Maintaining and Upgrading Equity with a Migration
Organizations perform website page, resources, and code updates almost continuously. However, whether moving hosts or domains, redesigning the structure and layout, or just overhauling the content, most companies only implement wholesale changes on their sites every few years. The immediate challenge for developers is obvious: perform these updates with as little downtime as possible. Errors and downtime cost money. Too, missing pages and 404s, misdirected links, speed degradation, can all increase over time and interrupt the flow of critical business leads. However, even if the new site functions flawlessly, the site migration can destroy tremendous value in the very dimension that provides those critical resources: organic search equity.
Whether an organization is tracking organic traffic, search engine and keyword rankings, or even top converting web pages, a significant value of digital equity can be devalued or destroyed with a site migration that omits search engine optimization from the plan. Conducting a migration planning assessment helps ensure companies can:
- Maintain or improve functionality
- Maintain or improve organic traffic, rankings, and conversions
- Reduce loss of organic traffic on transition
- Reduce loss of revenue and opportunities due to transition
Definition and Impact
A site migration can be any substantial change that can significantly impact the marketing strategy, customer experience, and most importantly, the search engine performance of the website and its elements. Over time, a website builds up authority and authority, ranking targeted keywords and corresponding search queries. Changing the site details which search engines use to rank and apply authority to your site can devastate the traffic flow, leads, and conversions.
How impactful can a website migration be? A migration can include any number of website changes ranging from relatively SEO-neutral hosting or protocol moves to large-scale site redesign with app and data migration such as an upgraded e-commerce system, CRM, or CMS.
A well-planned and executed site migration preserves search engine authority driven by hundreds of signaling elements such as URLs, metadata, specific placement of keywords, content depth, load speed, mobile optimization, backlinks, and internal links. Migration planning strives to maintain (or improve) the historically built organic visibility tied to these elements–even when the migration requires modifying them.
Types of Website Migrations
While there are dozens of possible discrete migrations or combinations, most can be grouped into a handful of overarching categories, each with risks and rewards contingent on the changes impacting search engine signals and the degree of planning and resources applied.
A protocol change from HTTP to HTTPS, one of the simplest migrations, is both commonly undertaken and easily underscoped. Since 2014 when Google made HTTPS a ranking signal, the number of sites implementing the protocol expanded rapidly, with the majority of the top 1M most visited websites having now adopted. Users visiting unsecured sites will see “not secure” in their Chrome browser, and the vast majority of shoppers will abandon a cart not marked secure. Increasingly, privacy concerns are driving policy and legislation, at the state level, and even internationally (note the GDPR requirements for secure personal data).
While the drivers for protocol migration are clear to most stakeholders, the SEO implications may be less so. As URLs will change, tags and internal links will need updating, including sitemaps, CSS files, tags, and linked tools (including the analytics platforms). If some elements are not updated, Google may see mixed content (some HTTP and some HTTPS) as unsecured. Redirecting to HTTPS can be done with a plugin or at the server, and, in the case of some content management systems (CMS) is handled somewhat automatically.
Domains and Hosts
Organizations often change hosts and domains together, driven by growth in the case of hosting, and branding strategy in the case of domains. Host changes can provide more reliability and bandwidth, improved security, and additional functionality such as support for CMS platforms. Domain name changes may align more with the actual business strategy, could consolidate multiple legacy domains, or simply be more memorable and user-friendly.
Changing hosts can impact search engine equity in obvious ways. Decreased speed, less uptime, and co-located spammers on host might negatively affect equity transfer but are easily avoided by checking available performance stats and the domain history.
When migrating to a new domain, maintaining the old domain to redirect, and blocking web crawlers until the site is launched will protect against major SEO loss. If a domain name contains branding or other keywords, changing the domain can impact search engine performance. When branding is changed, support existing customers with content indicating the change in prominent locations on the site blog, FAQ, or other sections.
One of the most common and complex migration efforts is a redesign of content, and the accompanying structural changes that inevitably occur. The average website is redesigned every 3-5 years, sometimes deliberately changing the architecture and structure to improve UX, represent changing product offerings, or creating a more logical information architecture. Often content gets merged, either within a page or combination of pages. With any acquisition competing websites get merged. Moreover, focusing only on adding, changing, or removing content will still impact the user experience, flow of the journey, and the structure and definition of URLs. All of these changes can have significant implications for SEO, as each change can be tied to a number of SEO signals responsible for link equity. The task recommendations in the pre-launch, launch, and post-launch sections below are representative of requirements for a site redesign.
Rarely does an organization migrate a website for one discrete change; in fact, many hybrid or combinations of migration types can be more cost-effective than separating each effort. In short, migrations are an opportunity to improve multiple dimensions of a website at once, taking advantage of focused resources and the detailed site analysis required for similar efforts.
Switching to a new CMS, e-commerce system, or CRM as part of a migration can be as unique as each platform type and example. Any migration that transfers large scale product and customer databases demand a level of planning beyond website redesigns, as new schema for both data types could require sophisticated data mapping and structural changes.
While platform migrations will likely require all of the tasks listed below in pre-launch, launch, and post-launch, they will also focus on optimizing the process for moving both product data and customer data into new database fields. Product data is usually handled with a modified manual process due to each platform’s unique structure of fields for product elements. Customer and order data, however, has far more common attributes, and can usually be automatically mapped with specific services dedicated to e-commerce migrations.
The Value of Detailed Migration Planning
Because an SEO-focused migration must address a broad range of signals to maintain the historical authority–tags, URLs, content, structure, etc.–a more opportune time for search engine optimization is unlikely. As part of the pre-launch analysis, meta-data might be found inaccurate, duplicate content addressed, and even poor keyword placement corrected. Significant site changes should be seen as an opportunity for correcting and improving SEO and UX. Going beyond maintaining equity to actually increasing quality traffic, and consequently, conversions, a site redesign migration should be a revenue-enhancing activity.
With a large-scale migration, a seemingly unlimited number of issues could arise as a result of inadequate planning, under scoping required resources, or failure to consult with experienced SEO professionals. Without a detailed plan, the ability to catch all possible errors is nearly impossible. Failure to assign roles and durations to tasks precludes scoping resources accurately. And even the best designers, content developers, and subject matter experts without SEO experience will be unable to fill the gaps in experience during the project. Once the mistakes are live, the lost ranking and traffic are difficult if not impossible to fully restore.
When Migrations Go Wrong
A leading specialty and gourmet spice vendor* underwent a rebrand and development of a new website (new design, new copy). When the day for the switchover came, they simply turned “on” the new website, and turned “off” the old website.
This led to an immediate drop in traffic to the website, and a catastrophic effect on sales, of which online sales represented a sizable portion of the business. Unaware of the implications of redesign and migration, the company missed a number of crucial steps: mapping, or redirecting, the old site to the new site, and validating the design and copy changes to maintain organic traffic equity built over 20 years of business.
Because of the rebrand, the new website lived under a new domain (customspecialspices.com became neospice.com). Because the old website pages were not redirected to their respective new pages, all site equity (backlinks, organic traffic, keywords, etc) was lost. Without the redirects, Google viewed superpopcorn.com as an entirely new company–losing 20 years of critical equity. Secondly, the reason the prior website received the organic traffic, keyword ranking, etc. was in part due to the pages, the words on the pages, and the user experience they provided the user. Any changes to page copy or design–removing a sentence, heading, even rearranging content on a page–all can be devalued by search engines and lose ranking and relevance.
(*fictionalized example for confidentiality purposes)
When these risks are acknowledged, it’s possible to not only maintain search engine relevance but to improve organic traffic when migrating a site. Doing so requires diligence in organizing the new site, mapping and redirecting all pages, and knowing which pages are important in the eyes of Google. Anywhere copy or redesign is occurring, the migration team must assess the changed page and identify current ranking keywords for each source page. This task must be led by an SEO expert, with the assistance of the creative and copywriter teams.
Estimates of Effort Required
While the time (and resources) required for a successful migration are tied to the size of the website and complexity and number of changes (number of pages, tags, templates, etc. that must be reviewed and implemented), the only certainty is that a 50-page website will take less effort than a 500-page site. Migrations take 1-3 months, with larger projects easily requiring 4-6 months, and nightmare scenarios seem to never truly end. A better rule to follow is to create a plan that allows adequate time for pre-launch analysis and planning, implementation and testing in a staging environment, launching, monitoring, and correcting of issues.
The Migration process activity can be organized into pre-launch, launch, post-launch. Throughout the migration, specific tools and processes measure and assess legacy performance; measure, assess, and modify proposed site structure, templates, and content; and finally validate, measure, and correct the post-launch site.
The tasks below are generally based on a site redesign, impacting structure by necessity.
It’s important to differentiate the physical change from the goal for the change. While the practical change may be to update content to maintain accuracy, the goal is to drive traffic as a result. The goal will be more accurately described in terms of increasing organic traffic to specific page types or aligning the website paths with the actual measured customer journey to reduce customer drop-offs before conversion, or to improve content marketing by updating a blog hub and spoke model with content matching visitor intent as indicated by site analytics. The process is not a lateral move, but a substantial upgrade with fathoms more intelligence and impact when complete. The dimensions and factors improved should provide a 30-40% return if planned and purposefully executed with cognizance of the interplay of all SEO-impactful elements. Conversely, failure to account for these factors may sink a website and it’s business–a 40% traffic loss may be irretrievable. Ultimately, the primary SEO goal of migration is to not lose any traffic.
Moving a part of the site, or merging sites, or a full redesign–the key question is always what is changing, and who is impacted internally and externally. Defining the magnitude of change, and the validation required helps define the scope of effort for the migration. Break out all tasks, before, during, and after launch at the discrete level allowing duration to be estimated accurately.
Even with vendor support, the migrating organization will still need to allocate resources: system admins for the various platforms that may be involved, internal developers/designers who will ultimately maintain the site, the marketing manager and others who own data, company project manager, and management and potentially legal to guide and sign off. Every task must have an owner. If a migration is handled entirely in-house, make certain the SEO resources are adequately experienced with site migrations.
SEO Specification Development
In the pre-launch phase, SEO requirements are defined prior to site/page development. The list below is not exhaustive and will depend on the specifics of each migration.
- URL Structure: Determine page depth, and identify key components that will link from nearly any location
- Page Copy: Identify changes, needed keyword positioning within the body of the page and headers,
- Navigation: Define both primary and secondary navigation, global tools always available, meaningful naming in any navigation links
- Internal Linking: Determine new and maintained links to ensure improvement in link equity across the site
- Media Elements: Identify all non-text elements including images, PDFs, other tools
- Meta Data: Define all meta tags, their placement, and content, and should include Content-Type, Title, and Description tags, using keyword placement aligned with content
- Mobile Optimization: Specify any requirements for mobile, even simple parameters in responsive web design to meta tags (e.g., viewport) or dynamic serving
- URL Redirects: defining redirects is one of the most critical steps in preserving a website’s ranking and visibility, and typically requires extensive SEO experience. Large sites with hundreds of pages benefit from automation, where building a manual set of redirects at volume would likely be nearly impossible, introduce errors, and not take advantage of using common attributes in URL mapping.
- XML Sitemap: A well-designed XML sitemap functions as a roadmap for crawlers to quickly identify the key pages of the website
- Structured Data: Design all structured data to provide meaning to website components to search engines, which in turn can use the data to create rich, meaningful listings in SERPs
After goals, project scope, and task roles are defined, the information should be loaded in a shareable project plan and distributed to all team members early. Using a virtual collaborative tool (e.g., Google Docs, Trello, Mavenlink) all participants can discuss tasks, ask questions, and reduce misunderstandings that impact timeline and overall success. Roles should be documented within the overall plan and SEO specifications. All tasks must have a defined duration, and all dependencies must be documented. The project plan includes all tasks before, during, and after launch.
Staging Environment and Legacy Backup
A staging environment should be prepared for all testing of the new site before publishing. A closed environment is required to test redirects and all functionality. If feasible, a backup of the legacy site should be maintained with a roll-back strategy developed by the web team. Being able to revert to the legacy site in an emergency provides an extra level of safety.
Current Site Inventory and Evaluation
In many migrations, significant amounts of the legacy site are brought over with the new site. In any case, certain elements must be preserved or replicated in order to preserve site equity. The inventory and evaluation does two things: evaluates any legacy component that needs correcting or improving, and identifies which content is affected by the move. Cataloging all website content using crawl tools, export from CMS and other tools, allows a review of applications and data, images, and any other elements accessible to site visitors or search engines. Finally, pages are evaluated for traffic using analytics platforms.
Crawl Existing Site
Complete a full URL inventory, along with every element of the existing site: URLs, tags, existing redirects–everything. Create a table that allows a comprehensive evaluation of all elements.
To make sure that your site is being crawled to your advantage, check for counterproductive indicators such as the % of desired pages indexed, total pages crawled, and your pages’ load speed. Both GSC and Bing Webmaster Tools provide these metrics.
The Basics of Evaluation
After building the full site inventory, all content is evaluated against multiple quality dimensions. For example:
- All pages captured in the inventory
- Pages assessed for content quality, duplication, relevance
- All metadata and copy optimized
- All media elements reviewed for optimization, alt text
- Clear relevant headlines
- No broken links
However, the most important evaluation focus will be identifying priority traffic pages, keywords, and specific KPIs that carry the weight of search engine value, conversions, and ultimately revenue.
Review the website based on KPIs for each page: Conversions, Conversion Rate, Revenue, and ROI whenever possible. Conversions and conversion rates are captured in the analytics platform. Financial data per page, however, can be elusive for non-e-commerce sites. Only if converting sales are tied back to the pages generating the leads, can revenue per page be accurately calculated. Otherwise, conversions or “mini-conversions” such as signing up for more information, must stand in for revenue. While this approach is necessarily reductive given the realities of multi-touch conversions, measuring page-level KPIs can significantly narrow down the most beneficial website pages.
Remember that traffic is not just one metric within the KPI area, but many, including number of new and returning sessions, duration of the session, pages per session, bounce rate, and even all “mini-conversions” like completing a form, signing up for podcasts, downloading a white paper, etc. . Like all of the evaluation results at this stage in planning, this data facilitates improving the SEO value and UX of the individual website components and the overall website itself.
While most people might consider this the first KPI to visit, keyword rankings may not convert to revenue. However, they are key to understanding the dimension of the site traffic. Identify ranking KWs and groups of similar KWs that rank. Determine the number of queries that rank in the top 10, for example. Identify how the pages show up on SERPs–and how they show up, with snippets, or other page information that increases listing value.
Identify and evaluate all backlinks. The key indicator for backlinks is not merely the absolute number of backlinks, but their quality. Identify the number of referring domains, and each domain’s authority–calculated with tools such as Ahrefs or Majestic. Verify the backlinks are valuable and influencing organic traffic.
For any given search query, a website’s search volume represents its market share, translating into estimated visitors per month and the average position for the month. Both Ahrefs and SEMrush can be used to calculate this visibility.
Review internal links
All navigation levels should be reviewed, including body/header/footer links, pagination, vertical linking from main to deeper content, and horizontal internal linking to neighboring pages that drives equity flow. Unless the current website is poorly designed, site depth should be mimicked in the redesign to allow for a similar URL structure without deep linking that minimizes page importance and visibility.
Benchmark Legacy Site
While crossover exists, benchmarking is separate from the content evaluation. While content evaluation focuses on the elements that affect benchmarking, the evaluation is focused on the static elements (tags, structure, etc.), and benchmarking is concerned with current rankings and load times.
Save Legacy Data
After launch, the legacy performance data will function as the baseline against which the new site will be measured. Having clear performance data from across the website at all levels will pinpoint any issues needing correcting on the new site after launch.
New Design Evaluation
The new design should be calculated to maintain or improve search engine equity and organic visibility. Some components can be evaluated and verified before staging, while those requiring real-time performance validation are completed in staging.
Review page templates for titles, metadata, and all static attributes of the legacy site along with improvements identified during its evaluation.
Check structured data of the templates to ensure implementation does not trigger errors with Google’s structured data testing tool.
Review XML sitemap for the inclusion of all indexable URLs and that non-indexable are excluded. While the XML sitemap assists crawlers in finding priority content, excluding the non-indexable pages will help provide accurate crawl stats during later testing in Staging.
Verify a custom 404 page includes updated information, including links to key pages.
If possible, the staging environment should be as close to the production environment as possible. For example, using the same server environment will provide a closer evaluation of actual performance later.
Identify crawl-time issues
Crawling in a staging environment will reveal any functional issues and omissions before launch. While the review will find common web build issues such as broken links, input errors, tagging issues, the priority is ensuring all redirects are functioning as expected.
Once in staging, all redirect mapping can be tested to ensure all URLs are functioning as expected.
Check mobile set-up
Validate any mobile tagging or mobile-specific parameters using Google’s mobile-friendly test tool and identify and correct issues.
Verify HTML sitemap
Verify that the HTML sitemap correctly links to all pages.
Conduct speed checks
Compare site performance with legacy site, especially all key pages, navigation, and priority URLs.
Connect the staging [version] of the site to the preferred analytics platform, and verify all desired tracking is properly functioning before launch.
During the transition from legacy to the new site, the website will be unavailable to visitors–for a split second in most cases. DNS changeovers today are nearly seamless and instantaneous.
However, if for any reason the duration is longer, the server should respond to any request with a 503 server response to keep web crawlers from trying to index the site.
Once the site is live, technical spot checks will quickly ensure that the most important components are in fact in place and working.
- Check robots.txt to ensure the right things are blocked and allowed
- Check server responses for top pages
- Check priority redirects
- Test XML sitemaps and verify in place
- Use GSC URL Inspection tool on page types to verify that Google sees and is able to index the URL
The checks recommended after launch mirror many of those used in pre-launch. While most errors can be caught in staging, post-launch testing is indispensable for verifying all components of the migration. Because the site is now live, data volume is larger, and reduced testing here will increase odds of missing issues that will later be revealed in SERP performance.
Monitoring the Crawl
Using GSC, check stats from Google’s crawl, looking for a spike after launch. If that doesn’t appear, you may need to review server logs to identify obstacles to an uptick in crawl activity for a newly launched site. Recommended tools include On Crawl and Botify that allow comparison of crawl data and server data to narrow down various problems that degrade crawl performance, identifying specific structural and functional problems to fix quickly.
Always fix the most important issues first–e.g., those with heaviest traffic or consequences. For example, you can use Google Analytics to see the most frequently requested 404s, or GSC to review the blocked resource report that may indicate why Google cannot see key pages. Check all probable causes of crawl errors, such as structured data errors, incorrect settings in the XML sitemap, nofollow tags, etc.
After crawl completion, indexing stats can be compared with pre-migration. Check for total number of indexed pages (account for content volume change in redesign), pages receiving visits, number of pages “not found,” and the pages indexed compared with those planned in the XML sitemap.
When to Expect Results
After a large resource investment in migration, companies want to see the results immediately. However, significant time may be required for multiple reasons. First, as search engines crawl the site, any issues that arise may take time to resolve. In addition, a large-scale migration may affect hundreds of specific elements that drive performance metrics. Be prepared for some fluctuation after launch, as some metrics such as visibility may not stabilize for 1-3 months depending on the size of the website. Moreover, if differences in the site are significant or structural–for example, a significantly content constricted site–the new user journey and customer experience may take time for visitors to adjust. Finally, any additional changes required post-launch and post-crawl to correct issues also lengthens time to an accurate full performance evaluation.
With a redesigned site now live, all functionality and modifications must be assessed to ensure nothing broke, all expected changes are in place and working, and no significant performance gaps exist to signal migration errors. The more thorough the assessment, the less likely errors surface as obstacles to maintained and improved performance across targeted metrics.
Check KPIs and Dive Down
Just as the legacy site was checked before launch, the same indicators should now be measured and compared, especially the pages identified earlier as priority, and any substantially changed key pages.
While organic traffic, conversions, and revenue are at the forefront of the stakeholders’ minds, many other performance metrics are necessary to narrow down and head off performance issues and understand the relevant performance drivers of the former. That may not be evident if looking only at the overall traffic and conversions. Instead, post-launch performance analysis must also look carefully at the segmented or contributing performance indicators to provide meaningful, actionable data–knowing the overall visibility or conversion rate for a website will not convey the urgency to correct a specific page error or mobile optimization failure.
Instead of overall conversions, and in addition to priority page analysis, check the conversion rate for each page type, key landing pages, specific service or product pages, etc. And instead of measuring user engagement by pageviews, check time spent on-page, average session duration, average time spent on-site, and the number of pages viewed in a session. If the Google Scroll Depth plugin or GTM is configured, the users’ percent of page read (or accessed) can be measured. Also, check changes in bounce rate and the top exit pages–this could reveal where the break in a modified customer journey occurs. Finally, for e-commerce sites, the abandonment rate can be compared with pre-migration for each phase (no cart addition, cart abandonment, checkout abandonment) using Google Analytics.
Adapting to the New Standard
After performance stabilizes, the improvements attached to the migration will demonstrate value and create the new minimum performance standards for the website. Now the site moves on to standard performance management and updates as the analytics platform reveals insights newly available with the migrated site.
A website migration can be overwhelming in complexity, the sheer number of changes, and measuring and predicting the impact of changed search engine signals. Fortunately, a detailed plan and SEO specification help guarantee the existing equity is maintained, and improvements to the site are reflected in performance metrics after launch.
Plan thoroughly, scope accurately, and apply sufficient and skilled resources. Failure to follow proven guidelines can be disastrous, making a full recovery distant and unlikely.