7 Big Content/Site Migration Tips A Layman Can Understand
A lot of folks come to us asking us to help them restore a decline in website traffic that occurred after a site migration or major update. Typically, most – if not all – of the traffic loss was preventable. There’s a lot of different update and migration scenarios and a lot of different things that can go wrong, but we keep seeing many of the same underlying issues.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll define a migration as anytime a large amount of pages or content move from old URLs to new URLs whether it be migrating an entire site to a new domain, a subdomain to a subdirectory, merging a small site into a bigger one, or what have you.
And I’ll assert that most potential problems with any migration can be prevented by following 7 fundamental pieces of advice so simple that even a CEO should understand.
- Understand the Stakes
- Make Sure No Content is Missing
- (Properly) Redirect Every URL
- You Need a (Cross-Functional) Migration Team
- You Need a Pre-Launch Plan
- You Need a Post-Launch Plan
- Use Tools
1. Understand the Stakes
Things can go really wrong with migrations.
There’s horror story after horror story after horror story after horror story, and I (and any other veteran SEO) have seen enough after-effects of botched migrations to tell you the risk is very real.
So the first step in a migration is to make sure everyone involved realizes the importance of doing the migration right, because:
- A lot of traffic can be lost.*
- This traffic has value.
- Missing traffic can mean permanently missed opportunities.
- Restoring organic traffic declines can take weeks or months.
- It’s easier to prevent migration problems than to fix them.
Thus, mitigating risk and minimizing losses is of utmost importance.
A lot of migration problems happen simply because there isn’t a person of sufficient influence who knows enough to know they should insist on doing the migration right.
*For many migrations, like domain migrations, there will always be some initial traffic loss – but the severity and duration is very highly dependent on execution. For many migrations, initial traffic loss is completely avoidable.
2. Make Sure No Content is Missing
It’s a little mind boggling to think that someone might have pages with content that draws traffic, move things around and lose the content, and then wonder why traffic is down.
And yet it happens – often.
Don’t let it happen to you. If any content is missing, or is not 100% guaranteed to arrive when the new site or upgrade is launched, then you are not ready for launch.* Simple.
*There is one exception to this rule – and that is if the web team has come to the careful conclusion that the site would be better off without certain content. Just make sure that decision is based on what is best for the site, not because someone is not willing or able to move the content.
3. (Properly) Redirect Every URL
So even if you’ve made sure there is a home for all the articles in your blog or all the products in your catalog, you can still be quite screwed if the content can’t be located by visiting the old URL it used to be on. So, if the content of Page X gets moved to page Y, then you need to make darned sure that visitors to Page X get sent directly to page Y. This is called a redirect, and here’s why it’s important:
- People don’t only get to pages on your site from your site. They might be getting to the page because they have it bookmarked, because a search engine sends them to it, or because another site links to it.
- If a person tries to get to a page in one of these ways, and there is no longer content at that page, they’ll get a “Page Not Found” error. They won’t like that, and they’ll be less likely to do what you wanted them to on your site and less likely to come back.
- If you properly redirect those moved pages, the search engines will associate the authority signals of the old URLs with the new URLs. That means, all other things equal, the new URLs will rank well for the same keywords as the old URLs, and there will be no disruption in organic traffic. If you do not redirect the URLs, then the new URLs are treated as new pages, and must start trying to rank for keywords from scratch.
- If the content still lives on the old URLs as well as the new URLs, then you have duplicate content. This is a big problem for search engine optimization.
Thus, every URL with moved content needs redirected.
There’s one technical detail you need to know here you must use permanent redirects, also known as 301 redirects. If you do not use permanent redirects, then search engines do not known that the content has permanently moved and will not associate all of the authority signals of the old page with the new page – thus the new page is still starting from scratch in the eyes of the search engine.
Also note that a proper redirect is not from any page to any page; it must be to content with the same or very similar content (not ten zillion 301 redirects to the home page).
Most of the migration damage I’ve seen is caused by failure to ensure all content is live and/or all URLs are properly redirected.
4. You Need a (Cross-Functional) Migration Team
So there’s a few other problems that can happen during migrations. To avoid them, you need a plan. For the plan to be adequate, you need a team working on it. And you need the team members to have different areas of expertise and frames of reference to ensure you don’t miss anything big. Often the root cause of migration issues is that the migration was dominated by someone lacking the holistic frame of reference or full range of knowledge need to plan and do everything right. Plus, it’s easier for several heads to catch something than one head.
Below are a few of the characters you might see in a proper migration task force.
The SEO makes sure organic search traffic doesn’t take any big hits. Major related tasks may include ensuring proper redirects are in place, snuffing out duplicate content issues, submitting XML Sitemaps, submitting changes of address, and more to ensure search engines fully understand the new changes in a timely manner.
The Back-End Developer
The back-end developer is typically the person who “flips the switch” to make the migration happen. This implementation specialist should also make sure the site doesn’t break in the process, help other team members bring their ideas to fruition, and make sure changes happen in an efficient manner.
If you advertise, and you don’t account for advertising in your game-planning, then you could be in for a few unwelcome surprises. For example, if your advertising links go to a missing page, you can waste some serious money as well as seriously tick off any affiliates you have working on commission. And if you change domains and you use AdWords, you need to change the display and destination URL of every ad, even if you use redirects. The advertising specialist can address these issues while making sure the brand experience is consistent and positive.
The Customer Experience Advocate
You’ll want someone on who will ensure that users won’t be saying “WTF!?”. Whether it’s be a rockstar usability consultant or your customer service rep who knows what people always have trouble finding, you’ll need someone on the team who knows the customer and will make sure the customer gets what they’re looking for.
The best cast for a migration team depends on the situation. Maybe you have one advertiser handling branding, one advertiser handling paid search, a customer service rep, and a developer who is amazing at SEO, and that team could work out for you. Or maybe all you have is 2 of these competencies in house, and you hire a consultant. The important thing is to ensure each of these roles is played well – otherwise you’re in for an unhappy ending.
Character Image Credits: Dilbert, Bitchdujour.com, Mad Men, Every Website Ever.
5. You Need a Pre-Launch Plan
The migration team’s mission is to develop a step-by-step plan and execute the plan to perfection. Wingin’ a migration often doesn’t work out well.
Fortunately, there’s already a few great checklists out there to build from, including, but not limited to:
Here’s a few pointers on the pre-launch checklist:
- Use a checklist that fits your type of migration (cms upgrade, domain-only migration, site-merge, re-design, etc…).
- Don’t use any existing checklist without improving to fit your specific situation.
- Have the whole team involved in building the checklist.
- Do not move forward until everything is crossed off the list.
- Measure twice thrice, cut once.
6. You Need a Post-Launch Plan
A lot of folks stop after launch-time. That’s how you crash and burn. Before you’re ready to launch, you also need to have post-launch game plan set. There’s three main elements: follow-ups, diagnostics and monitoring, and problem resolution. Note that many of the post-launch tasks are time-sensitive, so you’ll need to plan carefully to minimize downtime and nip issues in the bud before they become huge problems.
Once the URLs themselves are migrated, you’ll likely need to update a few things. Examples include (but are not limited to):
- Submitting new XML Sitemaps
- Submitting change of address to Google and Bing
- Updating local business listings
- Making advertising URL changes go live
Diagnostics and Monitoring
I’ll be honest – the last migration LunaMetrics saw through did not go exactly as planned. However, we nipped the problems in the bud within 24 hours because we had a system to check for problems. They do arise, so do make sure the team understands major potential threats and plans to check for each possible problem post-upgrade. You’ll want a combination of:
- manual site spot-checks
- data analysis
- a comprehensive site crawl
If there’s an issue, who you gonna call? You don’t want to be scramble for two hours only to find out that the only person who can fix the problem is vacationing in a remote village in Borneo. There should be a team on stand-by prepared to deal with issues.
7. Use Tools
Don’t leave it up to up to human error, and don’t be inefficient. Use tools to smooth the process and make mistakes easier to catch. Below are four essential tools you’ll need, especially for to check on things before and after the update.
- Google Analytics
- Google Webmaster Tools
- Bing Webmaster Tools
- A Website crawler – for example, Xenu Link Sleuth or Screaming Frog
A lot of websites shoot themselves in the foot during migrations. While there’s a ton of things that can go wrong, I’ve found they can almost always be avoided, or at least promptly resolved, by following the fundamentals. So be smart and use teamwork and careful planning to ensure your migration leaves you in better – rather than worse – shape than before.