As SEO experts, we are no strangers to migrations and the associated different volatility.
Migrations are natural events in the digital enterprise lifecycle as both technology and business goals advance.
A migration, despite its impact on search engine optimization, can improve the visitor experience if done correctly.
Upgrading to a faster host can increase your ranking performance over time (by influencing and providing better user signals).
Although an initial re-indexing by Google can result in a temporary drop in organic traffic, a well-executed migration plan can maintain or even improve your SERP ranking.
Defining the migration type
A website migration involves a major change in technology, structure, design, or location of a website to improve online visibility.
Each migration type carries a certain level of risk, and as you start stacking different migration types (and changing more variables), the risks don’t stack, they compound.
Some of the most common migrations we are involved in as SEO experts include:
In the industry, we hear about failed migrations when they begin to impact the world outside of SEO.
Losing traffic and a few rankings isn’t a headline news, but businesses are closing stores and laying off employees.
Examples include the Homebase HTTPS migration (as detailed by Omi Sido here) and the more recent rebranding of Logojoy to Looka, which shows a 25,000 drop in ranking keywords from the perspective of third-party tools (150,000 to 125,000).
Scope of an SEO migration
To me, properly sizing a migration is essential to the success of the whole migration process and important to avoid situations like this:
An important part of the scope and specification is that it must be actionable for both developers and broader stakeholders:
- Reducing the “why”.
- And focus more on the “how”.
Ambiguity creates risk. The less room for misinterpretation, the better.
In the scoping document it is important to specify the following:
- The reasons for the migration (from the client).
- Primary and secondary stakeholders.
- The scope of activities and responsibilities of each stakeholder (maintaining traffic and rankings is not a responsibility, it is a goal).
- The timeline for post-migration activities and resources.
- Goals of migration agreed by all parties.
- Frequency and depth of reporting.
Based on this, you can start creating an activity plan to minimize risk.
Risk reduction in SEO migration
In most cases, mitigating risk during a migration consists of performing what is common migration activity for many.
However, each activity is designed to reduce elements of risk and work towards the achievement of the agreed goals.
It goes without saying that redirects are part of almost all migrations.
However, after conducting a series of post-migration traffic drop audits, here are some common mistakes made when scoping and implementing forwarders.
Redirects serve as navigational aids for browsers and search engines, providing information about a webpage’s location based on a specific URL.
They represent coded instructions assigned to specific URLs or a set of them that redirect the user or search engine to another page from the original input or clicked URL.
For migrations where URLs change, Google says it can take up to 180 days for the value to be fully transferred from A to B.
Depending on your migration, the scope of your redirects will change.
JS, CSS, parameters and media files are not redirected
Most of the time, when people migrate, they focus on redirecting the URLs – because those determine the rank – but you should also consider redirecting your JS files, CSS, parameter URLs, and media files (images, videos) if necessary .
Many people question the value of redirecting images, but a URL is a URL and Google will have crawled it. Google even recommended redirecting image URLs.
When migrating to a new platform, redesigning templates or updating the site structure, it is important to ensure that the new “environment” at least reflects the SEO qualities of the previous one.
Therefore, it is important to test the new environment to verify the following:
- Metadata was correctly transferred.
- Structured data has been implemented and validated.
- Canonicals are correct.
- Pagination marker is correct (Bing exists too!).
- The internal link was adopted and points to 200 URLs.
- XML and HTML sitemaps are available.
- Hreflang is set up correctly (if you have an international website).
- Redirects have been tested.
- Your 404 page returns a 404 response code.
Some things, like site speed, require live testing of the site unless the staging and pre-production environments are on mirrored stacks (so you can emulate the same performance). Most of the time, however, they are not on performance-oriented servers.
Understand why migrations go wrong
When a migration fails, it can often be attributed to at least one of seven reasons:
- Wrong SEO strategy or unclear goals.
- Poor planning and setting of resource and time frame.
- Unforeseen UX or design changes affecting content or code.
- The involvement of the SEO agency too late or after important decisions have already been set in stone.
- Poor or inadequate testing.
- Slow responses and low development priority for post-migration fixes.
- Uncontrollable variables (e.g. Google update).
In order to establish measurable measures of “success,” it is important to understand why the migration is occurring and what outcomes are desired.
With most migrations, the goal is to maintain SEO performance and then use that stability as a foundation for growth.
However, each type of migration carries its own risks. These must be communicated to the customer and other stakeholders.
If you move the hosting or platform but keep the URL structures, it should go smoothly. However, if you’re rebranding and changing the domain name, expect a period of turbulence.
It’s also important to note that bad strategy can also come from within the company.
Sometimes stakeholders create plans for the evolution of the site, brand, and broader strategy, but the business strategy (and expectations) do not align with proposed timelines or what is technically feasible.
Poor planning and scoping
Developing a detailed scope and project plan early on can help avoid delays along the way by setting expectations for how long SEO processes and tasks will take.
This also allows you to consider what is and isn’t within the scope of the project, so you can plan and allocate resources appropriately.
Creating a plan will also help you identify potential roadblocks like holidays or peak sales periods.
For example, as an online retailer, you would not launch a website in the days leading up to Thanksgiving because fatal errors could jeopardize your Black Friday/Cyber Week/Christmas period.
SEO migrations don’t happen overnight.
However, SEO assistance is often enlisted late in the roadmap, as many important decisions are made up front that impact organic search performance.
Sometimes late involvement can be a lifesaver while there’s still room in the schedule to make changes — but that’s rarely the case, and all you can do is watch and prepare for the autopsy.
It can also mean that there is a lack of sufficient testing (from an SEO point of view) and all performance-impacting issues may not be resolved in a timely manner if the migration deadline is strict.
Slow development response times
This is in most cases a problem of the company itself and not something that SEO experts can control.
I’ve seen situations where, immediately after the migration, the development resource was fully reallocated to another part of the organization, leaving no time for urgent or ad hoc troubleshooting.
In most cases, this is not the developer’s fault, but rather a symptom of poor planning on the part of the decision makers.
I’ve already seen sites go live with a site-wide noindex (because the wrong bucket was served), something we reported almost immediately—only it took four days to allocate the resource to remove it.
Despite the best planning and resource allocation, there are times when something unforeseen and completely unavoidable will surprise you – like a Google update or a CDN/DNS outage.
A good example of this was in August 2020 when Caffeine broke through. No new URLs were indexed during this time.
Ineffective communication with stakeholders
When talking to companies about their migrations and migration strategies, the main concern is the level of communication and expectations of indirect stakeholders, typically VPs and C-Suite.
It is important that all risks are both set out in the technical terms of the delivery and are summarized and understandable to non-technical management.
In these summary documents, it is important to not only outline the risks, but also what we as experienced consultants expect and at what points we need to start triage/panic.
This greatly reduces the pressure created by knee-jerk reactions and scrambles due to C-level involvement and a lack of understanding of the bigger picture.
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