Many people think migrating a site is as easy as an SEO checklist. Mark the boxes, check your 301’s, and push it live. Simple, right?
*Note: this is not about a domain migration. This is simply a resource about rolling out a new website on the same domain. We will be publishing a domain migration guide in the near future, until then reference this excellent post by Builtvisible.
Unfortunately, this is exactly the type of thinking that most companies have, and after rolling out a brand new shiny website they’re scratching their head saying, “Why did we lose half our organic traffic?”
This post is intended to help you understand how we use critical thinking in a site migration and explain our process for ensuring that organic revenue is maintained- or how to properly set expectations when it can’t be.
A lot of people come to us and say, “we’re rolling out a new site next month, and when we do we want to make sure our SEO is great!” In general, it’s this type of approach to a large website facelift that gets people into trouble. If you’re thinking about your SEO after your production agency has delivered a sitemap, sent over custom mockups, and development has already started, you might be in trouble. We’ll explain why below.
Doing this for multiple years, and having helped numerous companies in that timeframe, there are a few standard situations where we get in as an SEO consultancy:
Scenario 1: The Getting in Early Scenario
Scenario 2: The Website is in Development Scenario
Scenario 3: The Site is Rolling Out in 5 Days Scenario
Scenario 4: We Lost 50% of Our Traffic Scenario
Don’t be like this
In a perfect world an SEO is there from the start, and they’re actively consulting with the business on decisions being made. Unfortunately for most small to medium sized businesses, hiring an SEO and adding thousands to the cost of roll-out just isn’t always feasible- and most of the time businesses didn’t even know they needed someone thinking about SEO.
Theoretically let’s say you’re coming in at the start, and SEO is a primary focus at the company you’re working with. The first thing you need to understand is what’s changing. Is the company migrating platforms, or are they just doing a simple facelift?
Almost everything below is applicable to a full re-design, with a new UX or a platform migration. Generally, facelifts don’t have a major impact on SEO, but they can if the design/development team majorly changes UI elements. The following post will assume we’re going through an entire site overhaul, but keep in mind every migration is unique, and each suggestion below may or may not be applicable to your situation.
So, diving in… what do we do first?
One of the most vital pre-design decisions made by any company going through a site re-design is site mapping and architecture. This is where the business questions, “do we really need this page?” or, “does this really add value to our user’s experience?”
Some teams may crawl through heatmaps and event tracking research, some may hire a UX/UI expert, some may just decide the outdated resource pages on the site shouldn’t be migrated over to the new experience. Either way, removing or changing pages can have a serious impact on SEO and teams do it all the time without understanding the consequences. That’s where we come in as SEOs (with real data) to help the company make real decisions.
There are two primary goals we need to consider in the organic channel at all times during a re-platform and re-design:
- Preserving the primary KPIs
- Whether this be leads, revenue, or traffic; make sure we don’t lose it
- Preserve authority
- Inbound links are our best friend in the SEO game, and losing hundreds when we kill sections of a site can have a detrimental impact on the organic profile
Regarding the first one, in our agency we refer to this process as a:
“Deep analysis and categorization of web pages on the site to inform us of recommendations on which pages are vital to keep and maintain on the new to site to avoid traffic/revenue loss”
The Process – Preserving the Primary KPIs
So how do we actually go about doing this? The steps below are our process, and we package it up into a PDF with supporting data.
- Download all organic entry pages within a logical period of time that allows us to draw analytical insights. I personally like to look at 6-12 months’ worth of data but be conscious of URL changes that may have happened during the period you’re viewing as you’re going to be manipulating these URLs a lot in Excel.
- There are a few ways you can pull organic entry pages, but I like to use the standard Acquisition report, then drill down into Channels > Organic Search, and set my primary dimension as “Landing Page” From there, set the date range to whatever you want. You can also create a custom report if there are other specific metrics you’d like to include in your analysis.
- Crawl the site using a tool such as Screaming Frog, Rapid Rex, or DeepCrawl
- Download all your HTML URLs
- Combine your GA entry page data with your crawl data using Vlookups to build a comprehensive view of the site, and what pages are driving organic traffic/revenue/leads
- You may find that many of your URLs receiving traffic from GA weren’t found in your crawl, or vice versa. Don’t worry, this is normal. Crawlers find pages through internal links, and if you have orphaned pages, or for some reason a crawler can’t render the links on your pages then they aren’t going to find parts of a site.
- Categorize your URLs into logical buckets
- This part can be tricky, and it depends on the website you’re looking at in every instance. Let’s take a standard e-commerce structure as an example. Our breakdown of pages might look like something like the table below. This specific site had 6 pagesfocused on charity or giving back, so we thought it’d be important those have their own category
- There are sometimes multiple categorizations you might want to make even within a specific category. For example, if you have a site with 1500 e-commerce category pages, it might make sense to break those category pages into sub-categories to help understand which categories are the most important. For example, take a gifting brand where their pages are holiday-specific. You’ll want to understand what holiday/theme pages are the largest drivers of revenue to help inform decisions before consolidation or deletion.
- There’s no magic formula for analyzing this data, but once you understand the structure of a site you can start to work with the data (pivot tables necessary) and see views of where strength and where weakness comes from.
Keep in mind that looking at this data in isolation is incorrect. You need to come at it with a search marketer’s mindset and think about the tools at your fingertips. What’s actually at risk in a site redesign? Almost entirely non-brand traffic.
If you spend 5 hours crunching data on organic entry pages but fail to realize that the site receives only ~5% of its traffic from non-brand clicks then you’ve missed the point entirely. A few other exercises we like to go through in this process:
- Analyze brand vs. non-brand traffic to the domain as a whole (Google Search Console)
- Analyze brand vs. non-brand traffic to specific page types (Google Search Console)
- Analyze non-brand rankings (SEMRush, Ahrefs)
- Find low-hanging fruit opportunities
- Is the current site unoptimized? Is there easy room for improvement?
What does this information actually provide us with?
The data necessary to provide informed answers. We get a lot of questions from companies during their re-design process, and this document helps us answer them. Below are examples of the types of questions we can answer using this, and common ones we receive:
- We want to get rid of our FAQ guide on the new site because we think the information is outdated. Is that a good idea?
- We want to consolidate category x with category y? Should we?
- We currently have primary categories and secondary categories, but we think we should remove the first and keep the latter. How will that affect our SEO?
- We have color variations that load separate URLs on our products currently, but we want to use a filter instead. Do the PDP color variations receive traffic?
Overall, this process is intended to arm you with what you need during discussions in the future. Most business owners don’t think of things in terms of how Google does – as URLs and domains. We need to make sure they understand it in advance; killing URLs or changing the content of pages will change how a search engine ranks you.
The Process – Preserving Authority
First and foremost, before diving into how we look at preserving authority, we’re going to cover a simple, yet often overlooked concept about 301s.
John Mueller has consistently said that 301’ing a page (such as a category page) to a less relevant page (like a homepage) will not fool Google. This means that Google will see the original page (that has rankings, and INBOUND LINKS) and say, “this page I’m 301’ing to does not have the same search intent as the old page; and therefore, I’m not going to rank this page AND I’m going to count it as a soft 404.”
This means that you will not retain your rankings, nor will you retain the link equity coming into that page. If Google is treating it as a soft 404 it is not counting those backlinks toward the target page, and they are not counting those backlinks toward the domain as a whole. The following shows a Tweet from Google confirming this >> https://www.seroundtable.com/google-soft-404-links-20728.html.
If you’re confused, Glenn Gabe of GSQI has an excellent post on the subject for further reading.
Here is John Mueller saying this in two different ways:
Back to what this means for us…
If during a re-platform/re-design there are pages that have inbound links that do not have a 1-to-1 page mapping, these external backlinks will likely end up as useless to the domain.
Although not as critical as ensuring we’re not nixing 25% of our revenue, nixing 25% of our authority could result in a substantial decline in rankings, and inevitably, our revenue.
In the same “SEO Risk Migration Analysis” we suggest looking at external inbound links by page to understand how authority is distributed throughout a domain.
- Download links from Majestic, or from your favorite link tool- just make sure the tool has the link’s target URL
- Pivot the data to show target URL -> count of inbound links
- Note: Majestic only allows for the first 5000 lines without a custom report, in no way is the chart below indicative of how Ebay’s authority is spread throughout the site
- Pro tip: Use your page categorizations to help understand which sections of the site receive the most links
That’s it. Extremely simple but highly effective. You now have a view of authority distribution to the site and can use it to your advantage.
What do you if a section of the website with hundreds of strong referring domains is being killed and has no equivalent on the new site? Outreach! Reach out to the webmasters and let them know you’ve retired the pages. Be careful though, some webmasters will just remove the link instead of updating it. Be smart in how you approach it and they’ll generally help you out.
So, you’ve completed your risk migration analysis. The next thing you need to put together is a wish list.
What is an SEO wish list? Exactly as it sounds. Let’s say you’ve been consulting with a client or working on a brand that has a proprietary custom-built e-commerce shop that has never had the ability to add canonicals to a page. What’s the first thing you’d probably add to that wish list as an SEO when talking about a new site? A canonical tag.
Include everything you can think of, even things you already have. Hundreds of hands are going to touch this site, and you’re going to need a paper trail to follow the mockups and wireframes to ensure SEO isn’t forgotten.
Check out an example wish list here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/12VaXMh8xjCMBm0d3fS069b37AO5TPLJjRWT7OZjOCdA/edit?usp=sharing
You should be using your data and findings from the SEO Risk Migration Analysis to help you on your SEO wish list. If you want your pages in the navigation, request it in the wish list. If you want to keep your left rail navigation, request it. Leave no stone unturned, and your SEO shall not falter.
After you’ve fleshed out your wish list, it’s time to start fighting for your dreams. No, really, you’re probably going to have to fight for them, maybe even grovel. UX is going to come back with a million
reasons why the navigation should only include the primary 6 sales pages, design is going to come back with a hard no on that extra text area you desperately need to rank your core pages, and the Director of Marketing is going to want to kill 150 category pages because migrating them doesn’t fit in the timeline.
This is where you entrench yourself and adamantly stand your ground- it’s also where you converse with your peers and explain to them the value of certain features for SEO. Remember, unlike some other marketing channels, SEO does not, and will not ever, live in a silo.
Skip ahead some war rooms with Chinese food and long conversations about site architecture and now you’re in the design phase.
Generally, the next major part you play in the process is reviewing mockups. You’ve made your suggestions, but now it’s time to see if any of that made it to design. My favorite way to provide feedback is through annotations but work into the design team’s process however you see fit, and just get your thoughts on the table.
Is there an area for header text at the top of category pages? Did your landing page content get cut in half? Are the titles of the pages using the primary target keyword?
There’s always going to be a constant battle between design/UX and SEO. Like anything else, it’s about compromise, and the time for compromise is before development- not after. Give them something they want and I’m sure they’ll help you out. Quid pro quo.
Once designs have been determined, we’re off to development. The project manager running the show is giddy at this point; it feels like the light is at the end of the tunnel.
In a lot of situations, there’s not much for you to do until the site is finished. Just sit back, relax, and let the coding commence.
Once you’re in a UAT environment or there’s a nearly finalized staging site, SEO enters back into the scene. We have a simple, but rigorous, series of checks we run to ensure that the site turned out the way we wanted it to. Our checks also cover off on a lot of common technical SEO problems we find.
You can find an example of a pre-launch QA below. Keep in mind that different websites require different checks, and this is just a template to start with: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1fieilTwDOuVzOoQzy0iwXlqJ4L1wtRRJoM9CdECqO6E/edit?usp=sharing
This sheet is returned back to the development team with a list of actions, and a priority rating. Is this a “don’t roll out the website without fixing this” type of call-out, or is it a “can be fixed a week after roll out?”
After a final round of verification, and many sleepless nights from almost everyone involved, the site finally rolls out (probably two months late, for real- has anyone ever seen a site roll out on time?).
The final (well, kind of) SEO step is a post-launch QA, which can be found here >> https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1igv2V9YWa_IS4Rkc3BDHAltR_RpoTUnh8joih6wIkDY/edit?usp=sharing
Our final say in the matter, that is, if everything went smoothly. Verify your 301s are in place, verify you removed that noindex tag or removed the site blocking directive in the robots.txt, and monitor performance like a hawk.
What can I expect after launch?
Keep an eye on rankings. There’s almost always going to be fluctuations if you’re making structural changes to a website.
How long before they stabilize, or return?
The tough answer is it depends. After going through dozens and dozens of these the only thing I’m certain of is that it’s impossible to know. Every site is different, in a different industry, with hundreds and hundreds of ranking factors coming into play. If the site was poorly optimized and the new site is a shining example of SEO best practices you could see a lift (like the rankings growth below)- it’s really impossible to say.
You’re just going to have to wait and find out for yourself.
Everything we just covered falls into scenario 1, meaning an SEO came into the picture with enough time to ensure things happen smoothly. What happens when that’s not the case? What happens in other circumstances.
You have the ability to impact the site’s structure, the designs of the site, the pages being consolidated and the traffic/revenue that could be lost or gained.
This is where you put together an SEO Risk Migration Analysis, you put together your SEO wish list, and you spend countless hours making sure that your findings in these categories is at least heard out, if not listened to.
I also like to refer to this as the “put a band-aid on it” situation. Sometimes these conversations are companies coming to us asking to make sure they don’t “lose SEO.” Sometimes these are conversations where companies are excited about the prospect of their new site and want to hire an SEO agency to take it to the next level.
Either way, the first questions we have to ask them are:
- When is the new site rolling out?
- What exactly is changing from the old site to the new site?
- What was the involvement of SEO in the process of the new site?
- What percent of your revenue is coming from SEO?
Their answers help determine what we do, but normally we’ll try to help them make sure they don’t roll out a new site they get crushed on. This isn’t the best place to be in with a new site, but it’s also not the worst.
This is a situation where the company is just about to ready to roll out, and their timeline isn’t stopping for any reason. Pressure from higher ups is going to push this site live- SEO ready or not.
This can go either way for the client, it just depends on how things played out without us. Usually we’ll put together a quick and dirty analysis of what we think could happen, a couple of quick recommendations, and throw in an SEO pre and post launch QA to make sure the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed.
This, unfortunately, is actually a very common scenario we run into, and it usually happens anywhere from 3-6 months after a site is launched.
In this situation, our first answer is “roll the old site back out,” but as you can imagine this doesn’t receive much positive reception.
In this situation we usually come in with a full site audit or a diagnostic audit depending on the situation. It’s generally not all that difficult to assess why a site’s organic traffic is down- the hard part is bringing it back.
Expert Tips, Advice, and A Parting Word
– Be wary of:
- Code such as AJAX or JS that loads important content on a page
- Companies failing to implement pre-launch suggestions
– Stand your ground, your opinion matter so let it be heard
- I’ve seen situations where companies lose 40% of their organic leads overnight, and this leads to layoffs
- The situation can be serious, so help where you can
Overall, learn from every migration you work on- and if you can’t get it done yourself, hire an expert. There’s no shame in asking for help.