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Navigating a Website Migration like Indiana Jones: Ensuring a Smooth SEO Transition

Posted on Nov 6th, 2013
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    Website Migration Presentation #SESCHILet’s face it— at one point in your life you’ve probably wanted to be James Bond, Indiana Jones, Wonder Woman, or any other number of superheroes. Personally, I’ve wanted to be all of them…more than once. For some odd, and inexplicable, reason Indiana Jones was always my favorite.

    If you’re like me, you gave up that life of dodging sink holes and escaping life-threatening situations in creatively unrealistic ways to work in digital marketing. But, Simon Heseltine from AOL and Dave Rohrer from Covario are giving us the chance to be channel our inner superhero again—by navigating the sinkholes created by website migrations.

    In their SES session (moderated by Jim Hedger who couldn’t resist a photo-op with the speakers) these two experts addressed the sinkholes created by different migrations, as well as the ways to avoid the potential traffic decreases and reduced ROIs.

    Types of Website Migrations:

    You can’t very well escape danger if you don’t know what the danger is right? So Heseltine starts us off with 5 main types of website migrations and a few precautions to take when executing:

    • Domain Moves: this is when you change things on the same CMS. You won’t have many (if any) permalink changes. With a migration like this, you’ll want to plan as much as possible for a pattern match global 301 redirect. Then you’ll have to move the content to the new domain and set up the redirect (and of course tell Google in WebMaster tools). Lastly, you’ll want to submit new XML sitemaps and tell Google News about the domain change if you use it.
    • Multi Domain Moves: this takes place when your site is going from one domain to multiple domains. This happens when there’s no agreement on a replacement primary domain, like Hesteltine’s dentist. This migration will require you to remove all other links except to the new domain, redirect all other pages to the old home page, tell the story on the home page
    • CMS Migrations: changing from one platform to another. Create a redirect mapping from the old permalink structure to the new. As much as possible use pattern matching–it makes it a lot easier. Then prep and submit XML sitemaps. You’re only going to put the new pages in the XML sitemaps, not the old ones. If there are pages you’re not going to migrate, you may want to ‘curtain’ them. All that means is you put a banner across the top of all the pages that advertises your new site.
    • Redesigns: If all your design is look and feel, you wont have any URL changes and there won’t be much to do. However, you can change those URLs and if you do, you’ll have to add in 301 redirects to send users to the new location.
    • Site Closures: Sites close down for any number of reasons. If you’re considering closing a site look for the content that gets traffic that you could serve elsewhere and set up 301 redirects for these pages. For the rest? Set up 404 pages and tell the story of what happened–that the site is no longer there. If you’re shutting down just sections of your site (known as section closures), you’ll follow those same steps.

    Pre-Launch: Is Indiana Jones ever without his hat or whip? Nope. He prepares well, and you should too. Before you launch there are several things you should remember to do

    • Determine your goals: You want to come out on top right? In order to do so, several things should be considered at this point: platform change/update, legal compliance, do you want to increase leads or sales or conversions etc.
    • Determine migration scope: What are your phases? What kind of window do you have? Do you want new features? Pick what you’re going to update and what’s priority, then move on. Draw the line in the sand of when you’re going to stop the migration and stop working on it
    • Establish the how and when: What teams are involved? What do they have scheduled and when?  Dates are extremely important. When are you going to QA? When is your soft launch? When is your content freeze? When is the very last day changes can be made
    • Baseline Everythinguse internal analytics like traffic, conversion rates, bounce rates, visits, conversion, typical pathing etc. Then use external 3rd party tools like Google Webmaster and Bing Webmaster tools and Majestic SEO for crawls, errors, indexation, links, sitemap, and other link data.
    • Categorize and Documentcurrent URL, future URL, what content is going away, if it’s being reused, if thinner pages are being combined

    During the Migration

    Now it’s the fight scene. You’ve got your hat, your whip, you’ve got your not-quite-as-cool-as-you sidekick and you’re in battle. Here are a few things you can do to channel your inner Indiana Jones:

    • Verify Baselines: You know whether or not Indiana Jones is winning or losing a fight, because you know what success and failure look like, and you keep watching hoping for success. Your site is no different. As the site is launching keep track of errors. Are there thousands popping up? Are you still ranking for your keywords? Spot check thinks. Technical issues like 404 errors, crawler traps, duplicate content pings, server failures, missing files and missed 301s will occur. Know what success looks like and see how your site is measuring up.
    • Divide and Conquer: In the latest Indiana Jones movie Shia Le Bouf fights a lot to protect and help Harrison Ford. There’s always some sort of underdog and helper that gets him out of a pickle just when he needs to be helped. When you QA don’t try to tackle the project alone–have help. While you’re QAing your site make sure different people are doing different things. Don’t forget to look at it from different IP addresses to make sure it’s not just your office that can see it.
    • Communicate: If you’re having help, you can’t very well be dead silent and not let them know what you need right? Make sure everyone knows when things will go live, when they are going live and how things are going. You don’t want your social team to promote a site that isn’t working.

    Post Migration:

    You’ve migrated your site–you’ve escaped danger. Now what (other than feeling quite proud of yourself for being the nerdy version of Indiana Jones)?

    • Monitor. Does Indiana Jones take his eyes off his enemy during a fight? No, of course not. So don’t take yours off your site. Make sure you look at Google Webmaster Tools and Bing Webmaster Tools. Analytics are a great way to see if there are any trends you should worry about and see how your site is doing. Use crawlers (Screaming Frog is a great tool for this)  to see what’s going on with your site and if what you expected to happen is there, chances are tools will catch something you didn’t. Keep an eye on indexes and redirects.
    • Expect a minor traffic drop. Let’s face it after a huge fight, Indiana is tired. He might not admit it but he is. A migration is a big deal, and for the first few weeks you can expect a drop, but then expect traffic to creep back up. Running crawlers on your site can help you find any issues that could prevent the increase.
    • Keep communicating. It wouldn’t be fun if the movie ended with everyone going their separate ways right? So don’t just stop talking once the migration is complete. Keep people updated on what’s going on. The chance there’ll be another project at some point is very high, so don’t just disappear into the ether once the migration is complete.

    Stay tuned for more from SES Chicago! We’ll be live-blogging sessions throughout the remainder of the conference.