Re-designing or migrating your website?
Don’t fear change; use it to reinforce your SEO campaign
Change is inevitable – nowhere is this truer than on the internet. For those managing websites, it means everything from design to domain name is likely to be mooted for a refresh at some point. You’d be right in thinking that such migrations are littered with pitfalls from an SEO point of view – however, not only can these be sidestepped, but additional opportunities for increasing rankings can also be leveraged.
There are two ends of the spectrum when it comes to client attitudes towards a migration. At one extreme are those crippled by caution, having listened to horror stories about migrations-gone-wrong, and are thereby left with an outdated website that fails to meet both user and SEO requirements. Conversely, there are those who proceed with reckless abandon, failing to realise that changes they make may have a considerable knock-on effect on search rankings, visitor levels and sales.
While these extremes seldom occur, too much of a tendency towards either end can potentially be damaging to your business. Any SEO provider should blend caution with optimism, ensuring that risk is mitigated as much as possible while capitalizing on opportunities to further the website’s SEO potential.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, what exactly do we mean by ‘migration’? The term encompasses a variety of changes that a business may wish to exact upon their website. Common types of migration include changing domain name, refreshing site design, moving content, restructuring URLs or switching platform.
It is evident that these tasks are likely to affect most websites at some stage, and for certain businesses, migrations will take place on a frequent basis. Migration is often critical in the progression of a business's online strategy, facilitating improvements to product offering, site usability, branding and marketing strategy. It is therefore key that SEO is not always seen as a barrier to migration, but a beneficiary of it.
Good SEO practices can be “baked in” to a reworked site, helping improve visibility in the search engines moving forward. For example, if you’re migrating to a new content management system (CMS), there’s a great opportunity to improve the potential natural search performance of your site by including some SEO criteria in the selection process. This will allow you to come away with a CMS that is more SEO friendly.
At Greenlight we take a three-pronged approach to SEO, focusing on accessibility, relevancy and credibility in what we term our ARC methodology. That is to say, for a page to rank, search engines must be able to a) access the page b) deem the page relevant to a user’s query and c) deem the page more credible than other similarly relevant pages. So let’s consider how different types of migration may impede, or help optimize, this process.
The effect of migration on accessibility
Migration can result in accessibility issues for a website and its pages. This is particularly true of design migrations, where a new look and feel is applied to a website. Should certain web technologies be required in order to access content in the new design, search engines are likely to struggle to access this content effectively. Also, should these technologies be mandatory in order to follow certain internal links or access certain pages, internal link equity may be used in a less than efficient manner as a result.
Similar issues can be brought on by a switch in platform provider, potentially causing more fundamental technical issues which should be resolved by your SEO staff or incumbent agency prior to launch, not retrospectively.
Turning the threat to accessibility on its head, if the current site design is already reliant on the above technologies, then switching to a more accessible, text-driven layout could greatly improve the amount of content search engines are able to process. Changing to regular text-based hyperlinks would remove another accessibility barrier by allowing more pages to be indexed and accrue credibility.
The effect of migration on relevancy
When migrating website design or platform, relevancy may be impeded by the omission or lack of control over key on-page relevancy indicators. Search engines look at a series of on-page attributes in order to determine the subject matter of the page. Moving to a new design may prevent these elements from appearing on the page – for example, if the website moves to a more visual, minimalist layout. A switch in platform may also restrict template changes across a large set of pages, preventing scalable relevancy improvements from being made, or alternatively prevent granular changes from being made on a page-by-page basis.
In addition to this, should the new design or platform omit important target pages for certain search terms, there will be no appropriately relevant page to rank. The task of defining effective landing pages for different keywords can also be complicated by migrating content from one page to another.
Starting afresh with a new design or platform could afford the opportunity to improve the on-page relevancy of pages across the site. It also often proves a good time to reevaluate SEO targeting, making sure that the site structure is not only user-friendly, but is also aligned with search demand in order to rank for all target search terms.
The effect of migration on credibility
Some of the largest threats present in a migration are caused by inefficient credibility management. The driving force behind this is URL modification. There are numerous scenarios – including switching to a new domain, migrating to a new platform, and restructuring the existing URL schema – in which URLs are subject to change. The consequences can be severe because search engines track pages by evaluating their URLs. These URLs are attributed value by the search engines, taking into consideration each URL’s age and back-links. Starting from scratch with a brand new URL will wipe this accrued value, and rankings will likely follow suit.
Re-launching a site with a new design or platform is often a great opportunity to improve the internal linking structure of the website. The way in which credibility flows throughout a website has a high impact on the way in which its pages perform in search engines. A reappraisal of the website's information architecture to coincide with these kinds of migration can often yield strong uplift.
To conclude; prior to undertaking a migration, your SEO agency or in-house search team should be able to answer the following questions:
- Are steps being taken to safeguard existing search rankings? What are they?
- What should we expect to see happen post-migration?
- To what extent will the migration be used as an opportunity to improve the website’s SEO credentials?