’t include SEO in website migrations?
Website migration mistakes due to lack of SEO incorporation into the process means that websites can often see a negative fallout once their new site is live. This is usually a result of an accumulation of issues causing a drop in rankings for valuable keywords, leading to a reduction in traffic and conversions.
We’ve been approached by multiple clients who have migrated, didn’t factor in SEO and then saw a drop in organic performance. This is costly for organisations, as fixing organic performance, and the impact of these changes to search results, can take months.
If a migration goes wrong it can take up to and over a year to return a website’s organic performance to its pre-migration glory. Including SEO support throughout your entire process, helps prepare your site and make sure SEO basics are covered to reduce the impact of the migration to performance once live.
Want a website migration checklist? We’ve got you covered
For a full breakdown of the tasks you want to be undertaking when working on your website migration, download our website migration checklist.
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