SEO Migrations

What type of SEO migrations are there?

Migrations will always differ business to business in terms of goals, approach, and individual process. However, we can typically categorise migrations into certain types by commonality:

  • Domain Migrations

Domain migrations relate to moving from one domain to another, perhaps due to a rebrand or brand acquisition that sees the necessity for a business to change its name and thus its website name. Think of the recent rebranding of TransferWise into simply Wise. They are often the most high risk and carry considerations across every part of the digital ecosystem and traverse SEO, social media and CRM as well as other various online departments.

  • Brand Migrations

Brand migrations can relate to redirecting or consolidating existing properties into one master domain for branding purposes. If a company owns separate products across different domains or subdomains for branding purposes but have decided to bring everything under one roof, then they may consider migrating these separate websites into one core domain.  

Brand migrations can also relate to the redirecting of the website assets of an acquired company into its new owner, such as in the case of Topshop and ASOS. These can be delicate and tricky in terms of where best to house everything under one brand, though have fantastic growth potential.

  • Platform/ CMS Migrations

Platform migrations relate to changes in your business’s website infrastructure and technology, rather than anything related to URL or domain changes. This can be upgrading to a new techstack in the form of a CMS or codebase. Your SEO teams will need to be across this to ensure that new CMS, design or coding frameworks being considered are SEO friendly and perhaps even solve existing SEO headaches you might have with regards to website capability.

Will I lose website traffic during and after a migration?

Any migration involves a degree of upheaval, whether you’re changing your domain or URLs or are deploying a new codebase in the form of a CMS upgrade. Even planned and implemented meticulously and flawlessly from an SEO perspective, search engine crawlers will take time to rediscover and recrawl such changes when they are deployed, which does see an initial drop in visibility.

While this is normal in the initial stages of a migration, when done correctly, the net result of any migration could well be a marked uplift in traffic once the volatility has settled down. If for example your SEO team has used a CMS migration to tackle outstanding technical SEO issues, then this could see an improved organic performance once search engines have recrawled your changes.    

Is it possible to have a risk free SEO migration?

No migration is risk free. Even with the most robust SEO migration checklist and well-oiled project management approach throughout the process, there is always room for risk, whether this is human error or search engines not adhering to the desired outcomes in terms of recognising aspects such as URL changes.  

The good news is that all migrations will provide teaching points in terms of what may have gone wrong. More importantly, they will also present the opportunity for your team to rectify any mistakes in the form of post-migration fixes, however unideal this may be.

How do we plan for a website migration for SEO?

Planning is one of the most important aspects of any site migration, and needs to involve as many key team members and stakeholders from across the business. Mistakes and negative impact (from an SEO standpoint and beyond) surrounding migrations often stem from lack of planning and the involvement of key personnel from the offset. 

It’s important for your cross department team to scrutinise and feed into any migration planning before wheels are turned into motion. Plans may be in the form of a gantt chart or using third-party project management software such as Jira or Trello, though need to be assessed and fed into by key team members as early as possible.  

Once the topic of a migration has been greenlit for yourself or your leadership team, put together a clear and obvious roadmap with your departments as far in advance as possible, ideally a good few months.

How do we mitigate SEO risks?

In-depth communication and planning from the offset, involving as many relevant team members from across your digital disciplines is a great starting point in terms of mitigating risks that come with migrations.

For SEO teams, a common frustration is that they are often not consulted or brought into the migration process at an earlier date, and thus have to work almost retrospectively to potentially address any visibility drops or other technical issues that come as a result of this. This can be prevented by clear communication and project planning as early as possible.

Testing is also another great way of mitigating potential risks. It may be worth sidelining some time to run a test migration of a handful of commercially less-important pages in a staging environment or even live production.  

How long does it take Google to understand the migration?

There is no exact documented time reflecting how long Google takes to recrawl, understand and thus reindex updated changes following a migration.

A lot of dependencies decide this, such as comprehensiveness of the migration in question (just a few URLs or an entire domain?) and how well the migration is carried out in terms of technical SEO work such as sitemap delivery and redirect strategies among many other things. 

Some changes, such as a simple technical framework that impacts user experience of design, may be picked up very quickly by Google with minimal impact, and possibly even some associated uplift.

Broader changes such as a complete domain migration may take as long as several weeks to settle down, particularly if you are implementing changes across thousands of URLs. When considering a migration, factors such as these will need to be considered and you should prepare yourself for a period of traffic decline before things pick up. 

What are the SEO risks of a migration?

At the far end of the scale, migrations carry risks that can directly impact any revenue tied to organic efforts. If carried out haphazardly, long-term loss of visibility or wrong URLs being indexed due to malpractice following large changes can have a serious impact on your business’ revenue.

If an ecommerce business has a particular product page that is performing well organically, ranks well and continually drives conversions from organic, but this page gets mixed up in the migration with for example the wrong version of the page being indexed, then this can be hugely costly. 

While you are able to remedy such mistakes in a migration, it may take a long time to retrospectively fix changes such as URL indexation errors. 

What are the main causes of an unsuccessful migration?

Aside from lack of thorough and robust planning and testing, unsuccessful migrations can often be attributed to lack of expertise. If your SEO team have yet to go through a migration in their time in the profession then you may be best advised to remedy this, either by hiring a specialist external consultant or bringing in an agency to assist you with all aspects of the migration and work alongside your team throughout the process. 

If indeed things do go wrong, such as the inadvertent indexation of a staging site or the wrong URLs being indexed over time, then it’s wise to have fallback options in place. If you’re not able to quickly recover and back up on areas that may have gone wrong, then any missteps rolled out as a result of a poorly implemented migration may be hard to undo.

Ultimately, there is a risk of revenue from organic seriously being impacted by migrations gone wrong, and you need to do all you can as a business owner to remedy this.

What other factors should we consider relating to SEO?

There are a lot of factors that your SEO team will need to consider before, during and after a migration. A common mistake is accidentally indexing staging websites where tests are being undertaken. This can not only appear embarrassing from a customer experience point of view, but will also cause elongated SEO headaches as you attempt to force Google to remove staging or testing websites from the index and get them to focus on your newly migrated pages. Getting your SEO and development teams synced up early on will help avoid this.

Aside from blocking crawlers at key times, other SEO considerations include URL mapping if you’re planning on URL changes, running a series of crawls and checks to ensure URLs are being followed once the migration is over, and updating as many directory and third-party references to your website (such as backlinks and ad campaigns). 

There are plenty of migration checklist resources out there for your SEO teams to draw from, so make sure they’re starting the process with this early on and are tailoring these checklists to the needs of your business. 

Can we lose past SEO authority and history?

Depending on the migration type, losing previously attained SEO authority and history on old URLs can be another risk. 

If you’re undertaking a domain name change for example and are moving all of your URLs and content with all their associated traffic, rankings and  backlinks onto a new, fresh domain, it can take a while for this authority to be transferred over. Google will recognise the changes in time, but there are still some considerations.

Even if your SEO team has been diligent in their redirect mapping, domain change notification to Google Search Console and sitemap updating, there is a general assumption in the SEO industry that some degree of SEO authority is lost during the process of redirect implementation.

Authority on key URLs is typically lost if they are not factored into the migration and are not redirected properly to an equivalent page. In addition, not informing publications that your business has worked with previously on content marketing campaigns as to the domain name changes so they can update their links accordingly will impact this.   

Do I need an SEO agency or SEO consultant for our migration?

Resource allocation during a migration ultimately depends on how big the migration project is. If your site is relatively small and you are implementing changes across a directory of perhaps 50 pages or so, then a small in-house dedicated SEO executive should be able to be across all the key migration aspects.

If you’re running a larger scale business and your migration is far reaching in scale, then such a large one off project may warrant the application of additional resources in the form of an SEO agency or consultant to take the reins. Given what’s at stake in terms of revenue-related risk if things do go wrong, it would be a worthy investment to hire experienced professionals to make sure you have all your bases covered. Many aspects of SEO investment do revolve around precautionary and preventive measures, and migrations quite possibly sit at the very top of this list.

Not hiring a dedicated SEO consultant or agency to smooth your business through the migration will be much more expensive in the long run if you’re having to go back and address costly mistakes caused by a botched migration. 

How long do I need to plan in advance for a migration? 

The obvious answer is as long as humanly possible. If you’ve got a clear path as a business in terms of where you want to be in terms of your migration and the dates are fixed, then getting the wheels in motion as many weeks or months in advance as possible is heavily advised.

Perhaps the most important aspect of planning in advance for a migration isn’t necessarily giving your team as much time as possible to plan, but rather time timing of the migration itself. 

You could potentially opt to clear out a dedicated period of say 10 days to weeks to focus efforts on your migration, or conversely spread the efforts out over the course of a business quarter. 

Either way, you will want to undertake a migration during potential off or down season periods relevant to your business to minimise any revenue loss.

SEO Migration Case Study

Clothing retailer sees 50% organic uplift following consolidation of brands during migration.

Problem: A well-performing, established clothing retailer that had built up various website assets over time realised that with a number of different subdomains dealing with different product categories, there was an opportunity to improve user experiences under one consolidated domain.

Solution: After careful URL and user journey mapping, the brand was able to consolidate all of its properties spread across various subdomains into one master domain, merging into a clean directory structure. Housing everything under one master domain with all the SEO authority gained from the previous subdomains consolidated into one place saw marked improvements on search rankings, bringing a healthy improvement to SEO overall. 

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