I was lucky enough to talk at the inaugural Manyminds Give It A Go Conference last Friday which featured a wide range of speakers from across the SEO and digital marketing industry.
My #MMGiveItAGo talk focused on migration techniques and how you can hopefully avoid some of the worst case scenarios which face any SEO. When you’re looking a doing a migration, this is the perfect time to put forward technical SEO suggestions.
It’s no secret that CTI is primarily a development agency with a large group of talented developers focusing on building lead generation and content sites in Drupal and Umbraco, and ecommerce sites in Magento.
Our marketing team also support our clients and help make sure that when a new site is launched it’s in a position to benefit from the best possible organic visibility levels.
The key for me from an SEO perspective is to get involved right at the beginning of the build process. These websites are being built so people can find and interact with them, why wouldn’t SEO be the touchstone for the build?
Something which can be overlooked in regards to SEO audits conducted outside of site builds is that all of these suggestions that we make have to be paid for by our clients out of a separate budget and have to be scheduled in around other pieces of work. If there have been SEO considerations sidelined for an amount of time, a rebuild is ideal for presenting additional SEO benefits, such as the introduction of Accelerated Mobile Pages.
If your agency has a development arm, or you’re in-house and there is a separate development team, it’s so important to get in there at the beginning of a project to ensure your voice is heard regarding a site build following best SEO practice. It’s obviously harder if someone else is handling the development, but it’s 2017, you don’t need to be sat directly next to them to be involved with the work.
What is a website migration?
There’s a lot of scaremongering around website migration. It’s often all doom and gloom and fire and brimstone, but it doesn’t need to be. This is your chance to ensure that your website only contains essential information and is fully optimised and future proofed.
There isn’t really a one-size fits all solution when it comes to site migrations as there are many different types, depending on the sites needs and circumstances.
Typically, if we’re working on an SEO migration, it will be one of these three:
Old Platform > New Platform
This would typically be when your domain is staying the same, but the front or backend is being developed. Maybe it’s a pretty old design, yellowing around the edges a bit and in need of a refresh.
You can treat this migration as an opportunity to reduce the size of your site if it has become bloated over time. Does it need to be the size it is, or would a smaller, tighter unit do the job more effectively?
HTTP > HTTPS
When your site requires additional security. You’ll likely have seen that Google has been sending out warnings to Search Console accounts that Chrome will show a not secure warning when users enter text in forms on HTTP pages. Eventual all HTTP sites will be marked as not secure in chrome. This has scared a lot of site owners into finally making the move to HTTPs.
Historic Domain > New Domain
Maybe this is the result of a change in the company’s name or a specific domain has become available. This is the type of migration which often causes the most headaches and panic over traffic loss.
Essential Migration Tools
There are certain tools which I couldn’t and wouldn’t advise doing a migration without. There are obviously others that you may use. Majestic and Moz, for example, are extremely useful for looking at your link profiles and who is linking to your site, but my talk focused more on the on-page elements and the tools to look at your technical structure.
Google Analytics - Obviously Google Analytics is the first port of call for all SEOs.
Google Search Console - Whereas GA is useful for the analysis, the tools in search console are absolutely invaluable for the launch and post-launch period.
Google Sheets - I use Google Sheets rather than excel as a migration is a collaborative project, rather than a solo one, so being able to share your work quickly and easily with others wins it for me.
Screaming Frog - My favourite third-party SEO tool
Screaming Frog is one of the most useful tools any SEO can have at their disposal. It makes life so much easier if you’re planning a migration as it can collect a lot of your most important data into one place. For those that don’t know what Screaming Frog is, the main functionality and the one it is most well known for is the site crawler. It also supports multiple API integrations for the likes of GA, SC, Moz, Majestic, and Ahrefs.
One of the first things you’ll want to do is get a better picture of what you’re currently dealing with. By using the Google Analytics API integration you can choose the most relevant view to use.
I’d recommend setting up a crawl for a period of time which will allow you to make sensible decisions on whether these pages actually have value. Reviewing a year long period as opposed to a week allows you to cover your key periods and analyse seasonal trends.
You can choose different segments to analyse, and in the case of determining whether a page has SEO value, you can choose your organic traffic. The Metrics tab will allow you to specify your site’s key metrics. Obviously, you’d want to include ecommerce if it is a transactional site, or goals if you’re looking at which pages are actually converting.
You might want to lower the speed so it doesn’t upset your server and take the site down if is extremely large with a lot of resources.
SEO Migration Example
In these examples, we were moving cot.co.uk to rcot.co.uk.
Screaming Frog will give you an overview of your site as a whole. As we can see here, this site was extremely heavy in java, but one of the bigger concerns for the migration was the fact that there were nearly 22 thousand HTML pages crawled on the site.
Something to look out for is what versions of the site are actually live. In this instance, the historic domain had both HTTP and HTTPS versions live, without a redirect in place. So both were accessible.
Once you have a full crawl of your site, I’d recommend saving and exporting the file to Google Sheets. From here you can organise your URL list and then break it down into more manageable chunks based on your folder structure.
As well as the SEO elements you’d want to look at, by using the Google Analytics API we can also see which pages have actually driven organic traffic.
This is when you should audit your site's current content. If a page doesn’t have much traffic, a high bounce rate, no incoming links, low session duration and isn’t converting, why would you migrate the content over? Instead, you’ll want to identify the content you definitely want to bring to the new site and prioritise your most valuable pages.
Now is the perfect time to actually discuss with the development team what you would like on the new site. What have you been requesting but was previously out of scope? If they are completely rebuilding from scratch, get involved with the actual folder structure so you can plan the navigation and architecture.
Once you’ve moved your content over to the new site, conduct a crawl of your staging site and you can begin your redirect mapping, going from your old URLs to your new domain. Again, I find that Google Sheets are the best way to process these.
There is a tendency to send everything to the homepage which may cause soft 404 issues, but don’t be afraid to let pages die if they are extremely low value.
You’re ready for launch, but there are a few more spot checks to conduct and some final prep.
You’ll want to set up variants for all versions of your site in Search Console and you’ll likely end up with something like this - even more versions if you’re moving to a different domain.
Your canonical tags should be pointing to the absolute URL of the new site. Not a slash/directory, but the absolute URL of the new page, including the domain and HTTPS.
For anyone who doesn’t already use canonical tags, they are a great way of informing search engines what pages you want to rank, or be considered ‘canon’ when preventing duplicate content issues related to pagination.
You might have multiple pages which cover a similar topic or have duplicated content, but there is one which you want to driver visitors to that should be set as your canon page.
Do you have bad links? Your site probably has an active disavow file if so. If you have moved domain then you’ll need to make sure that you have submitted your file to the new Search Console account. You don’t want any manual penalties following you from domain to domain if there is historic spam in there. Remember to also need to do this if you’re moving from HTTP to HTTPS.
4. XML Sitemap
Remember to only have HTTPS links in your new XML sitemap. You don’t want to be sending crawlers to places that don’t exist.
You can test your sitemap to check for any errors before submitting to Search Console. If you have multiple sitemaps due to size or type, it’s worth testing and submitting them all to ensure that all that you are submitting should be indexed.
5. Internal Links
Check your internal links are all pointing to the correct domain, whether that’s to your completely new domain, or simply the HTTPS versions. You don’t want any broken links in your navigation or copy.
6. Change of Address
Once you have your new Search Console account set up, you can use the change of address functionality. Remember that you can’t use this functionality for HTTP to HTTPS as it’s a protocol change.
Indexation After Launch
Once the new site is live, it takes time for your rankings to follow suit. Historically, Google has fed us the 2 weeks line for it to pick up the changes after a domain move. At SMX this June, Gary Illyes said it can actually take around 3 months for larger websites.
We can use the Fetch tool in Search Console and submit an indexing request from your new URLs. I’ve found it works fairly quickly, but you’re restricted to 10 ‘this page and its direct links per month’, but individual urls are unlimited if you don’t mind spending hours identifying trees and cars on reCAPTCHA forms.