9 SEO Tips for a Successful Site Migration or Re-design

06/12/2016

9 SEO Tips for a Successful Site Migration or Re-design

Site migration or a re-design could mean a number of different things. New look, new content, new URLs, new CMS, different domain or new hosting. Whatever the case may be, in terms of search engine optimisation (SEO) your strategy for handling the switchover is mostly about damage control, but it’s also a great opportunity to implement new SEO techniques that weren’t necessarily available before.

This is not a complete migration strategy, so let’s just dive straight into the nine SEO and Analytics tips, based on the most common problems that are often encountered.

1. Retain your hard-earned link equity

The single most important factor that contributes to your rankings is external links, so when you’re launching a new version of your website you really can’t afford to lose all that hard-earned ‘link juice’. You’ll need to safely store all your linked-to URLs in one place first, and the most effective way is to take the URLs from a variety of sources including, but not limited to:

  • Search Console (Webmaster Tools)
  • Majestic SEO
  • Moz

Export the lists into Excel, de-duplicate them and then save that list of linked-to URLs.

Now crawl your staging site and save the list of new URLs and page titles. In your spreadsheet of old URLs, use a VLOOKUP formula to find the title of any URL that is retained on the new site – you don’t need to worry about these URLs as they are staying the same on the new site.

What you’re left with is a list of old URLs that are linked to externally and which do not appear on the new website.

Now create a 301 redirect plan to direct the link equity of these old pages to the best-fit page on the new site, this can take time but it’s worth it to ensure your new site’s authority is upheld in search engines.

2. Internal link optimisation

Internal linking can also make or break a website launch or redesign because it’s the main way that search engines navigate your site and understand the pages.

AJAX and JavaScript are coding methods that can wreak havoc on SEO, this is because search engine crawlers find them hard to interpret. It’s important to be aware of how and where they are being used, and it’s generally advised to leave them out of your site’s main navigation. Tools like Screaming Frog can highlight for you any JavaScript links found in a crawl.

Check that the website’s hyperlinks use relative linking (these are links that don’t contain the full web address e.g. the https://www) otherwise there is a risk that when the site goes live it will contain links back to the staging site domain. Having links to the staging site could cause all sorts of problems for the user, for accurate crawling and for indexation in search engines.

3. On-page SEO audit

When working with a new theme or new SEO plugin, on-page SEO elements could easily be reset and could cause serious problems after launch. Audit your new website for the following elements in particular to make sure they are as intended:

  • Page titles
  • Page descriptions
  • Canonical tags on landing pages
  • Canonical and pagination tags on archive and tag pages, etc.
  • Noindex and nofollow tags and any other directives that affect indexation

4. Make the best use of new content

With new content comes new opportunities for structured data which help you get seen in the search engine results pages (SERPs) and improve your click-through rate.

It’s a good opportunity to implement structured data at this stage because it could help to maintain organic traffic levels if you do see any small dip in rankings. There is a seemingly endless list of the structured data you could use to mark up your site (pictured below is the events snippet), so it’s always worth looking for new opportunities to dominate the search results.

serp

5. XML sitemaps and robots.txt

Make sure your new site is launched with an updated XML sitemap: 404s and 301s in a sitemap are a bad idea. In fact, any inaccuracies in your XML sitemap can mislead search engines as they use it for URL discovery.

The YoastSEO plugin is a good tool for handling XML sitemaps on a WordPress site and there are similar plugins for most other CMS, so there’s no excuse for releasing a website with an out-of-date XML sitemap.

If you’re changing CMS, perhaps to using something bespoke, or that’s heavily customisable, the site’s robots.txt will need to be reconsidered before launch. The file and content structure of a website varies from system to system, so the files listed in your old robots.txt may be redundant if the files no longer exist, or do different jobs. The latter makes it even riskier to include them in the robots.txt, so always remember to check.

6. Site-launch-friendly analytics setup

Google Analytics is the lifeline of almost every digital marketing professional and preserving the integrity of your marketing data can be tricky with a new website on the way. If not carefully controlled, incorrect tracking codes can get everywhere.

There’s no single correct way to set up analytics for your organisation, but this is the way that we recommend that Google Tag Manager (GTM) and Analytics are set up to make them super-friendly for site migrations and updates. The data will never cross over, the analytics codes will never be wrong and there’s only one piece of code for the developers to worry about when your new site goes live. We’re going to do all this in one GTM container which can be implemented on every version of the site.

  • First, make sure that your production site and staging site have their own analytics properties, this way you can use the staging site properly to test the setup during development
  • Set up a GTM container if you haven’t got one already
  • Create a new variable called DynamicUA, and the variable type is a lookup table

dynamic-ua

  • In the lookup table, select the input type ‘hostname’ and enter the hostname of your live and staging site as inputs and their corresponding Analytics property IDs as outputs

property-ids

  • From now on, instead of typing in your property ID when you create a tag for Google Analytics, you should input the variable you just created {{DynamicUA}}

tag-configuration

Now, whenever tag manager loads on a page, your tags will fire as normal – but instead of sending the data to a fixed UA property, it will check the hostname of the site that it’s on and send the pageview to the appropriate analytics property according to the lookup table. Neat, right?

You can now use the same GTM code on every version of your website and remove any manually implemented codes.

If you’ve got existing tags set up for event tracking you’ll probably need to review them to ensure the equivalent events are tracked on the new site – while you’re doing this you can simply replace the defined property IDs with your newly created variable.

If you’re setting up GTM for the first time it’s also important to know what event tracking is currently hardcoded into your web pages. In-line event tracking won’t interact with a GTM-fired analytics code and thus the data won’t reach your account. We recommend taking this opportunity to migrate all your non-GTM tracking into GTM.

7. Mobile-friendly test

90% of the site redevelopments we hear about have an element of mobile-friendliness. Usability and user-experience are certainly the main considerations, but from a purely SEO point of view the most important thing is that the mobile accessibility of the site impresses Google’s robots and passes the mobile-friendly test.

You’ll struggle to test your site if everything is blocked by robots.txt, so you will need to allow your key landing pages to be crawled – this means placing the noindex meta tag on those pages for the time being and allowing the pages in robots.txt to be crawled. Remember to remove the noindex tag from these pages when the new site is launched.

8. Reduce your DNS cache time-to-live

“Where have all our titles and descriptions gone?” asked a rather perturbed client on a Friday afternoon. Not only were the titles gone, but their ranking plummeted overnight – this happened following a change of IP address. This could happen if you’re changing your IP during DNS propagation.

The time-to-live (TTL) of your DNS cache says ’visit this IP for a period of X hours’. During that time the search engines will continue to associate your domain name with the old IP where there is no longer any content. It’s recommended that the DNS cache TTL is set to a very short window, just one hour, so that the search engine has to visit the new IP straight away.

If a search engine visits the old IP and finds nothing there, you could run into some serious problems in the SERPs such as the issues described above.  This is why it’s recommended you reduce the time-to-live to about an hour during the migration to reduce the risks of customers not being able to find your site.

9. Use Google Search Console (Webmaster Tools)

Both Google and Bing provide webmaster tools which can be extremely valuable during any site launch. Analytics might tell you that your traffic is down, but Webmaster Tools can often tell why it occurred. This is because you get messages directly from the search engines telling you what’s wrong with your website.

There’s also a feature that allows you to tell Google when you’re changing your domain. There’s no reason not to use it!

search-console

If you have just completed a site migration and would benefit from a free SEO health check, contact Receptional.

Rob Newhouse

Digital Marketing Consultant

Rob is a member of Receptional’s SEO and Web Development teams; specialising in technical SEO and digital analytics. He has been involved in content marketing and link building, as well as leading web design and conversion rate optimisation projects. Away from his desk, Rob is a musician and writer.

Let's build your new website

Arrange a free face-to-face consultation