Site migrations are a way for brands to improve their customers’ on-domain experiences. In fact, 45% of respondents in our Q4 2022 Performance Media Report reported streamlining their site or working through a site migration as a top SEO priority. As new tools and capabilities come available, and as user behaviours change, website upgrades can lead to significant revenue growth opportunities while reducing costs.
But too often we see brands take on a site migration initiative without considering the web of digital channels that can be impacted. This is particularly true for organic search, where one missed technical component could tank your rankings post-migration and create a long, bumpy road to regaining visibility. Let’s look at some of the reasons SEO is critical to the site migration process and the SEO-related steps to take if you’re embarking on a migration journey.
Why SEO is Critical to Site Migration Preparations
There are a few key reasons that brands must incorporate SEO into site migrations:
- Maintaining current search KPI performance: Organic search programs take years to grow. Involving SEO helps preserve that hard-earned search equity through the migration and maintain revenue, traffic, rankings, and backlinks.
- Creating an infrastructure for future KPI success: Having SEO infused into the new digital experience ensures that search engines will have a strong bot experience and that users’ top search needs are met.
- Saving time against future reworks: When changes like site migrations occur, there is an inherent risk that you’ll create a site that doesn’t work for search. That can lead to countless hours spent troubleshooting and reconfiguring, sacrificing both time and potential revenue for your business.
- Providing a voice for the consumer: Search teams maintain a very close relationship with users and are intimately familiar with their queries, questions, and intent. SEO teams can bring that added layer of insight to the site migration to ensure that new workflows suit the customer’s needs.
When to Involve SEO in the Site Migration Process
Site migrations can include changes of varying degrees and levels of impact. The safest approach is to involve SEO team members as early as possible so they can conduct thorough audits and provide recommendations and input with ample time for implementation.
However, sometimes that’s not always possible due to staffing or budget constraints. Below is a rough guide that shows which changes require earlier involvement with SEO and which can wait. Tier 1 projects are the most important to loop SEO into early, while it’s slightly less important for tier 2 and tier 3 projects.
- Tier 1: Brand name or domain changes. These updates are fundamentally changing your site’s identity and thus require the most planning to execute well from an SEO standpoint.
- Tier 2: Template, site section, content, or CMS changes. These changes are still significant from an SEO perspective but do not alter the identity of your site in the eyes of the search engines or user.
- Tier 3: Small UX redesigns or hosting changes. The primary concerns for UX and CMS systems relate to site latency requirement, renderability, and ensuring mobile parity. SEO can help map these requirements out for development, especially when pulled into the process early on. That said, if content and URL locations on the site will remain the same, we typically don’t see a significant SEO impact on small aesthetic changes and backend system updates.
Remember, no matter the scope of the project, there will likely be SEO implications across both technical and usability aspects, so the more time you have to fully address any potential issues, the better.
Examples of SEO Steps for a Site Migration
Every SEO engagement will look different depending on the brand and project’s unique needs. There are four main questions that will dictate most of the project plan:
- Why is this site migration happening?
- What are the key areas for determining success?
- Are URLs changing?
- Are there any updates to technology and/or frameworks?
Based on your answers, here are some of the steps that might be part of your site migration pre-launch plan:
- Audit existing site challenges: A migration almost always happens because the current site isn’t meeting the needs of the business or its customers. Understanding the current challenges that need to be addressed forms the foundation for delivering the solutions in an SEO-friendly way through the migration.
- Gather technical SEO requirements: These are the critical components that will help make the new site search engine friendly.
- Benchmark organic search performance and rankings: In this step, brands get an understanding of their current KPIs. This will serve as the baseline for comparison once the new site is live.
- Set goals, monitor rankings, and forecast potential: In collaboration with the analytics group, the SEO team will use the benchmarks and projected improvement impacts to help the company set meaningful goals for the project.
- Plan the site migration launch: Establishing action ownership and auditing responsibilities for the weeks leading up to launch, the day-of launch, and post-launch will be essential to ensuring the team is marching towards a successful migration.
- Content strategy: The content strategy plan will balance the needs of both the user and the search engine bots to make pages informative and useful.
- Information architecture, content alignment, and redirect mapping: This step essentially helps port over the existing elements that you want to keep to the new site. If the URL structure is changing as a result of the site migration, this is critical for maintaining the authority of existing pages.
- Governance for internal linking and keyword rankings: Establishing a mapping of goal keyword ranking ownership, along with linking guidance for content editors will ensure everyone is aligned and actioning on an overarching search strategy.
There are other tasks that will take place after launch, including site performance monitoring and reporting, outreach to fix any broken backlinks, and activation of the content strategy. Throughout the pre- and post-launch time period, you should also plan for regular check-ins and QA.
Site migrations can be a valuable undertaking for businesses to keep up with the latest in web technology and user needs – but they can also easily lead to disaster. Bringing SEO experts in from the beginning and working closely with them throughout the process can help mitigate many of the potential issues that brands face with these initiatives.
Need help with your organisation's site migration? Just send us an email – we’d be happy to have a conversation with you!