Imagine you have a shop selling coffee cups. It’s a neatly arranged store and products are easy to find, with an aisle for each color of cup. But you decide to move to a new location. Overnight, you pack up, board up the windows and lock the door. The next day you open in the morning in your new location. There’s just one small problem. No one knows you’ve moved. Your sales take a hit because old customers can’t find you and too few new customers are coming in the door. You’re left asking yourself, “Where did I go wrong?”
It seems fundamental, right? If you’re moving your brick-and-mortar business you announce the move to let people know when you’re moving, and you tell your customers where they can find you. The same should be true for your online presence. Whether you sell coffee cups, hotel rooms, or advice, if you move your website, you help your audience find you.
But it isn’t obvious. I’ve seen it too many times. A company’s decision makers move their website to a new platform or do a complete overhaul of its content but never stop to consider SEO. In fact, SEO never crosses their minds until they see a big drop in traffic (or sales) after the site relaunches. What happened? No one accounted for SEO.
SEO sometimes gets a bad rap for being “snake oil,” (and certainly I’ve seen my share of bad SEO advice), but search engine optimization is a completely valid and necessary thing for every successful website. Part of good SEO is knowing what works well on your site and what doesn’t. When your website moves, you have to leave instructions for humans and search engines to know where to find what they’re looking for. If you want a full tutorial for how to do this, there are plenty online from great sources. If you’re looking for migration tips from a management perspective, check out Aubrae Wagner’s blog post here. But here’s my quick take on five things that are important but often overlooked.
Know Your Baseline
If you don’t know where you are right now, you won’t be able to measure anything accurately after changes are made. Use Google Analytics, Moz, Screaming Frog, SEMRush, or any of the other great SEO tools out there to determine your key metrics such as where you rank for key terms and phrases, how much traffic your pages are getting (and from which sources), and how traffic flows through your site. Once your site migrates, check again to see if any of these metrics change drastically. If you’ve done things right, they shouldn’t. If your rankings or traffic tank, you’ll know something isn’t right. Knowledge is power!
Crawl and Map URLs
Before you begin any website changes related to a site migration, use a tool such as Screaming Frog to crawl your site. This type of tool gives you a list of your site’s URLs and useful data about each page. You can export and use the list to figure out which pages you’re going to keep, which ones you will remove or rewrite, and where you’re going to redirect the ones that are going away. Let’s say you have a page for red coffee mugs, but on the new site, you’re going to group red and pink mugs together. The current URL is www.mugs.com/red-mugs, but the new site’s URL will be www.mugs.com/red-pink-mugs. You can “map” the red mugs URL to the red and pink mugs page in this spreadsheet so everyone knows what the plan is for these pages. Create a sitemap with all the URLs on your site and list how they fall under your navigation. Basically, lay out your full URL plan.This will save you headaches and mistakes later!
A 301 redirect is a way of directing users and search engines to a replacement destination: “Oh, you were looking for page A. Here’s a good match for what you’re looking for instead!” (See the previous red mugs example). If you don’t plan redirects, users and search engines will be lost on 404 pages, which is problematic for many reasons, the major one being a terrible user experience. When you’re done mapping your URLs, be sure to loop in your technology team on which URLs are going away and where they need to redirect on the new site.
If your whole URL structure or domain is changing, you’ll want to 301 redirect everything to the new version of the URLs. You’ll want to have the redirects in place before the site goes live so the new site doesn’t start out returning 404 errors to your site visitors.
Run the Site Crawl Again
I recommend re-running another Screaming Frog report and checking all your tools on the new site within a few hours after launch. Look for any errors or incorrect URL attributes and fix those immediately. Make sure your metadata looks correct. Be sure to catch any lingering 404 errors you might have missed and set up 301 redirects. Check your page load speed to see if it is too slow. Be sure everything is functioning as expected.
Use Search Console
If you haven’t set up Google Search Console for your site yet, I highly recommend it. It’s free and simple to do. It offers a wealth of information about how Google sees your site, including the errors it finds. It’s invaluable data, especially if you’re about to change things up. There are great tutorials on using GSC. For a site migration, you’ll want to look at crawl stats and errors, the robots.txt section, and the sitemap section. I’ll dive into these more in future posts, but for now, the links I’ve shared should get you started.
A Final Note
It’s worth saying that if your site isn’t responsive (mobile friendly) or if you haven’t made the switch to HTTPS yet, a content migration to a new site is the perfect time to address both of these critical elements. These are important enough that Google has emphasized them multiple times on their blog, and SEOs have confirmed (or at least generally agree) that both of these are ranking factors.
If you’re planning a site migration or just have questions about how this all works, reach out to us. Contact Harris by phone at 864-354-0566 or email at [email protected].