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Website Migrations Are Messy: How to Reduce the Risk and Avoid Common Mistakes

Atigro Speaker Event

Atigro’s Chief Digital Officer, Clark Taylor, was a speaker at the Digital Summit Washington, DC conference in April 2023. You can now view a recording of his presentation, Website Migrations Are Messy: How to Reduce the Risk and Avoid Common Mistakes.

Photo of Clark Taylor speaking at Digital Summit in Washington, DC

You can expect to learn:

Get the free SEO business requirement guidelines that Clark reviews in this presentation.

The following is a transcription of the presentation which can be watched in its entirety (above): viewing time 18 minutes

Website migrations are not fun. There’s lots of adjectives you could use to describe a website migration, and fun wouldn’t be one of them. I’ve heard people describe them as painful, scary. I have heard people say they’re exciting, which I agree with because it’s a good opportunity for you to get things done you haven’t been able to get done and to actually improve your web presence. But I don’t know anybody that would consider them as fun.

There’s a whole lot of reasons that you might need to do a website migration. It could be you’re redesigning a website, you’re re-platforming, or moving from one CMS to another, you’re merging websites together, or splitting up a website into multiple websites. There’s lots of good reasons for migrations, and in fact, you probably should be doing some type of migration every few years if you’re just keeping your website modern/up to date and using new technologies as they become available.

Because I only have 30 minutes today, I’m going to focus on four things that almost guarantee a successful migration and to make it less messy. Again, I really should have almost bolded “almost”, almost will guarantee you have a smooth migration. I’m going to cover 10 big mistakes to avoid, and I’m going to introduce you to an important document or process that very few people use in migrations. For today’s discussion, we’re going to be working in phase one planning, and this is in the discovery and defined area of a web migration.

Before we get into the details, you need to prepare your stakeholders that this is not going to be perfect. Things will go wrong, and even if things do go smoothly, it’s not unusual to see a decline, at least in the short term.

This might be one of the most complex things you go through professionally, and if you’re not already using some type of responsibility assignment matrix, this would be a good time to start using something like RACI. RACI is a methodology for project management. RACI stands for responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed and makes sure that everyone on the team knows what the responsibilities are, who’s informed, and who’s accountable, and it’s really important at this point to establish all that.

If you’re the SEO, you want to inject yourself very early in this process. Even before a CMS is selected or when designers or developers are sketching out wireframes or marketers are putting their thoughts together on what the new website or what the migration is all about, you’ll want to be involved at that point and not wait until later. And if SEO is a significant part of your revenue, this advice is critical.

Everyone involved needs to understand what’s at risk. I’ve seen businesses lose 80% or more of their revenue overnight, I’ve seen employees laid off, and seen businesses nearly go out of business over a web migration. This example, although not ideal, is something that can happen with a migration. Depending on the size of your site, the complexities, and how long it takes Google or other search engines to reprocess your migrated site, it’s possible that you may see declines of 50% or more for a period of four to six weeks, sometimes even longer.

Not all web migrations begin with a loss of traffic. This is an example of a web migration that immediately after launch, saw an increase of 50% or more. The difference between this migration and the previous example is that this website was really just broken prior to launch. It really was not SEO-friendly at all. There were parts of the site that search engines couldn’t get to, so this was a vast improvement immediately. The long-term reward can be substantial. This is an example of a website that went through migration, and long term, they went from around 1 million visitors per day, to the last time I looked, they were up to around 3-4 million visitors per day.

So what’s the difference between a successful migration and a botched migration? A successful migration means your new website is better than your old website, not just for users, but also for Google, and you want to make sure that your new website is better than any of your competitor’s websites. Here are four critical things that must improve with your new website to make it better for users and search engines than your old website: SEO fundamentals, content quality, page speed, and performance, and I want to stop on number three here just for a second. There has been some breaking news from Google on number three, page speed improvement and performance. We’re going to go into detail a little bit more about that. And number four, information architecture.

4 Insights That Can Lead to a Successful Migration

Number one, SEO fundamentals is all the SEO stuff that needs to be nailed with your new website. This is your chance to get all those things fixed that you couldn’t get fixed on your current site. Today, we’re going to be mostly focused on the planning phase. That’s where the first SEO audit will take place, and that’s where we’ll capture baselines and find technical issues that shouldn’t be carried over to the new website. And we’ll also want to develop the source for URLs because we may have to do a redirect map if URLs change.

We’re going to use this audit to develop requirements for the new website, and this will be the first of three audits. You can see the three red arrows there. The first and the biggest audit will be in this planning phase, and then at some point, we’re also going to need to audit the staging site before it goes live, and then there will be a post-launch audit. If you’re merging or combining multiple websites, there may be four or five, six or more audits depending on all the websites that you’re merging.

Number two, content quality. For the past five or six years, Google has been on an absolute war path against unhelpful content. Most of the recent broad core algorithm updates are an attempt by them to bubble up sites with quality content and punish sites with bad content. Cleaning up your website before migration is a great way to shorten recovery time after a migration. If they don’t have all that bad content to crawl through, they can spend more time crawling your good content.

This infographic, the timeframe is for a little bit over a one-year period. This is a website that has about 300,000 pages. This funnel that you see here is not the traditional market marketing funnel that represents traffic. This represents the number of total number of pages on a website. This particular website in a one-year period had 249,000 pages that received absolutely zero organic traffic. They had 43,900 pages that received minimal organic traffic, somewhere between 1 and 20 visitors, and they only had 150 pages that received any substantial organic traffic.

This image is actually to scale, so if you see at the very bottom, right above the drop of water coming out of this funnel, you can see a little tiny green dot that represents the number of pages that received any substantial organic traffic. So as you can see here, this site has a big content quality problem. If you have that many pages that are not generating any traffic, how do you think Google views this page or this site?

Remember back a few slides when I mentioned some breaking news for item number three, page speed and performance? I gave this presentation at Digital Summit in DC on April 19th. And on April 19th, I’m not sure exactly what time they announced this, Google updated its guidelines to say that page experience signals, which they refer to as page speed, core web vitals, and mobile friendly, and there were some other factors, was no longer a separate signal. Google giveth and Google taketh away.

This was discussed heavily in the SEO world for the next few days and is still being discussed now. How could Google tell us something was so important and then completely change? All that really happened is Google wants us to focus on the overall user experience rather than just a few metrics. You’ll want to focus on whether your new website has a better experience than your old website. Is it trusted, is it secure, and can people access it quickly? So in other words, those user experience signals are now baked into a different part of the algorithm rather than being their own signal.

At the conference, Ken Woodworth of Aten Design Group was speaking after me in the same room on practical UX exercises to ensure your website meets your user needs. I encouraged my audience to stay for this presentation because a better user experience would’ve been the fifth way to ensure a successful migration. Turns out, Google kind of combined these into one.

Number four, is information architecture. Although it’s number four, I believe it’s equally important to SEO fundamentals, content, and user experience. In fact, it’s kind of related to all of them. What information architecture is, is how you organize your content so that users and search engines can easily see and understand the depth and breadth of content you have on a particular topic.

Creating curated topic hubs or clusters with some static content and a variety of resource types (blog posts, guides, articles, images, video) can really help showcase your expertise to humans and Google.This is a better approach than just having posts and other resources spread throughout your blog chronologically or using simple tags or categories to organize content by topic.

So just to summarize, the four critically important things that must improve with your website migration are the SEO fundamentals, content quality, and number three, I am changing that from page speed and performance to overall user experience, which does include page speed and performance, and information architecture. Now, the question is how can you make sure all this happens?

Valuable Guidelines to Ensure You’re New Site is SEO-friendly

You’re going to accomplish this by making sure you don’t skimp on the planning and discovery phase. Make sure all stakeholders have input on objectives, so it would include executives, operations, sales, marketing, advertising, content, SEO and development. Again, we’re going to audit your entire web presence and analyze your competitors, their web presence, what technologies that they’re using. Are there things that are on your wishlist that you’ve seen your competitors have that you want to have? You’re going to establish the MVP and the SEO business requirements, and you’ll need to do all this before you can have realistic estimates of the cost and the timelines.

Marketing and development teams cannot provide an accurate timeframe or cost estimates without knowing exactly what is required of the new website. If you’re using third-party developers, how can they give you an accurate estimate and time or cost unless they know exactly what you’re looking for? SEO will develop the requirements and get formal acceptance from the marketing department and development teams. Some give and take is expected, but each party needs to know the impact of each requirement and the risks. This ensures an SEO-friendly website at launch and reduces the risk of catastrophic loss and increases the likelihood of long-term gains.

I’ve been developing and updating this SEO business requirements document for about the last 10 to 12 years, and I’ve tried to incorporate all the SEO best practices. It’s broken down into tabs, navigation and internal linking. SEO fundamentals, content and SEO tags, and page load. I haven’t updated this, but I still think that these core web vitals are great goals, and page speed is still very likely part of the helpful content in good user experience signals, even if it’s not their own individual signal now.

Just a heads-up, not everyone is going to love these strict requirements, and you’re going to see shortly why formal acceptance is required and remind stakeholders of the risks if we don’t do this migration correctly. You might get pushback even after formal acceptance. What I’m sharing with you here is an actual example from just a few weeks ago where we’re auditing a staging site, we’re doing QA in the staging site, and we fail a couple items that the developer had formally accepted in the SEO business requirements before the start of the project.

Here’s the actual Slack conversation I had regarding these requirements.

  • Me: Some of your URLs in the staging site are mixed case, a combination of uppercase and lowercase.
  • Developer: This is a non-issue. Look at any other major website, such as amazon.com. No one types URLs by hand. This is silly.
  • Me: This requirement is not because people enter URLs by hand. It’s because Google will create upper and lowercase URLs as unique indexable URLs, causing confusion on which URLs should rank.

There are actually some other reasons that that’s a bad idea, which I won’t get into today, but this just goes to show the importance of this document in making sure that you have formal acceptance, and that everyone knows what’s expected of the new website.

10 Big Mistakes to Avoid

Next, are my top 10 big mistakes to avoid.

  1. Not testing a beta version. You want to make sure that you have a plan in place to test and make sure that you don’t get your beta staging sites indexed.
  2. Migrating to a new domain that has been tarnished or penalized. If you’re acquiring a new domain, you’re going to want to do some due diligence and make sure that that site hasn’t been punished by Google.
  3. Improper redirects. Developers using 302s instead of 301s, redirect loops, long redirect chains, or redirecting all pages to the new homepage. You should have URL-to-URL redirects in most cases.
  4. Failure to think mobile first in the new design. Just recently, we had a situation where everything looked great on the desktop, but it was missing some important elements, such as H1 headings on the mobile design.
  5. Forgetting about legacy content. This is one of those things that you won’t find in most migration checklists. Most people will look at the crawl of their current site and migrate that content over, but they forget about content that may have been indexed by Google previously from past migrations or many, many years before. You want to think about that and see if that content needs to be migrated or removed.
  6. Migrating everything without being selective. Not everything that’s on your current website probably deserves to be on the new website. You may have content that’s from 2006 about your company Christmas party, and that probably doesn’t need to be moved over. Paginated pages don’t need to be moved over. Concentrate on the most important content in making sure that’s migrated properly and eliminate stuff that’s just not relevant anymore.
  7. Setting up a new Google Analytics account. In most cases, you don’t need a new Google Analytics account. You just want to set up a new profile. You simply want to use the existing Analytics account and the code and move it over to the new website.
  8. Meta-robots noindex or robots.txt block on the new site. I don’t know how a mistake this bad can happen, but I’ve seen it happen many times, which can result in you getting your new website de-indexed.
  9. Forgetting to update paid campaigns, Google profile, social profiles. If your URLs are changing, don’t forget to go and update those at the same time that you launch.
  10. No reset button in place, fail to save a backup of the old site. If things go terribly wrong, make sure you have a plan to revert back to the old website until you can get things fixed.

And I want to give you one bonus top 10 big mistakes to avoid. I’ve only ever seen this happen once. I recently saw a website accidentally canonicalize their site to their staging site and link to it from their main live site. Not sure how this happened, but it basically caused Google to see their staging site as the primary site and began to de-index their live site. It’s a huge mistake. Just make sure that you have an SEO involved in looking at things like this.

Thanks so much for your time today. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I am going to share with you my SEO Business Requirements document. Please keep in mind that some SEOs may have very different requirements. Mine are pretty strict. You will find links to it if you scan this QR code where you can get the checklist, and you can also reach out to me with any questions.

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