This article was first published over on the Econsultancy blog. It was inspired by a piece of work I did for an ex-colleague and by another far more authoritative piece by another ex-colleague over on Moz.com. Here it is republished in full.
Prioritised Web Dev/Redesign & Site Migration SEO Checklist
My friend and ex-colleague Modestos Siotos (@Modestos_) has written THE most authoritative piece on site migration over on the Moz blog and there’s no way I even want to go anywhere near improving on that, but I do often get asked both for that authoritative guide and for a prioritised list of actions/areas of focus, so this article will do just that.
Modi’s Moz article is for an SEO & dev lead to implement together, but this guide is more designed for client services to help more concisely communicate the most prescient issues and explain the value in each (and relatively costly) step, and assumes that you have done all the project planning, timing, and already laid out the processes.
The key steps of benchmarking are often forgotten in this process and are a particularly key consideration for client services. There’s no doubt a lot of pressure and high expectations for the new website to flat out beat the old one, as well as the fact that any attention going into the redesign and migration process shines a light on all this. However with the best will in the world and all tick boxes checked there will inevitably be a dip in visibility, visits, and the value they generate, so be prepared to have some answers when the time comes.
Benchmarking allows us to show up any legacy issues the previous incarnation of the site may have had, issues that may potential hamper the new site. We’re talking about factors you can’t measure at a later stage here. Although the plan will be to iron out any of these issues and to embed SEO throughout the new build it may well be that more focus/time/cost could have been spent on SEO previously so bare this in mind. An example might be the use of a clever method of serving content such as frames or dynamic divs in a way that impedes access to this content, so anything you can grab prior to the switch-over do so.
But before we get started – and absolutely most importantly – it’s crucial to mention how important an SEO’s place at the table is during the site redesign phase. A side-by-side analysis of what is being proposed is critical to the whole success of the project, and indeed the entire businesses’ marketing strategy. A website is after all the most important marketing tool that a business has. So take a good look the following typical types of changes that would be detrimental.
Design & Dev Considerations
1) Renaming URLs will be detrimental to SEO
Adding a directory in the URL path may have an impact on SEO as it is perceived that the content is now one directory further away from the root e.g. /holidays-in-spain/ becomes /holidays/spain/
Changing the name of a file may have an impact on SEO as the primary search term features in the existing URL whether or not anchor text is used in the link or simply the URL itself e.g. /spain-holidays/ becomes /guides/mainland-spain/
2) Changing H1 headings will be detrimental to SEO
e.g. Spain Holidays becomes Mainland Spain
3) Not replicating a special offers page will be detrimental to SEO
If you’ve got one it’s likely to not only be a very useful and therefore bookmarked page, but is also likely to act as an optimised anchor text directory to lots of popular deep content that will need to remain linked to if you want your previous performance to continue.
4) Not using correct H heading mark up (H1, H2, H3, etc.) will be detrimental to SEO
5) Removing the breadcrumb trail will be detrimental to SEO (and user experience)
6) Dropping Home Page promotional links is likely to have an impact on SEO
What tabbed sub navigation and offers based quadrants currently feature on your existing homepage? Don’t ignore any past SEO efforts to get more anchor text rich category links into deep content from your most important piece of real estate.
SEO Considerations for Site Redesign and Migration
Please refer to Modi’s original article side-by-side with this one as I have deliberately not duplicated his detail on each of these steps (which are named the same for ease of use).
In order of priority:
First Things First
1) Measure Rankings
The one thing that you can’t do after the fact – benchmark where your current website ranks before you make any changes. Ideally you’d have this over a few weeks/months.
1) Block crawler access
This should be applied as a universal rule, however you may well want to crawl the dev site using 3rd party crawling tools to pull back various information so you may just want to block search engines in your robots.txt file. Also add a meta robots noindex to all pages.
2) Crawl the Legacy Site
Running both Xenu Link Sleuth and Screaming Frog (see the appendix of Modi’s post) will give you a robust picture of the sites’ current performance. Xenu will show you how many current html pages are published (compare this to how many Google has indexed using the site: search modifier). It will also create an HTML site map which can be useful for other teams too. Screaming Frog will show you Page Titles, Meta Descriptions (and their lengths), page depth, number of internal links, etc… lots of factors that support the current ranking of the website.
Don’t forget the importance of internal links for SEO. 301’ing external links and then approaching web masters to update them to the new published URLs is one thing, but not carefully analysing your internal links and their anchor text to determine how many you’re going to need on the new site and with what anchor test is a foolish over site.
3) Export top pages
Do this for pages with most incoming links, yes, but also look at the most trafficked pages on the website in Google Analytics as well as Google Webmaster Tools. What pages are you replacing these with on the new site and how are they likely to perform in comparison?
2) URL Redirect Mapping
Critical to get this right and to plans (and test) this in the dev environment and the live environment before you go live. Don’t forget to use the correct type of redirect, and that links passed via a 301 redirect do loose some of their clout, so remember to take the time to update them.
3) Prepare XML sitemap (s)
The quickest way to get the new site indexed will be via an XML sitemap submission to Google & Bing Webmaster Tools.
4) Address duplicate content issues
Hopefully your dev team will come to you asking for solutions to this one rather than you having to spot them and shake the tree, but I somehow imagine that you’ll have to cast a keen eye over what’s being built to ensure that you’re using canonical tags correctly.
1) Check 301 redirects
2) Notify Google via Webmaster Tools (migration)
3) Fix broken links 4) Monitor crawl errors
1) Update most valuable inbound links
Whilst you are in this process don’t forget that this also gives you a chance to request an update to the anchor text of the link. Be careful though – ideally only 1 in every 4 links to a page should have optimised anchor text.
2) Build fresh links
NB If you’ve introduced new category pages and content not featured previously on the old site it’s very important to build new links into these deep content pages.
3) Measure Impact/Success
Watch the switchover from the old URLs to the new ones in Google in earnest – daily monitoring your site:URL searches; look at real time analytics; set up alerts in GA and GWT; monitor traffic daily compared to previous periods – week, month, year… with any luck you’ll see figures going up! But most of all keep an eye on your bottom line with page level analysis so you can quickly pull in the relevant teams. Woe betide any developers who think their job is done after they’ve flicked that big Go Live lever!
Final notes on Link Equity
At it’s highest level SEO can be seen as on-site optimisation & off-site optimisation. Both factors are important in equal measure. Optimised content on the site will only be as relevant and visible as the number and quality of the links it has pointing at it.
Links cut through these factors as both on-site and off-site links are important in equal measure. In fact maximising the use of your internal links can have a hugely positive impact on your overall SEO.
To successfully complete a site migration existing URLs (particularly those with links pointing to them) need to be redirected using the correct permanent 301 redirect to their corresponding new addresses. This method minimises traffic loss and is the only way to help search engines correctly update link destinations.
However passing links through a 301 redirect will incur a slight drop in link equity and every effort should be made following go live to manually request external link updates and to correct all internal links to their new addresses.
The value and importance of a link is based on 2 factors: 1) the strength of the page (and domain) that the link to your site is on, 2) the anchor text contained within the link.
Get in early. Work with your designers so that they understand enough of the principles to help you improve things for SEO rather than hinder them. Work with your developers to make sure they don’t cut corners by using frames or hidden content, but most importantly work to provide clarity to your client that whatever you do there is very likely to be fluctuations that you have no control over.
Using this and Modi’s guide and ticking all your check boxes is best practice. Selling in time to build new links and reconfigure old ones currently is a key trick, and don’t forget that the designers bare as much responsibility for any change in performance of the new site as you do. If the new site isn’t a step forward from a users point of view it won’t be from a search engines too.