We are currently living in an era of Digital Darwinism, a time where evolving technologies – from mobile, real-time, to social media and the Internet of Things – are disrupting traditional business models and markets. In order to adapt effectively, digital transformation is required to ensure that businesses look beyond the here and now and focus on how disruptive technologies are affecting customer behaviour and the impact this has on their business.
The continuous evolution of the website
For most, a company’s website is at the centre of their digital ecosystem, and with the explosive growth in mobile and tablet usage the form and nature of the website is changing to keep pace with the changes in customer demands and preferences.
Many sites are therefore shifting to either adaptive or responsive designs and it could be suggested that a website redesign, relaunch or migration can be considered an integral part of the managed digital transformation process.
Best practices for effective website migration
As part of a digital transformation initiative, I was recently involved in the migration of an existing, legacy website, built using a fixed design, to a new website, with a responsive design and structure.
I was primarily responsible for the site’s natural search/SEO and social media effectiveness but my involvement in the project provided me with a 3600 view of the entire website migration process. I’d therefore like to outline some of the key aspects and learnings from my website migration experience and how they can be applied to other similar projects:
Outline goals and objectives
From the outset, it’s important to be absolutely clear as to why you are migrating your website and the objectives and success criteria associated with this. Remember: all objectives should be SMART.
For the project I was involved in, whilst one of the core reasons was to upgrade to a more sophisticated CMS, the core objective was:
To provide users with a first class customer experience on all browsers and devices
Some of the success criteria that derived from this overarching objective included:
- Maintain (with a view to improving) existing natural search traffic and ranking performance
- Enhance the overall website user experience
- Ensure the website is accessible on all key browsers and devices
This stage involves establishing a baseline as to where you are now to give yourself the basis on which to measure and track results and thus the success or failure of the project versus objectives.
For our project, we primarily used this stage to review current and historic website traffic patterns to understand the future impact of change. The activity involved included:
- Evaluated trends of views, visits and top landing pages to understand seasonal and promotional variance
- Reviewed the number of search referrals to the site and took a measure of current percentage
- Ran crawl tests to assess accessibility of site to search engines (primarily Google) and how many pages currently indexed
- Measured inbound links and referring domains to key sections of the site and to the website as a whole
From my experience, the set up of a cross-functional website migration team with a range of different skills and expertise was crucial to the success of the project. As Brian Solis points out:
“The outcome of even the smallest investments in change brings together typically disparate groups to work in harmony across the entire customer journey. This allows teams to cooperate, or merge into new groups, in uniting the digital journey to improve engagement; deliver a holistic experience; and eliminate friction, gaps, and overlap”.
Consider your digital toolkit
A number of tools will be necessary throughout the project, as part of the baseline measurement, as well as for checking progress and measuring results once the new site goes live.
Some of the tools I found most useful during our website migration project included:
- Web analytics – for measuring traffic by source; time on site/ engagement; bounce rate
- Moz Open Site Explorer – to record rankings and review inbound links to the site
- MajesticSEO – to baseline inbound links to the site
- Website crawlers – use tools such as Screaming Frog and Xenu to get a list of all URLs and for checking redirects post-migration
- Google Webmaster Tools – for conducting a site audit and monitoring errors post-migration
Review/audit key content
A thorough content review is essential, whether you’re planning on ‘lifting and shifting’ existing content across to the new site, updating or refining existing content, creating brand new content or a combination of all three.
With responsibility for all earned media marketing activity, this was a key task of mine and meant working closely with a number of teams and key stakeholders across the business, particularly content, marketing and PR.
Together we audited the site and made a plan as to how content would change and/ or be migrated into the structure of the new site. A pre-defined site structure meant we had a guide as to how the new site was going to be designed but this had to be flexible to ensure we could carry the right content across without losing key information or harming UX or natural search performance.
Some of the questions we asked when reviewing content included:
- What Does the content serve a specific purpose?
- How much traffic does the page receive?
- Is the page orphaned?
- Has the page earned any external links – how many and of what authority?
- Has the content been shared socially?
- Is there any other similar or duplicated content?
- Is the content still relevant?
Define URL structure and redirection plan
If URLs are going to be changing as part of the website migration, it’s essential that a comprehensive redirection plan is created.
URLs can often change and pages moved as part of a website migration due to:
- Re-branding requiring new domain
- Expansion into foreign markets requiring new TLDs
- Upgrade/redesign leading to a new navigation or URL structure
- Re-purposing/ or updating of content on new website
Depending on the size of your website, a thorough redirection plan can be a complex and time-consuming process but a crucial one nonetheless. From an SEO perspective, restructuring or migrating a website is fraught with danger if not handled correctly so it’s highly recommended and worthwhile working with experienced specialists who can guide you through the process.
Launch and review
Prior to launch, it’s important to carry out last checks, including a content review, website crawl to pick up errors (e.g. broken links, missing meta data etc) and assurances that correct (301 – permanent) redirects are in place.
Once the new site is launched, it will be time to go back to the baseline and review results over the first few days and weeks. It’s important at this stage to keep calm, be consistent and trust in your preparation and research.
For the project I was involved in, we ensured that we referred back to the baseline we established at the start to look at:
- Traffic – all sources
- Bounce rate
- Sales funnels, customer journeys and conversion paths
- Crawl errors and internal links
- Missing pages and broken URLs (404 errors)
Set out a clear post-migration communications plan
It’s important that key stakeholders, both inside and outside the organisation, are aware of the new site and what it means to them. What or how you communicate will depend on the type of changes that have been made to the site but it’s usually worth shouting about positive changes and updates.
The website I was working on underwent a substantial re-design, with the introduction of new functionality and a lot of content. It was therefore imperative that we signalled changes to users early on, before we migrated, with sneak previews and guidance on the old site as to what the new site would offer.
Following the launch of the new site, customers and staff were emailed, social channels updated and key stakeholders invited to feedback with their views. Letting as many people as possible know about the good work that had taken place was a good opportunity to get people talking and generate new inbound links to the site.
Further reading and links
There are many articles across the web with helpful hints, tips and best practices for site migration. Here are a few that I have found very useful:
- Surviving a Site Migration [An SEO's Guide] – Richard Baxter
- The Ultimate Platform Migration and Redirection Plan for SEO – Guillaume Bouchard
- So You’re Thinking of Migrating A Website? – Rick Eliason
- Site migration made easy – a guide to redirects – Steve Johnsto
- Econsultancy Site Migration and SEO Impact – the story so far – Ashley Friedlein
- Site Migration SEO Concerns - Barry Adams
- Best practices when moving your site - Google