Unremitting search engine algorithm updates and ever increasing consumer expectations online have conditioned us as online marketers to constant change on the Internet. And we recognize that in order to keep up in an increasingly competitive online marketplace, we must evolve with these changes. For our websites this means that everything from a website redesign to domain name will likely require sprucing up at some point. Unfortunately, website migrations for sites of all sizes can be a complicated and time-consuming undertaking—one riddled with potential SEO pitfalls that can cause a significant drop in traffic and/or negatively impact your customers’ on-site user experience. Fortunately, an SEO-centric website migration strategy can not only help you avoid these dangers and retain current traffic, but also increase traffic and improve your site’s offering over time. Although each migration or redesign is unique, there are some core SEO website migration best practices which every marketer should consider:
- Develop a pre-migration timeline- Thorough pre-migration analysis and documentation of your current website, content inventory, existing URLs, and links will help your avoid a website migration train wreck once you flip the switch. Depending on the size and complexity of your site, it may take your team weeks to map your URLs and develop an inventory of existing links/content. Make sure to factor in at least 2 to 8 weeks of pre-migration preparation before determining a migration deadline.
- Coordinated effort between Marketing and IT- Often IT and Marketing teams have different priorities when planning a website redesign. While IT teams are typically concerned with upgrading the speed and technical backend of your website, Marketing teams are commonly focused on site navigation and design. A well executed website migration requires insight from both IT and Marketing, and should be approached as a collaborative effort.
- SEO-friendly CMS platform – You want to move forward with your website migration, not backwards. If you’re switching content management systems (CMS), make sure to select a system that’s an improvement on your current system’s SEO offering. Does your CMS allow you to customize internal anchor texts, edit page-specific meta-data, and create custom URLs? Current SEO-friendly CMS platforms include: Drupal, Joomla, and WordPress.
- Develop a content silo strategy- In order to achieve high rankings and attract customers, websites must provide information that is clearly structured and keyword-rich. A content organization scheme will help improve on-site navigation, making it easier for customers to quickly understand the content of your website. Content silos will also enable search engines to crawl deeper pages of your site crawl, and improve your site’s topic authority around highly searched, location- and/or industry-specific categories.
- Document all existing URLs and content- Create an inventory of all the pages of your site and map them to their new destination URLs. Prioritize high-performing pages according to traffic, rankings, revenue, and links, and manually migrate top-performing pages.
- Define a proper destination for all existing pages- Imagine you were moving to a new house. To avoid chaos in your new home, you’d label the boxes while packing according to the contents’ intended destination in your new place. For example, dishes, glasses, and cups would be labeled in a “Kitchen” box; blanket, sheets, and pillows would be labeled in a “Bedroom” box, and so on. The same is true for your content. To make the migration process as streamlined as possible, work out and document where you want your content to exist post-migration.
- Implement 301 redirects across your site- Links define your website’s reputation online. Unfortunately, when URLs change, links break. So one of the most important steps in a migration is to implement permanent 301 redirects across your site. Implement 301 page-to-page redirects to permanently redirect pages on your old site to relevant pages on your new site. This will inform the search engines that your site has moved.
- Inform valuable links of migration- If you have links from high-authority sites, e.g., The New York Times, contact the webmaster of each site to request link change from the old URLs to the new site. This may be a manual process, but it is well worth the effort.
- Monitor traffic and crawl errors post-migration- Review crawl errors regularly to confirm that the 301s from your old site are working properly and check for unwanted 404 errors.
- Retain control of old domain- Retain control of your domain post-migration for at least 180 days.
Website migrations or redesigns are at once painful and exciting. The move usually takes longer than you planned. But hopefully this checklist will help you end up in the home of your dreams without breaking any dishes along the way.
What’s been your experience with website migrations or redesigns? Any horror stories you’d like to share? Or any other tips to ensure a smooth move?