Participating in a website migration can be a truly fulfilling experience for a marketer. Chances are that you are a member of this effort as your site has taken a new identity, be it through aesthetics, a new message, or a new direction for your company. Possibly, the move is to ease internal resources and shift to a more manageable content management system. Whatever your company’s reasoning, know that your role as the SEO is the same as that of a surgeon performing a vital transplant. You have to give life to a new property while ensuring that all previous elements are transitional and able to perform as well as they used to…but hopefully better! You have a big job ahead of you, as you will be the collaborator, teacher, enforcer, and measurer of the effort.
No site redesign/migration effort is a sole movement, unless someone is an absolute genius who has uncovered the ability to work a 50-hour day! Effective website migrations require the collaborative devotion of decision-makers, web designers, web developers, and marketing personnel.
So, where do you, as the SEO, become involved? First, as someone who listens to the decision-makers, you have to ask what the goal of the migration is. Are they putting forth this new site to function better, be faster, be more informative, be more aesthetically pleasing, establish the brand, or convey a different message? Don’t be surprised if the answer is “all of the above.”
Second, you have to gain an understanding of your development/design team’s ability and how they plan to execute what the decision-makers need in the framework of the new site. Third, as the search engine marketer, you must educate all parties on how to take the goals of, and requirements for the new site and pair these with the structural needs. You must also teach them that adherence to SEO migration best practices is crucial and explain the probable negative consequences of not following these practices for search engine visibility.
Pay Heed to the Moment
The redesign/migration process is exciting. Instead of continually masking problems and applying Band-Aids to an old, ugly site, you can stand in front of a fresh canvas. What do you want that you have never had before? You are at an advantageous point at which you can completely rework the information architecture of your site to present your message and appeal to your audience and the search engines. You have gained an opportunity to categorize site content accordingly, fill content gaps, target additional keywords, move away from ugly, parameter-filled URLs, create a user-friendly and SEO-friendly navigational structure – the list of benefits goes on and on. As an SEO, you must remember to be a marketing professional, always bearing in mind that the new site must benefit users as well as the search-engine crawlers.
Be the Sheriff
When the ideas leave the drawing board and hit the staging server, you have to convey many stages of SEO best-practice management. This begins with restricting search engines’ access to staged content. Do you want the engines to index all site content as it is being built? I didn’t think so. This fear can be alleviated through robots.txt exclusion, and no-index tagging of the staging area and password protecting this platform for added security. You must also stress that there will be a 301 permanent redirect from all old site pages to the new ones. I do this via a two-column Excel spreadsheet, also including all changes to the information architecture and URL folder. This is quite possibly one of the most important processes of the website migration for SEO purposes. Failing to redirect historical site pages results in lost rankings, 404 error pages, lost page age, and passing of link weight.
In launching a new site, you probably don’t want to start over in the view of the search engines. You don’t want to lose the links and social attention you’ve brought to the site, as well as the age and trust you’ve gained in the search engines’ eyes. Sexy, image-heavy sites may load slowly. Do a full design review to look at page size, page speed, and dependence on pausing factors such as file references or requests.
When you’ve made your SEO assurances across keyword targeting, page loading, and page redirections, make sure that the restrictions you put in place in the beginning of development are lifted. Launching the site while excluding all site pages will lead to your disappearance in organic search.
How successful will you be if you do not measure metrics? Not very. It is imperative for the SEO measurement of the site redesign or migration to note certain criteria in prelaunch. These include ranking reports for targeting terms, home page and internal page-load time information, and index pages in Google and Bing. Post-launch, these will let you know how effective your migration efforts were from an SEO perspective. Aside from this, you should constantly monitor 404 error pages in Google Webmaster Tools to ensure that you didn’t miss any pages in the URL rewrite list mentioned above.
I emphasize the rewarding aspects of a website migration. However, the migration can be stressful for you, the SEO, as you will have to wear several different hats to ensure that all parties adhere to SEO best practices. Dotting all the I’s and crossing all the T’s will leave you with a much stronger site moving forward.
This article was originally published in SES Magazine – Chicago in November 2012.