Six site migration fails and how to avoid them
“Site migration” is a catch-all term to describe any significant alteration to a website that could cause a considerable change to the site’s search engine visibility. The phrase is used because while there are many types of site migrations, the majority involve the wholesale movement of a website’s location, platform, structure, etc. They are a necessary evil in the ever-evolving world of the internet. The price of tireless technological progress, mutating algorithms, changing standards and increasing regulation.
Rather than having an obvious positive effect, a successful site migration mitigates against a potential loss of traffic or visibility. There may be a slow increase/decrease in traffic after the migration due to the result of the changes to the site, but if you can achieve the same number of sessions shortly after the move, you should consider it a victory.
Some site migrations are particularly common in international SEO. An expanding business may change their domain name strategy from the use of multiple ccTLDs (e.g. .com, .co.uk, .de, .fr) into subdomains or subfolders.
While success may sound simple, failure can come in many forms. This post will address six of the most common errors and offer the best ways to avoid them.
1. Traffic loss
In July 2018 Google released Chrome 68. This version of the search giant’s browser was the first to warn users that any site without HTTPS encryption is not secure. The result has been a rise in HTTP to HTTPS site migrations. In these cases, the domain name remains the same, but an SSL certificate becomes associated with the site. The theory goes that as the HTTPS version of the site is introduced the HTTP URLs show a sharp drop in organic visits to zero, with the new HTTPs traffic showing an equivalent lift in visits.
Too often, though, the organic visits nose-dive with little or no corresponding uplift detected for the new protocol. So, what’s going wrong?
A quick look at Google Analytics may show a misattribution in your traffic source. Get an SEO professional to look across all your channels – organic, direct, paid, referral, social, etc. – and ascertain the bigger picture. The problem may not be as big as it initially appears.
For instance, in 2014, Groupon conducted a study which revealed that nearly 60% of the direct traffic to its longer URL pages was from miscategorised organic search results.
If your problem relates to a misattribution of traffic, then you need to check the setup on Google Tag Manager. An update to your GTM settings should be able to correct your reports.
2. Drop in rankings
Rankings are usually measured in two ways: the number of keywords you are ranking for, and the average position of those ranks.
After a site migration, if your average rank drops then you’ve got a trust issue. The search engines give your site less authority and visibility as they analyse and understand the strengths of the new site.
If the site is has stopped ranking for keywords, then there is an issue with the site.
In this case, the first thing to check is whether Google is crawling your whole site. To ensure Google’s bots can access your pages, you will need to update all your links. This includes links in the robots.txt file, sitemaps, internal links, canonicals, hreflang tags, owned and earned offsite signals and meta robots.
Post-migration is also an excellent time to check your site’s stability by engaging in stress testing. If you have an e-commerce shop, doing this now will stop you from losing potential sales during big online events that put pressure on your website’s servers (such as November’s Black Friday extravaganza).
3. Engagement is down
If you’ve managed to avoid a loss of traffic and a fall in rankings, you may notice that you’re still not getting as many sales or enquiries as expected. Your new site is causing the low conversion rate because it’s now attracting the wrong audience, or it’s failing to engage the target audience.
If your site is attracting the wrong audience, then you will probably have a high bounce rate (i.e. users will leave after viewing one page) as they realise it isn’t what they were looking for. In these cases, you will need to reassess how your site appears on the search engine results pages. Changing your page titles, keywords, meta descriptions and on-page content to state the purpose of the site will help.
If you’ve overhauled the design and structure of your site, then a high bounce rate may also be a sign of low engagement. Looking at metrics like time on page, pages per session and conversion rates will help you to assess if this is true.
During development, style often trumps usability leading to low conversion rates. Before launching you should conduct tests to see if users understand the purpose of the site and how to add an item to the basket, make an enquiry, find out more information, etc. Once live, you can test alternative images, calls to action, colours, etc.
Improving conversion rates and optimising user experience is an ongoing cycle and there’s plenty of tests for you to choose from, e.g. heat maps, screen recordings, interviews, expert reviews, cultural research, heuristics, analytics, colour analyses, accessibility audits and linguistic reviews.
4. A technical mess
When your whole site is changing, and you’ve not conducted a migration before, it’s possible to end up in a technical mess. Mistakes include missed redirects, lost rankings, reductions in traffic and low conversion rates.
One thing to be aware of is that some redirects can be an issue. If you create redirect chains (where one URL is forwarded to a URL that is also forwarded), it may add hundreds of milliseconds to the load time. It’s one reason why Google advises against redirects. Take time to reconsider your relative URLs before you go live with the new site.
If you have thousands of pages and they are all changing in the same way, then you can set up automated tasks to ease the burden of updating your internal links. However, some manual updates will be required, and you will still need to set up redirects for specific circumstances (e.g. links from external sites that you can’t get updated).
5. A lack of trust, authority and relevance
A botched migration will lead to a lack of trust, authority and relevance in the eyes of the search engines, so it’s essential to have a clear plan in place before going live.
When our SEO specialists plan a site migration, we use the following process:
- Carry out a full technical audit of the new site
- Undergo URL mapping
- Perform a link review and clean them up
- Undergo pre-live optimisation checks
- Put pre-live testing in place
- Implement the go-live process
- Monitor the sites performance post migration
Once the site is live, monitor and correct crawl issues by regularly checking Google Search Console and fixing any problems that arise. You can start sending the right signals by cleaning up both internal and external links.
6. No process
If you don’t benchmark your traffic and ranking metrics before you begin your site migration, it will be difficult to know if it had been successful.
Optimise pages on the live site before you begin the migration to mitigate any loss you might experience afterwards.
Finally, back up your site before you make any significant changes just in case.
There are no real guarantees that your site migration will go smoothly, so it’s up to all of us as practitioners to know that we’ve made every effort we can to mitigate against failure. The good news: it’s mainly very simple or common sense.
Fear of failure shouldn’t hinder your quest for a website that brings better results from organic search and delivers an exceptional experience for your target audience.
This article is based on the presentation Oban made at BrightonSEO in September 2018. The presentation slides are available below.
If you have questions about your site migration, get in touch.