One of the most critical aspects of a search optimization campaign is to have a comprehensive and effective strategy to handle content migrations and URL changes. This can be especially challenging for large companies that produce a ton of content.
The main goals in creating an SEO migration strategy are:
- Maintain / Improve Search Rankings
- Maintain / Improve Search Traffic
- Maintain / Improve Link Connectivity
- Improve User Experience
If you don't give search engines exact instructions of where to find content as it moves (via 301 redirects), the engine has no way of carrying over the link metrics that point to the original URL to the new one.
Because link metrics are such an important part of search rankings, the consequences of not having a solid SEO plan for the change can lead to lost rankings and traffic as well as frustrated users who had previously bookmarked the old location of the content or try to find it through existing links. Therefore, it’s important to set up 301 permanent redirects from old pages to new ones in order to help search engines and users understand where the content has moved to.
Remember, if even a single character in a URL changes, including capital letters to lowercase, the content has moved and most likely the engines won’t be able to correctly transfer the link metrics.
So today I would like to outline the steps of a plan for an SEO migration strategy.
1. Baseline Reports
It's important to understand current performance in order to know whether your strategy was successful after launch. Here are the baseline reports that will help you determine if you were successful. Each report should be specific to the pages that are migrating:
- Top Search Rankings
- Top Search Traffic Sources
- Current Search Traffic Levels
- Link Connectivity (Current Back link Profile to Each URL)
- Are Pages Indexed in Google / Bing
Having this information prior to the migration will allow you to compare your performance to the post launch data and gauge the impact of the move.
2. Information Architecture
Determine whether all of the pages have new URLs or whether certain sections of the site been combined (common in a redesign). This will allow us to correct map old URLs to new URLs in the next step.
3. Content Mapping
Make a map (usually in the form of an excel spreadsheet) that shows both the old URLs and their new destination URLs. Note that depending on the size of the migration (how many URLs are changing), a one-to-one map may not be possible based on the sheer number of URLs that are changing. In that situation you will have to map many pages to one (a whole section of content may now map to the new category page that contains that content) or you may have to prioritize your list of redirects based on their current rankings, traffic, revenue, and links.
4. Navigation Optimization
If your migration is based on a redesign and new site launch, you may want to make sure that the new global navigation template has the same links to important content as the old one did. Oftentimes, changes to navigation can cause large ranking fluctuations (because internal navigation links are an important part of ranking algorithms). Therefore, if the global navigation changes, they may be the reason for traffic and ranking decreases rather than an improper migration strategy.
5. Page Titles and Meta Data
The same is true for page titles and meta data. Check to ensure that the old titles and meta descriptions have been transferred to the new pages.
6. Site-Wide Issues
7. Redirect Strategy
Coding the content map into the servers redirect mechanism, whether it’s Apache or IIs, is a critical part of your strategy. Make sure you have someone who is technically capable of handling the job. This is especially true if you are using logic to handle entire sections of content.
There are a lot of creative ways to code redirects to handle large sections of content. The scope of that conversation is far beyond what we have time to get into in this article, but the main takeaway is to make sure that you have a qualified professional coding your redirects and that all your redirects are 301 permanent redirects and not 302 temporary redirects.
8. External Links
It's always best to change any links that you can to reflect your new URL structure. Reach out to sites currently linking to you and ask them to update their links so they point to your new domain whenever possible, or as much as is feasible depending on the size of your backlink profile and your relationship with the site. Update all your directory listings and any other links you have direct control over.
9. Webmaster Tools
Submit an updated sitemap to Google Webmaster tools and use the change of address function if moving to a new domain. Remember to initially keep the old URLs in your XML sitemap to facilitate Google crawling those links and processing the changes in their index.
Never assume that everything has been done correctly. Use an http header check function (just Google "http header check" and click on the first link) to validate that your old URLs are redirecting using 301 redirects. Then, after you’ve verified that everything routes correctly, monitor the metrics you defined in your baseline reporting to ensure that everything has gone smoothly.