SES Chicago 2013: Website Migration and Your SEO Strategy

Simon Heseltine, Director of Audience Development at AOL, and Dave Rohrer, Senior SEO Strategist at Covario, gave a great presentation about website migrations yesterday at SES Chicago. The key take-aways:

1. There’s no such thing as over-preparation
2. Close post-migration monitoring is a must
3. You have to balance SEO and user experience

Pre Migration: Get your plan in place and make sure the right people are in the know. PR folks need to know when they can make the announcement about the new site. Social media gurus should know when they can/can’t promote it as well. PPC guys might need to adjust campaign dates. And as Rohrer put it, make sure your CEO knows he/she can’t choose a new color scheme a month before launch. Heseltine broke down several different types of site migrations. Here are a few basics to help you get started.

Domain Change Within the Same CMS: In this case, you’re essentially just renaming your website. Randi.com is becoming Randistevenson.com. Your permalinks will stay the same, but you’ll want to implement a global 301 redirect. Tell Google about the move and submit your new site map. What if you’re splitting one site into two? For example, you and a friend started a dog walking business, built a website, then had a falling out and you no longer want to share the site. Remove all links within the site and redirect every single page to the homepage. On the homepage, tell the user what’s up – we’re no longer in business and have moved to new websites, which you can find here and here. Maybe leave out the dramatic details.

Switching to a New CMS: In this case, all your URLs will change. For example, the permalink structure on WordPress is different from that on Blogspot. Move over the most important pages and those that get the most traffic. If you want to move over the smaller ones, that’s fine. Otherwise, just set up curtains on those pages with an explanation for the user – we’ve moved to this new site, come check us out.

Website Redesign: For the most part, if you’re only updating the aesthetic of your site, you won’t have any URL changes or major SEO implications. However, Heseltine suggested using this as an opportunity to make some improvements, particularly in regard to user experience. Rename pages that don’t make sense, reorder buttons, clean up the menu, etc.

Post Migration: Both Heseltine and Rohrer emphasized the importance of closely monitoring your site once everything is moved over. This includes traffic, crawlers, social media interactions, etc. If you did everything perfectly – all your redirects are working, you submitted your new site map, etc. – you’ll still see a slight dip in traffic initially. This is because Google needs time to realize what’s up, recognize that you moved and acknowledge that it’s legit. Any more than a 15 percent drop, and you should be concerned. Maybe your redirects aren’t set up correctly. Maybe image alt text didn’t carry over. Maybe you accidentally set all your pages to no-index. Also keep in mind that if Google is updating stuff on their end, you could feel the pain. Heseltine gave a great example of a former client that got the majority of their site traffic from Google image searches. Their new site launched right as Google updated its image search and traffic took a nose dive through no fault of their own.

Overall, the key is to plan as much as possible, monitor the heck out of everything afterward and always balance your SEO strategy with user experience. Getting tips from these two big names in the industry – and learning that even they have horror stories – was a great way to spend the afternoon.