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Website Migration Horror Stories: How to Ensure Your SEO Doesn't Take a Hit

13 Feb 2019 Rafe Block
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in SEO

Migrating your website is meaningful for brands of all sizes; new platforms and technologies can translate to faster website speeds, tighter control over your content and CMS, and a more modern, consumer-friendly design. However, it is important to be aware that a number of things can go wrong when migrating a website.

Often, migrations are overlooked because the work being done doesn’t necessarily seem like a major website overhaul. The truth is, any time there is a change on your website, it can be considered a type of migration. Therefore, it is important for website managers and marketing teams to be hyper-vigilant whenever there is talk about changing or updating a site.

Website migrations or redesigns require significant planning and strategy before implementing so as to not lose traffic and revenue from Google search. Since the task of moving a site is so complex, we always recommend that considerations around SEO are taken as early on in the process as possible.

Our team has been fortunate enough to work on a wide variety of site migrations, from a “simple” HTTP to HTTPS migration to server migrations and content migrations for rebrands, to name a few. And while a vast majority of migrations see little to no fluctuation in traffic and rankings—in fact, most migrations result in increases in organic traffic—there are always some things that can go wrong.

We compiled a few of the migration pitfalls we have experienced most frequently so your team can avoid them and help ensure that any future migration runs smoothly.

Click here to get our website migration checklist from Search Engine Land's  2018 Agency of the Year.

1. HTTP to HTTPS Migration
HTTP to HTTPS migration is the simple task of updating a website from an unsecured site to one with a valid SSL certificate. Since Google originally stated that they would have a more apparent security warning for Chrome users, most sites started the process of moving over to HTTPS and making it the new norm. Additionally, Google signaled that moving your site to a secure protocol would provide a ranking boost. The process of moving from HTTP to HTTPS requires an SSL certificate and redirects for each page. Below is an example of an HTTP to HTTPS migration for a client’s website that did not go as planned.

How It Went Wrong

In this example, the brand website was migrated from HTTP to HTTPS with minimal planning and strategy. This biggest issue in this case pertained to redirecting the URLs on the site to the new structure. Although the domain and URL path did not change, the mere act of having http://www.sitename.com/ change to https://www.sitename.com/ is technically changing the URLs.

In this case, the old HTTP URLs were not redirected into the new HTTPS structure, so all of the high-quality backlinks and authority that the website had built up over the years was completely lost due to these broken links. Pro tip: any time a URL structure on an important page on your website changes, even in the slightest, it is important to have your development team set up a 301 redirect pointing the old URL into the new one.

The below image highlights the shift in organic traffic after 301 redirects were put in place:

Migration1

 

How to Avoid This Issue

Fortunately for the brand, this fix only required a few spreadsheets with all of the URLs that had traffic and backlinks, and a quick find-and-replace to point them to the new HTTPS pages. Once we sent this off to the brand’s web development team, all our issues were resolved. As you can see above, our happy client is now enjoying a significant increase in organic traffic post-migration.

If you are in the process of migrating your site from HTTP to HTTPs, make sure you have a dedicated SEO team that can thoroughly plan ahead to make sure there is no significant drop in traffic and that all redirects are implemented properly before the migration occurs.

2. Changing Page Content + Design During Migrations
In this example, the opportunity to complete a migration also offered our client’s design team an opportunity to update the site structure and content. While it seems like a great idea to update everything simultaneously, it’s often not the best approach to safely maintain traffic. We recommend holding off on making multiple drastic changes to a website at once in order to allow your team to better assess any potential issues that may arise, such as a traffic decrease. While this phased approach may not always be possible, consider rolling out parts of an update and carefully measuring performance as opposed to one big launch.

Below is a graph of our client’s organic traffic at the point where major website design changes were made:

Migration2

 

How It Went Wrong:

During this migration, our client’s aim was to update their existing site's product pages to more streamlined pages that emphasized only product copy. However, the long-form copy that was currently on the page was exactly what Google loved about it—and the reason why it was ranking so well. Before the updates, this was one of the top-performing pages on their website, making up nearly 40% of their total organic traffic.

However, the page was ultimately updated, and lo and behold, the page began to drop in rank.

How to Avoid This Issue:

While we are always working closely with our clients to ensure that their pages provide the best user experience possible for their customers, working cross-channel with design teams can sometimes present a clashing of goals. What might seem like a snappy and sleek design may not always play well with search engines. Therefore, before any major design changes are made to your most important pages, it is critical to assess the types of keywords a page is ranking for organically and ensure that content related to those terms is not removed.

Even the physical location of the content on your pages indicates to Google what the page is about; if the content is lower down on the page, you may be telling Google that this content is less important and shouldn’t necessarily be taken into account for rankings. We are constantly performing these types of assessments for our clients to ensure that updates and changes to your site always blend the best of both worlds between creative UX and design, as well as strong search engine performance. If you are unsure of the effect something might have, consider testing a few pages, or a subset of pages before executing the migration.

3. Hosting Server Migration
Another type of site migration that may not necessarily seem like a full-on migration is a hosting server migration. Recently a brand we work with was migrating their website from one host to another due to page speed issues. Ultimately, this was the best decision because it offered a better user experience. This client’s blog is a powerful tool used to bring in new customers and increase brand awareness.

How It Went Wrong:

Typically, this migration may involve no changes in URLs or content. In this example, however, this was not the case.

From a technical standpoint, their entire blog was moved into a subdomain during this migration. What do we mean by this? The old blog lived at https://www.sitename.com/blog and was then moved to https://blog.sitename.com/ from a server perspective, however, we planned to use a reverse proxy to get the website to “live” under https://www.sitename.com/blog. The reason for this is because blogs perform better as a subfolder versus a subdomain.

This should have been a simple project. However, the reverse proxy was not implemented properly and both instances of the site were being indexed. This resulted in the blog posts having certain elements, such as OG tags, internal linking, and image databases, linking back to the subdomain instead of the subfolder as they should have. After outlining the issue with the developers and correcting the URLs, we then experienced another issue.

Once they no-indexed the subdomain and implemented a universal redirect for the URLs, the developers forgot to account for the fact that the main site had no trailing slashes, while the blog did. This involved an even more intensive recovery process to make sure all internal links were updated to the variant they had decided upon with no trailing slash. We created the redirects and checked the pages again and everything went back to normal, but unfortunately not after having traffic significantly impacted.

One of the biggest repercussions of this update was that the client’s AMP pages were deactivated due to discrepancies in the URLs.

Below is a snapshot of the organic traffic to their AMP pages across the migration:

Migration3


How to Avoid This Issue:

One of the biggest takeaways from this particular migration is to ensure efficient communication across the SEO and web development team during all phases of the migration process. Unfortunately, these two teams tend to speak their own languages, so it can be easy for something like a change in URLs to be overlooked by a web team but seen as a major issue for SEO. One of the best ways to keep communication open is to invite your SEO team leader to each major milestone meeting, even if it’s not marketing focused. Another tip would be to make sure that your development team has at least one team member join SEO calls during the migration process.

Our teams are constantly striving to work as closely as possible to web development teams and learn their internal languages in order to communicate most effectively. Website migrations can lead to improved user experience and revenue, so we don’t want to discourage them. However, it is important that you have the best teams in your corner to ensure that everything runs smoothly when the switch is made. If your team is considering a site migration, please feel free to reach out to Stella Rising with any questions or concerns.

In the meantime, download our Migration Checklist to see if your brand is ready for migration, and avoid any unexpected issues down the line. 

 

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