Critical Blunders to Avoid When Updating Your Website Platform

In Common SEO Topics by Louis Venter

Everyone likes a shiny new toy, but when it comes to websites, specifically platform migrations and upgrades, here’s a word of caution not to rush things. There are many stakeholders in a website redesign and a lot of things that can go wrong, so ensure you get your planning right and involve all the right people at the right time!

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COMMON MISTAKES

Some of the most common mistakes that I’ve seen come from one group of people making decisions without being aware of the broader consequences. For example, with one website there were many brands and product lines that the company no longer stocked, so the decision was taken to simply remove all that content. In this case adequate 301s were put into place, but regardless, the lack of content meant that Google no longer sent traffic for those terms, resulting was a significant drop in traffic overall. Even though technically this is correct, several stakeholders were very disappointed, and would have benefited if clear expectations had been set. Perhaps they would have played it slightly differently.

In another instance, the project was experiencing delays with new landing page copy being drafted, but they pushed the button regardless, saying they would get to the copy when they got to it. This resulted in disaster again.

My favourite case is where at the 11th hour, someone finally remembers to involve the SEOs and you get a phone call saying, “Oh we are going live tonight, could you please just have a quick check that everything’s right?” Invariably there will have been changes to the information architecture, with some elements combined, others split, and it just isn’t a quick check! Unless you’re simply changing a skin, with no URL changes, and no content changes, you can bet on having to do some careful planning.

WHAT TO CONSIDER

Firstly, the extent of the changes. How many factors from the list below are affected? The more you change at the same time, the bigger your chances of things going wrong.

  • Top Level Domain name (TLD) change.
  • CMS platform change (invariably all URL’s will change)
  • Merging or splitting sites.
  • Re-jigging your content.

Apart from the above list, a very important consideration to make is whether the new site is actually SEO friendly and whether it introduces potential indexing problems. It’s possible to build a fancy new search function, or filter system, that can potentially introduce thousands of URL parameters or a poor site structure.

WHO CAN IT IMPACT?

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Apart from the obvious, have you thought of all the parties involved? Do you have feeds or affiliates that drive revenue? Have you got advertising pointing to specific links? Beware that simply putting a 301 in place will not work for PPC (you lose your tracking information), so it’s essential that you plan enough time to migrate the campaigns and notify third parties.

Have you spoken with:

  • The designer
  • The back end developer
  • The SEOs
  • The marketers (think of the affiliates)
  • Customer service

There is a time for each of the above, when they will be needing to contribute their bit. However, all should be aware from the start, and get the opportunity to give their input. Often, it’s the designer and web guys putting forward their ideas before the rest of the team get more involved, which can lead to problems down the line.

Don’t underestimate the value that SEO experts can bring in terms of audience data, which will help steer decisions right from the start. Is there is more search volume for “Gift Baskets” or “Gift Hampers”? Understanding search behaviour can impact a number of things, down to how you name a category.  Speak to your SEO professional and inform the designers right at the beginning of the process. Should you be combining those sections, or should you be splitting that category?

DIFFERENT FACTORS TO THINK ABOUT

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Search

I can’t think of many instances where Search is not a key consideration of a website. That means you need to map out the current picture thoroughly before the migration. You need to understand the current site indexing, your top traffic driving pages, your content, and your existing link graph. Where are your links coming from and how does your current Information Architecture distribute that link equity? There are several tools and processes you should run through and MOZ has a pretty detailed write up on this process.

Content

It’s important to think about your content when looking at your objectives. If you plan on losing or combining any content, that should be ringing warning bells. Chances are that content is driving traffic and without it you will lose rankings and visitors. Think carefully about what you plan to drop and again, consult your SEOs – they will be able to tell you what portion of traffic the content is driving, but more importantly, what those people are doing when they come to your site. If visitors go on to find alternative products and convert – you need to consider how to handle this. A constant example I see of this is last season’s range. A new collection comes out and we retire the old one. HANG ON! That was linked to from a host of domains, and drives traffic that goes on to shop the new range.

Another good example I see is when the old site was considered too cluttered and they go for a minimalist new design, right down to the page copy. I once reviewed a website where the branding people had put forward a specific tone and language, such that nowhere on the entire new website did they actually mention their service by name. They were property surveyors, but not once could those two words be found in any of the copy! This became a big dilemma – having gone this far down the track, and invested so much in the content and design already, only to be told it was simply not going to work in search.

Again, to really get down to the detail of checklists and tools, the MOZ link is pretty comprehensive, but in summary:

  • Map out the existing site, from top pages and content, site structure, link graph & performance.
  • Work out what’s being added or removed, and the impact. Definitely seek advice on optimising your content and navigation very early on in the process, you may find a lot more to add, and you need to consider where it fits best.
  • Once you have a new staging site, it needs to be sense checked and tested for SEO compliance.
  • Time to map the old site to the new site and build the list of 301 redirects.
  • Prepare for the cut over and test everything beforehand. Have your post cut over testing plan ready.

Again at all stages, be sure to inform all parties!

POST CUT OVER

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It’s easy to forget something critical after cut over. At first glance everything seems to be working, URLs are redirecting, and everything’s functioning fine, but is it really? Here are a few things that can catch you out:

  • Have you accidentally copied across the old robots.txt file forbidding access to spiders? I’ve seen this all too often!
  • Redirect chains or loops. Optimise redirects using rules, and crawl your old site map that you saved. Of course this should have been checked prior to launch, but check it again! Update internal links. A key favourite here is the blog having all old links that you can go update.
  • Have you set up the new Google Search Console (Webmaster Tools)? Critically – have you copied across your old disavow file?
  • Duplicate content issues.
  • Have you got the correct GA code installed?
  • Have you switched over all URLs on any paid search campaigns?
  • Is your new server architecture up to speed? How is the site performing under the load?

Above all, keep your finger on the pulse. Monitor Google Search Console for 404s and work out why you are getting them. Keep a close eye on Google Analytics and your rankings. Watch to see how quickly the URLs in the index switch from old to new, and be patient – it’s going to take two weeks initially. Don’t make any rash decisions in under 4 weeks.

There are a ton of tools and write ups to help you along the way. Make sure you read several guides and prepare a plan that’s specific to your case.

Having recently cut over a small site that specialises in clip frames to a new hosting platform on Amazon AWS, its good to come back to this guide to just make sure none of the critical steps were missed. Have fun folks!

About the Author

Louis Venter

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