There are two things that scare SEOs more than anything else. The first is, of course, Google Algorithm updates. This profession has a far greater percentage of people who suffer from Robrophobia (fear of Pandas) and Sphenisciphobia (yep, you guessed it, fear of Penguins) than any other. I couldn’t find the word for a fear of Hummingbirds but that’s probably because they’re just too cute and not scary at all.
The second thing that scares SEOs more than anything else, is a site migration. When the word ‘migration’ is mentioned, those working in organic search marketing tend to have a reaction of some sort, ranging from eye-rolling, spitting on the ground to ward of evil spirits, or openly weeping in front of their colleagues. Yes, site migrations are terrifying, but a good SEO will always be prepared.
Why are they so scary?
Search engine optimisation, in its truest form, is not so much something that happens alongside the day-to-day goings-on of a website, but is in fact the website itself. From Alt Tags and Meta Descriptions, to Microformatting and Server Response Times. Everything affects SEO in some way, from the minor to the major. Throughout the life of a website, hundreds, if not thousands of changes will occur that a good SEO will be on hand to advise about. This is fine – site’s need updating of course, and this steady stream of singular changes keeps your average SEO in a job. But imagine two years worth of changes happening overnight, including in many cases some really huge ones, such as domains being swapped (*gulp*). If there is one sure fire way to mess up years of accrued optimisations and decimate ranking profiles and keyword portfolios, it’s a site migration.
How To Prepare For A Site Migration
First of all, you, as the SEO, need to be involved from the start. As soon as the word ‘migration’ is uttered, you need to be in every meeting. Whatever business you’re in, there will be some people in your company who won’t even think organic search performance will be affected – the notion won’t even enter their heads. From the CEO to members of your Dev team, they won’t have SEO in mind because they’ll have so many other things in mind, and therefore you have to be there for every meeting to both educate and fight your corner.
There are also some key questions to ask in those early meetings (and keep checking up on them throughout the process because things have a habit of changing without you being told).
- Do we really need to change the domain? (if you can avoid that, you avoid a lot of pain)
- Is the architecture changing?
- Are the site’s page templates changing?
The reason you have to ask these questions is that throughout different teams in the business, the word ‘migration’ can mean different things. To a Creative team, it might mean a purely cosmetic change – a re-brand. Whereas to the Dev Ops team, it might mean a change in servers or server host and nothing else. It might mean both of those and a lot more besides, so get all of the info you can – you’re going to need it.
When you have confirmed exactly what sort of Migration is happening, follow the necessary steps from the list below:
- Manage company expectations regarding what a migration can do to SEO (there will be fluctuations in rankings – make sure the boss knows that this will happen)
- Plan your 301 redirects and pass them to your developers to execute in CSV format (if you’re going to be losing pages or switching URLs, make sure you have 301 redirects on all those URLs and that they’re pointing to the most relevant pages on the new site)
- Confirm status of Sitemap – will anything be changing? (Do you need to do any work in Search Console? Put a checklist together of what’s changing on the site that you’ll need to change here)
- Ensure GA is set up for your new site, and have conversion goals ready before launch (Nothing worse than lost data – get the tech team to set this up early and follow all of Google’s guidelines)
- Back up all essential content – H1s, Meta Descriptions, On Page Copy, etc (I’ve known it happen where all of this was lost when the switch was made. Making a back up file of this information can save you a lot of pain should anything go wrong)
- Perform a website crawl for future reference (Use Deepcrawl, Botify or a similar tool to crawl the website and make a record of how everything used to look so that you’ll be able to spot anything that has gone wrong when checking it all in the future)
- Ensure content is written for any new pages (get your copywriters churning out keyword targeted copy)
Then What Do I Do?
Eventually the time will come where there’s nothing more you can do. With all the preparations made, it’s time to throw the switch and pray to the SEO Gods for their favour.
The day the change happens, you need to be on your toes, checking, double-checking and rechecking everything. Did it all go ok? Was anything lost? Did anything change that shouldn’t have. The next couple of weeks will be very busy for the SEO, but here are some of the essential tasks for you to undertake:
- Run a crawl on the new website, then compare against previous crawl for new errors and prioritise fixes as appropriate
- Create or upload new content for any new pages – remember not to duplicate!
- Upload new Sitemap / Resubmit Sitemap if location is unchanged (and perform a general check of Search Console, changing anything else that’s necessary)
- Check and monitor Google Search Console for any errors and fix immediately if possible
- Check all Schema markup is working properly
- Double check all internal links to ensure they are pointing at new pages (if you’ve done your 301s properly, this won’t be too much of an issue, but it’s best to sort them out early anyway)
- Double check all owned social media pages (and posts if possible) and ensure they are pointing at new pages
- Contact key influencers and request updates to links / new links to site (get your blogger network working for you, and start generating new links from preferred sites quickly)
- Engage in new blogger outreach/social activities to obtain new links to the new site
- Monitor Local SEO results (if used) and ensure these are still appearing as they should be
This should be enough to ensure the smoothest journey for your SEO during a migration. You’ll see any issues as they happen and be able to respond to them quickly. And you’ll be able to answer those questions that will get fired at you by those higher up as well.
What If It All Goes Wrong?
If you see rankings start to fluctuate, don’t panic. This is natural as Google’s spiders get used to your new website. For the next couple of weeks, you might see a few #3 rankings become #7 rankings and then returning to #3 again. Of course if this is happening beyond two weeks after the changes, you need to have another look at the status of your site to ensure nothing really strange is going on somewhere.
If your rankings fall off a cliff, then there’s an issue. Potentially a big one. Look at all of your reports, talk to the developers who made the changes and put on your best investigating hat. Go through the html with a fine tooth comb and test the loading speeds. If you do find the issue by doing all of that, you then need to work with your tech team and get it fixed fast.
If the problem persists, and you can’t find anything wrong, then there’s a real issue that probably goes beyond the realms of traditional SEO. If traffic has nosedived and you can’t find a way of fixing it quickly, then there’s one last resort option left for you – Reversion. This is why stores have soft openings. Revert to the old site until you can fix the issue. Rankings should return to a similar level as to before the change was made, so at least you’ll be getting some traffic through. Then get every brain you can working out what went wrong. Find the error, fix it, and launch again.
And You’re Done
Enjoy the new website, and go get some links going to it. If everything goes well, in a couple of weeks, it will be as if nothing ever changed. Of course, as an SEO, if it goes well and no-one notices any issues, you might not get any thanks for it. But just remember that you have pleased the SEO Gods, and take comfort from a job well done. You may not get the credit from others, but you’ll know how well you did. And when it’s all done, you can go back to worrying about Pandas and Penguins like the rest of us, at least until the next migration…