A website migration can be a very stressful time. Often, there are many things changing including the website’s structure, the platform, the content and the design. These factors and others can have a significant impact on your site’s performance in all channels, including SEO.
It is quite common for businesses to lose some organic traffic in the short term after a website migration, but sometimes things can go very wrong. Here’s 9 tips on how to avoid a disastrous website migration.
1. Redirects, Redirects, Redirects
For many websites, the reason that they suffer a drop in rankings and organic traffic is due to redirects. If the website’s URLs are changing, then it is unavoidable to use redirects. “But why are redirects causing a drop in rankings? I thought they were the correct thing to do?” I can hear many of you saying.
Some link equity is lost through each redirect. The exact amount is unknown outside of Google, but estimates are often in the range of 10% – 15%. This loss of link equity is what causes the drop in rankings and therefore a reduction in organic traffic.
To minimise the loss of organic visibility, ensure that you have a full redirect map, to retain as much link equity as possible. Places to source URLs to redirect are:
- Search Console landing pages
- Search Console crawl errors
- Google Analytics organic landing pages
- Google Analytics referral landing pages
- Inbound links URL destination (tools such as AHREFS, Majestic)
- Site crawl (tools such as Screaming Frog)
Personally I recommend prioritising the links by organic traffic and inbound links and linking domains. This will give you a good idea of which pages are your most important in terms of organic search. You may even find a lot of inbound links going to 404 pages, so redirecting these could actually gain you some link equity post migration.
Ensure that you use 301 redirects as these will pass link equity and avoid 302 redirects as these are technically supposed to be temporary redirects and are unlikely to pass link equity.
2. Benchmark Your Organic Search Performance
It is very important to benchmark your organic search performance prior to launching your new website. You will need this information when assessing whether the migration was a success as well as for diagnosing where the migration might have went wrong if traffic seems to have taken a nose dive.
Really you should benchmark as much as you can, but at a minimum I would recommend recording at least:
- organic search traffic by keyword, landing page, country (if targeting international markets) and device
- organic search rankings by keyword, landing page, country (if targeting international markets) and device
- organic search click through rates by keyword, landing page, country (if targeting international markets) and device
- bounce rates by landing page
- organic search conversion rates by page
- indexed pages
- crawl errors
- web page speed/load times
I would also recommend keeping a record of your old title elements and meta descriptions. If you end up suffering a drop in organic search CTR (click through rates) then you can compare your old titles and descriptions to the new ones to see if there is anything you might have missed on the new site, such as a strong call to action within your meta description.
3. Future Proof the New Site as Much as Possible
A website migration is the perfect time to implement new optimisation techniques for organic search. Of course, the web develops very quickly and the specifics of SEO change every year as search engines provide various new services for webmasters.
Due to this highly dynamic environment, it is difficult to truly future-proof your site; however the more useful features you can get implemented during the migration, the longer it will be before you need to go asking your developers for technical changes to be made.
For example, Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) are a fairly new feature for SEO. Your website migration would be the perfect opportunity to implement this new way of serving mobile friendly landing pages and stay ahead of the competition.
4. Be as Specific as Possible With Requirements Sent to Developers
The developers you are using to build the site may not be SEO experts as their skills lie in the actual build of the site. Be as specific as possible with the requirements needed for the new site from an SEO perspective.
Do not assume, for example, that the developers will build in a feature that will allow you to edit the title elements of a specific page or that you will be able to create URLs optimised for search engines.
Make a list of every SEO feature you would like and every element you would want to be able to edit on the site. Detail exactly how you would expect it to work and then provide this in document form to your developers. Ensure you get a documented response on whether they will be able to implement these features. Trust me, this could save many difficult conversations later on in the project.
5. Factor SEO Into Your New Information Architecture
Many sites go through a process of reviewing their information architecture during a website migration. Do not forget to include SEO in this process as organic keyword data can be incredibly useful when determining the overall structure of the site. This is because it is specifically telling you what your customers are actually searching for and therefore, which landing pages you should most likely have.
6. Be Careful of Certain Web Development Techniques
I am all for new development techniques to improve websites and visitors’ experience onsite; however some methods of generating content can prove difficult for search engines to crawl and index. Take AJAX as an example.
AJAX allows you to update specific parts of a webpage without having to reload the entire page. This can significantly reduce the time it takes for the user to view the content they are after; however search engines such as Google still have problems with AJAX content. Despite them saying they have improved their ability to crawl AJAX, I have still seen recent examples of where Google hasn’t crawled links generated via AJAX.
The simple answer to this is to ensure that websites are built with accessibility in mind. If you make the content of a website accessible to screen readers then it is likely to be easy for search engines to crawl. Think progressive enhancement when building your website.
7. Leave Adequate Time for SEO Testing
I understand that web development projects can overrun. Developers can run into unexpected issues that can take considerably longer to resolve than first thought. I also understand that businesses may have set deadlines for when they want their new websites to launch. This can often mean there isn’t very long between the completion of the site and the actual launch, leaving very little time for SEO testing and implementing any changes required.
Ensure that there is enough time between the completion of site development and the launch to allow your SEOs to complete a full audit, not just of the technical aspects of the site, but also of the content. The last thing you want is for an organic visibility destroying issue to be discovered a day before the site is due to launch because your SEOs have only just been given access to fully test the new site.
8. Post Migration Plan to Recover Lost Link Equity
If your URLs change, you are going to lose link equity. If you build and implement a flawless redirect map, then you can minimise this loss; however, even with perfect redirects, the loss of link equity could have a severe impact on your organic rankings.
Before the launch of the new site, create a plan to recover as much link equity as possible. This could include contacting the webmasters of the most important linking domains and asking them the update the HREF of the links the new URLs (avoiding the redirects) or this could be content campaigns to acquire new inbound links.
9. Get Professional SEO Support as Early as Possible
This is the most important SEO migration tip of them all; bring in professional SEO support as soon as possible during the project. If you can, get professional SEO advice from the beginning. If you do this one thing, then there is a very good chance you won’t have to concern yourself with the other points in this post.
I’m sure there are some development agencies out there that really do know their SEO, but one thing I have seen time and time again, are developers not building sites to SEO best practices. Please do not just rely on developers when they say they build ‘SEO friendly’ sites. Get a second opinion from an individual or agency that specialises in search engine optimisation.
Hopefully, by following the advice above you can avoid a disastrous website migration. Do you have any tips for website migrations? Please let us know in the comments below.