How to retain your SEO equity during a site migration

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Published Jun 12, 2018 | Written by Jeremy Knight

A poorly devised SEO strategy ahead of a site migration is a recipe for disaster. Site migration can be an extremely onerous task that requires considerable planning, consultation and attention to detail. But your search engine visibility will be compromised when SEO is treated as an afterthought.

Given the right execution strategy, it can happen smoothly and efficiently and preserve all that hard-earned SEO. 

SEO is like equity. It’s earnt over time and is essentially an investment in your website’s credibility. If you’ve been working hard over the years to build up your equity, say, in the form of regular, valuable blog posts, optimised H1s and meta descriptions, acquisition of authoritative backlinks - what happens to all of that when you decide to migrate or redesign?

Rest assured that by following SEO best practices throughout a properly executed migration, Google will learn to treat the new site as if it were the original.

Why migrate your site?

There are several reasons you might decide to migrate your site:

  1. Your site is outdated and no longer reflects your brand
  2. Your site is more than two years old and has not undergone any updates or maintenance within that time
  3. You’ve undergone a strong rebrand
  4. You’ve partnered with an agency who will manage your website content and this requires you to migrate to their preferred CMS

With the relentless pace of web trends and the evolving tech landscape, sites around 2-3 years old will be in need of updates to some extent, or a complete relaunch.

Thankfully, you can avoid losing any hard-earned equity by employing the following tactics.

Run an audit of your existing site

Before committing to a site migration, you’ll need a clear understanding of what’s currently working and what’s not.

  • What are the top-performing pages or blog posts?
  • What is your monthly average number of visitors and where are they coming from?
  • What are your top-performing keywords?

Making use of a platform such as Google Analytics will help you identify pages that are performing well already. Be sure to use this to benchmark this data; record rankings, indexed pages, organic traffic and conversions, and any other metrics that might inform your new strategy. 

This level of insight will also inform the structure of your new site. If you are mapping your content strategy or considering a pillar page, for example, top-performing content will be a deciding factor in which topics or keywords you’d like to rank for moving forward. This will not only help you retain your valuable equity, but will bolster your site's visibility post-migration. 

Crawl your existing site

Tools such as ScreamingFrog and DeepCrawl allow you to crawl your existing site and any old URLs. You’ll be able to identify any crawl errors and redirects that currently exist, so that you can replace them in time for the migration. Crawling your site allows you to see the site through Google’s eyes, so you can mitigate any potentially harmful anomalies before they impact your SEO.

Redirect old URLs

You'll need to set up 301 redirects when the page has been permanently moved to a new location. 

A 301 redirect is an HTTP status code that informs search engines when a page has been permanently moved to a new page, and to remove it from your index and pass all credit to the new page. 

If you want to eliminate some pages entirely, these should return a 404 error, but be sure not to link to the broken URL elsewhere within the site. If you need to remove a URL with other links pointing to it, you can create a 301 direct to preserve the link value. 

Ultimately, be wary of changing too much or removing too many pages, as this will lead Google to consider it a completely different site. 

Create canonical versions of duplicate URLs

Google doesn’t like duplicate content, and will penalise you for it. That's where canonicalisation comes in handy.

Canonicalisation tells crawlers that a specific URL represents a copy of a page, indicating that the page on which the canonical tag appears should be treated as a duplicate of a specific URL.

Canonicalisation applies when you have one or more variations of a page. A canonical tag lets search engines know that you have multiple versions of a page, and to only index this version.

Verify that all canonicalisation on the new site reference the new site and not the old, as referring the old site could prevent the new site from being indexed at all. By canonicalising pages, you let Google know that this is the new site's location, avoiding any confusion that could potentially harm your SEO.

If an entirely new URL is created, you will need to apply redirects, which we will discuss next.

Update backlinks

Chances are, if you’re providing value and have already gained some impressive SEO equity, it’s likely you’ve acquired a collection of inbound links from other authority websites. In order to hold onto them, it’s best to contact their webmasters personally, asking them to update the links to your new URLs. Of course, they should be more than willing to do so because any outbound link to a non-existent page on their site will harm their SEO.

Provide value

Sure, SEO is incredibly important, especially when planning a site migration. But be wary of getting too hung up on the do's and don’ts. As long as you follow best practice, your main priority when achieving great SEO is adding value. Always add value with informative, educative, and easy to read content.

The inbound methodology centres on providing valuable, informative and educative content built around the buyer’s journey. You should remember this when building your site architecture. What types of content will you host and how will these be mapped throughout your architecture? Gated content, forms, CTAs and blog posts - will all help inform a more strategic design that will satiate your users’ need for answers as well as search engines analysing your site structure.

Ultimately, remember to write for people first, search engines second. The rest will take care of itself, and the backlinks will come.

A site migration requires weeks, if not months, of preparation and planning to be executed proficiently, preserving and retaining all of your SEO elements. Search engine algorithms are incredibly intelligent and constantly learning - as are we. The rate at which the internet is developing means there will likely never be a time that we can sit back and let our websites do the work for us. A successful website is regularly maintained and updated, underpinned by a dedicated strategy, and provides value to its visitors. 

If you consider every move with care and attention to detail, your website migration need not harm your SEO. 

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Published by Jeremy Knight June 12, 2018
Jeremy Knight