As a marketer, you are kept busy. These days, that invariably means a series of digital updates and redesigns. This article will arm you with enough knowledge to ask the right questions when you are launching your new website so that you can ensure that all the bases are covered. And in some cases migrating an existing website, as you will see below.
We are going to assume that your website is substantially complete. Looking back, the whole site has been designed, the sales copy is written, the new images are prepared and the pages are built. The functionality on the website may include things like lead-capture forms, demo requests, whitepaper downloads, dealer locator map functions, an online store, etc. Your quality assurance team has found, tracked and resolved any issues from the development process. Everything has gone well… and it is time to “migrate” the new site. Or sometimes referred to as “deploying the site,” or “pushing the site live,” or “pushing the staging site to the production site.” We will be calling it a site migration.
What is a Website Migration?
The term site migration is tricky because it’s open to interpretation. For SEO professionals, migration is an event where you make substantial changes to your website that can impact the visibility of your site on search engines. For developers and designers, migration is generally thought of as an act where you move your site from one “place to another.”
Migration is a general term given to changes to an existing website that substantially alter the website as a whole, as opposed to a minor update that only alters a few existing pages. If you are a marketer, you are likely involved in changes like content updates, page layout, functionality, or navigation, that don’t seem like much. Though, in the background, your web team may have made necessary changes to the codebase, file structure, content management systems, the servers where the website is hosted, or the domain address. Any of which will necessitate a website migration.
The most common website migration changes
Whenever you change any of the following aspects of your website, it will likely trigger a migration:
A network protocol is the set of rules that describe how data is exchanged between different types of computers on a network. If you have been involved in managing your brand’s website for a few years, chances are that you have already come across a protocol change from HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol) to HTTPS – where the “S” stands for secure. Secure communication is a high priority for Google. Consequently, 90 percent of all web traffic uses HTTPS today.
A subdomain compartmentalizes your web content to avoid nested subfolders that make the URL unwieldy. An example of a subdomain may look something like this: “thiscontent.yoursite.com” and a subdirectory implementation might look like this: “yoursite.com/content/thiscontent”. Common implementations include different regional localizations (e.g. sfbay.craigslist.org), different functions (e.g. www.ring.com and shop.ring.com), content differences for different audiences (e.g. gm.com, media.gm.com and investor.gm.com). There is an ongoing debate about the SEO impacts of subdomains versus subdirectories.
A domain name is “an identification string that defines a realm of administrative autonomy, authority or control within the Internet.” In other words, the thing that we say when people ask, “What is your website?” Occasionally, a brand may change its domain due to a brand-name change or acquisition by another company, etc. In such a case, your website URL will change from www.olddomain.com to www.newdomain.com.
The top-level domain (TLD) is the highest organizing principle on the web. The top-level domain is the two or three letters that go after the final dot in your website URL. It includes .com, .org .gov, etc. It is unlikely that a brand will change from .com to .org, though a localized website that reflects the country that you are targeting (e.g. walmart.com in the USA, walmart.ca in Canada and walmart.com.mx in Mexico). In some instances, a company may have their own TLD, e.g. Abbott Laboratories owns .abbott and Pfizer has .pfizer.
A new content management system or e-commerce platform
A content management system is the server software that manages the pages and content on one or more websites. Over 65% of all websites use a commercially available CMS. And there are custom-coded CMSes. A CMS change might be moving your website from an open-source platform like WordPress or Drupal to an enterprise-class CMS.
Your website’s structure is how the different pages on your site are connected using internal links. These links form a hierarchy. For the user, it is how the information on your site is organized and presented; for Google’s web crawlers, it provides a contextual framework for the information. A well-designed website structure allows easy navigation for both users and crawlers which improves the SEO ranking of your website in searches.
Hybrid or combinations
This type of migration is pretty self-explanatory. It happens when two or more of the above changes are undertaken at once – which is quite common.
Following the plan
Website migrations are complex and will require a detail-oriented approach. The development team should be following a project plan and a set of checklists that have been customized for your project. The plan and checklists will ensure that nothing is skipped over during the migration. Making a plan and reviewing it with all the accountable team members is the best way to ensure that every part of the website is transferred and working as designed.
Irrespective of the type of changes that made your website migration necessary, the migration should include a detailed SEO migration, aimed to preserve the knowledge that Google has gathered about your website over time. Strictly speaking, SEO migration is a key part of website migration, though given how critical SEO protection is, it is useful to think of it separately.
We are going to look at why SEO migration is so important.
Before we go further, it is a good idea to get a basic understanding of how a website becomes “Googlable” in the first place. The place to start is to answer the question: How does Google find every page on the Internet? And the answer is: it doesn’t. More on that in a minute.
You may be wondering why we are only emphasizing Google. True, there are over 30 major commercial search engines on the Internet. Though the Google search engine, and all of the other search-capable properties that Google owns, like YouTube, Google Maps and Google images, account for 90% of all searches on the open web. That makes Google over twenty times more popular than Bing and Yahoo combined. Your ongoing Search Engine Optimization efforts will be inefficient if you invest resources in optimizing for any of the others.
So, back to the question of “Googlability”: There is no regulatory body that is responsible for creating an index or table of contents for the World Wide Web. Making an Internet index is the source of Google’s success. To make this index and to maintain it, Google constantly searches for as many websites as it can. One of the ways Google does this is by using a type of software that goes by names like web crawlers, spiders or robots. Google’s robot is affectionately called Googlebot. A web crawler loads a set of web pages, then software algorithms copy all the information on the page, reads the code and content, analyzes the page according to over two hundred criteria and creates a keyword index associated with the page and the website as a whole. The spider will then follow all the links on the webpage and repeat the process all over again wherever it lands, gradually progressing to websites all over the world.
Every website gains additional value according to the value of the sites that link to it. It is similar to being judged by the company you keep. A link carries with it its domain authority, relevance rating, and other important quality factors. If your web page gets links from high-quality sources, your web page is likely to rank higher. This is called link equity, or “link juice,” and it is a powerful boost to your “Googleability.” The rationale is that the internet community–“actual humans”--is acknowledging your web page’s authority by linking to it directly.
Conversely, if Googlebot doesn’t find any links to a particular website, that page will not be indexed (https://www.google.com/search?q=sad+trombone). This often happens for new websites, because nobody knows about them yet. To mitigate this, savvy website developers will directly request that Google index their new website to get the ball rolling.
Showing up in Google’s search results: Search Engine Results Page (SERP)
Google’s method for organizing the listing on a search engine results page (SERP) is referred to as ranking. The first results following the paid advertisements are the top-ranked organic search results. The SERP ranking is based on Google’s analysis, the algorithm, of your relevance concerning the search query. The algorithm is a closely guarded secret for a whole host of obvious reasons, including “to prevent people from gaming the results.” Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the practice of tweaking your website content, structure and code to most accurately conform to Google’s algorithms. Or at least, what SEO professionals believe Google’s algorithms are responding to when one of your prospects makes a query.
The Open, the Deep and the Dark Web
There are parts of the web that Google will never find. The web crawling happens on the Open Web, sometimes called the Surface Web. The Deep Web is made of all the pages that are purposefully hidden from Google’s search engines. In some situations, the owners of those sites request Google not to index particular content. This could be because these sites are unimportant in the context of a search, like “thank-you pages, or because the content should not be publicly accessible, like internal documents on a corporate intranet or services that require users to sign in, like LinkedIn. The Deep Web is about 90% of all web pages. The Dark Web is something different. The Dark Web is not findable using Google searches and requires alternative software to access it and is not relevant to this discussion.
Google and your website: a beautiful relationship. Don’t mess it up.
Each time Googlebot visits your website, it adds a bit more history to Google’s databases and updates rankings for the keywords and search phrases that your prospects and customers routinely use to find your website. In addition to link equity, Google also values both topical consistency and freshness. Adding new and updated content that is in line with what Google regards as your area of expertise improves your perceived authority with Google.
Tempora mutantur – over time, change is inevitable
Inevitably though, you will change your website, and it will impact what Google knows about your website and the metrics that give you your rankings. Out there in the real world, most companies redesign their website every three years or so. Redesigns can be an effort to keep up with changes in your business, your current business environment, design trends, or web technologies. And Google will watch to make sure that you stay relevant, useful, and usable so that it can reliably send you visitors who will be happy with what they find.
Where did you think you were going?
Here is where to be careful: if you migrate to a new website, almost all of the associated URLs will likely change, too. Any unexpected URL string will give an error. If nothing is done to mitigate this, your site could have hundreds of “404 Page not found” errors.
If a SERP listing gets lost on a 404 page, 1) your users will be disappointed, and 2) your ranking will be demolished as your page will eventually [gradually?] be dropped from the search engine’s index.
Saving lost clicks
Redirecting outdated requests is at the heart of SEO migration. Redirection is when a browser requests an outdated link and the request is returned with a 300 series HTTP status code, usually “301 Permanently Moved,” and a new link. This way, the website visitor (or the Googlebot) has a seamless transition to the new page. The user will be oblivious to this sleight of hand, but Google will note the 301 and update its database with the new information and reindex the new page. A 301 redirect is the best redirection method for SEOs as it has been proven to pass on around 90% link equity from the redirected page.
“OK, I got it. So now what do I do as a manager?”
Now you have the basics to understand what website and SEO migrations are and what is at stake. Here is a set of questions that you should ask your web team or web-development agency to make sure that they are being diligent in preparing for and managing the migration and protecting your search engine equity.
1. “What is your migration plan for this type of project, and when will it be reviewed during the development process?”
This is an opportunity to get a sense of the agency’s knowledge regarding the strengths and weaknesses in both platforms, old and new. Ideally, the migration plan and checklists should be updated several times during the design-and-development phase to accommodate any issues or changes that arise.
2. “How will we measure the successes and identify deficiencies of the new website?”
Success comes in many forms. What is the process to get agreement on what success looks like for your particular website — before you begin development? Will success be based on increased traffic? SERP ranking? Keyword ranking? Click-through rates and conversions? Engagement metrics? The website’s key performance indicators (KPIs) should be established for short-, medium- and long-term goals. Make sure that the team has specific, rational and measurable targets, and that the team will be on hand to deal with the results after the launch.
3. “Do you plan to use a subdomain for the new website, or will you change the directory structure?”
Whatever the answer, ask your web team to explain their reasoning for this recommendation. Both of these approaches entail significant complications. There are differing opinions as to which approach is better depending on the situation. Make sure that the developer can explain their reasoning for their approach--especially in terms of the impact on SEO and their plan to mitigate any losses.
4. “What is your quality assurance plan for testing before launching the new website? Will you plan for a staged rollout?”
It is wise to test one section of a website on multiple platforms, including mobile, before implementing the changes site-wide. When you are sure that everything works correctly, continue moving your website piece by piece.
5. “How will you identify all of the highest-ranking pages and the most valuable content to make sure that it won't be lost or deleted during the site redesign?”
This is a great starting point to get your team on the same page about fundamental issues that are important to your business. Your agency should have a plan to review your current content in terms of SEO value and SERP performance. This process will generate a list of priority pages. You might have planned to modify or delete some of the old pages, in which case your agency will be able to advise you as you are making these decisions. Any existing page that has earned significant page authority should be preserved in the migration, to reduce your traffic loss or drop in SERP ranking.
6. “What is your strategy for managing 301 redirects?”
Failing to redirect requests for your old pages will damage your brand perception and will have a cascading effect on your SERP ranking over time (quicker than you think!). Ask your developer about their approach and, in particular, what tools they are using to ensure that navigation and crawler errors are kept to a minimum.
7. “How will you identify and update all of the internal and external links throughout the website?”
Existing links within the website can be difficult to find. To make matters worse, as your website has grown and changed incrementally over time, the way that internal links have been coded might be inconsistent. A site visitor who gets a 404 when navigating “inside” your website will be even less impressed than someone getting the same result from a Google search.
8. “How will the design of the new website improve the user experience when they get a 404 error?”
Will they update the 404 page to help push users towards the content they are looking for? How will they get creative with this page to impress users instead of irritating them? Most of all, will the 404 page provide useful help to get the user where they want to go?
9. “What is the monitoring plan during and after the site migration?”
This relates to the earlier question about measuring success, though it is worth bringing up again to discuss the developer agency’s commitment to quality assurance and responsiveness to errors or redirection leaks following the migration.
10. “What is the timeline to complete the site migration?”
Choosing the right timeline for site migration can be important, depending on your business cycle and upcoming milestones. No matter how prepared you are, there are inherent risks. Therefore, work with your agency to find a timeline that fits your needs and allows for a suitable margin of safety. Look for a timeline with an appropriate number of milestones, so that everyone is kept informed about the actual progress versus the original projection.
We hope this has given you at least enough background to be able to ask the right question during this crucial part of the journey. Our goal is to help you communicate internally with your team. Because we know that as a marketer you are kept busy. This should be one less thing to worry about.