With each new year and every new (ever-harder) marketing goal to hit, you are probably considering making changes to your website. These might include a new, easier-to-use design, a better content strategy to grow your customer acquisition funnel, or a complete overhaul based on a new digital marketing strategy.
With every website change comes challenges – specifically in terms of search engine optimization (SEO). It’s far too easy to make positive changes that improve some marketing goals, while accidentally decreasing SEO traffic. But it doesn’t need to be that way!
So, how can you best set yourself up for site changes + SEO success? This guide is here to help.
First Things First: Defining the Work & the Risks
It’s best to understand what kinds of changes you are making to your website, and the relative SEO risk those changes bring for your organic search traffic. This can help you plan for the kinds of SEO tasks you should tackle, so the work you do will result in more, not less, SEO traffic over time.
Here’s a breakdown:
Recommendation: Crawl your stage site (complete with redesign changes) with JS and CSS disabled. Check all major page template types to ensure that all content is accessible / readable on the page when it’s turned off. If/when content is missing, work with your development team to make it visible.
Don’t worry if it’s ugly – a site without CSS is pretty much guaranteed to be so!
Server changes, with or without any other site changes, present risk primarily in terms of page load speed. Load time is an SEO ranking consideration, but perhaps more importantly, it’s a conversion issue – after all, what’s the point of any marketing channel if it isn’t selling your products or services?
Recommendation: Set up a stage site on the new server, and compare your existing site’s page load speeds against the new server’s load speeds. Aim for page load speed improvements!
URL changes present both SEO risk and SEO opportunity. Any change to URLs (at least, those URLs that are publicly accessible to Google & other search engines) forces said search engine to re-evaluate each specific page again, and re-rank it against all other pages covering the same subject. This takes time to carry out, and therefore can hurt your short-term SEO results.
However, making URL changes to more SEO- and user-friendly language can improve SEO in the long run. Also note that URL changes often come with design changes, so you should consider those risks/recommendations as needed.
Recommendation: Be sure to consider SEO when selecting your URL naming conventions – in addition to all the other important considerations like strategy, branding, accuracy, etc. – and base those decisions on solid keyword research (aka data) & a keyword strategy that is reflective of your overall business & marketing strategy.
Redirects are a huge consideration for URL changes, and should be considered and implemented part-and-parcel with any URL changes.
Note that this doesn’t mean all URLs that change must be redirected, but that it’s very likely that most should. That’s another topic for another day…
Platform changes can be more or less risky, depending on the system you are currently using and the platform you are migrating to. It sounds simple and obvious, but moving to a platform that offers less control over SEO details can mean that existing optimizations and flexibility will go away.
Outside of that risk, platform changes are also risky due to the URL rewrites, which are frequently required to fit within the structure and conventions that each system requires. Design changes are frequently a part of a platform move.
Recommendation: Be sure to vet your proposed new platform for all your business needs, including SEO functionality. Consider all the recommendations from the “URL Changes” and “Redesign Changes” sections.
A Completely New Site
Note that this isn’t an initial site from scratch (with no previous versions). That doesn’t really have much risk, other than the risk of not getting good SEO traffic in the first place.
Refreshing your entire site could be the result of a completely new business direction (hello, pivoting!) or the realization that your existing site just doesn’t do its job. Regardless of the reason, a completely new site — including design & structure & content changes — brings with it a fair amount of risk.
Recommendation: Scroll down to our General Migration Recommendation section below.
Domain migrations are generally considered the riskiest changes for SEO, according to basically every SEO blog. This is because changing your domain name (e.g. www.thisismysite.com to www.ohheyimovedit.com) means that each and every URL on your site will change. It also frequently means design, content, and structure changes. Hence the very-high risk assessment.
Recommendation: Honestly… there’s a lot in here to consider. Scroll down to our General Migration Recommendation section below. Consider working with an SEO firm you trust to help you through the eCommerce migration process.
Whether or not a site should migrate to HTTPS (a secure protocol) vs. HTTP is a subject of much debate among SEOs. Sites who have migrated have seen results all over the board.
Regardless of which side of the debate you’re on, should your business choose to move forward with a HTTPS migration, you should know that changing this protocol does, in fact, constitute a sitewide URL change. Therefore, the “URL Changes” migration type should be reviewed to understand the risks therein.
Note that an HTTPS migration is not as risky as a Domain Migration, despite the fact that it’s also changing 100% of your URLs. This is because Google has officially recognized it as a ranking signal, which counteracts (at least somewhat) these URL changes.
Recommendation: Ensure you aren’t making this change purely for SEO ranking reasons, because, chances are, it’ll hurt in the short term. There are, however, many good business reasons for making this change.
In general, the Web is moving to HTTPS. It’s just a matter of time. So consider timing this change in a way that works for your business’ needs and seasonality, in order to limit SEO pain. Follow Google’s best practices for HTTPS migrations.
“Other” Migration Types
Much like the world we live in, migrations can come in all varieties, shapes and sizes. Consider the list above a shortlist of the major concerns. If your migration fits in more than one bucket from above, all the concerns/issues should be addressed (e.g. these issues are additive.)
General SEO Website Migration Recommendations
Plan for evaluating new platforms and/or themes against all your SEO needs, in addition to all your regular business and marketing needs. Clearly document what you need from these tools, how critical each item is, (as in, is it a deal-breaker if it doesn’t have it? Or just more annoying?) and whether or not each of your proposed new solutions offers each item on your list.
This list of Ecommerce Technical SEO Requirements might be helpful!
Put together a migration & deployment plan that accounts for SEO in addition to technical and marketing considerations.
We very much recommend building SEO QA & issue fixing time into your plan; you can anticipate some issues ahead of time by doing a good job vetting your new changes in the first place. However, there is really no substitute for crawling & evaluating the development site to identify and fix issues prior to pushing your changes live.
Here’s what we recommend including on your SEO migration checklist:
Phase 1: Audit the Live Site
Document your existing keyword rankings, best landing pages, traffic data, etc. for the last 3+ months. GA and GSC are great tools for this.
The goal here is to have a benchmark for existing performance, so you can a) evaluate how successful the migration was, and how long it takes you to recover from the changes, and b) if/when something goes wrong, this data can help you dig into the differences, allowing you to better troubleshoot and fix any issues that arise.
Keep in mind that almost all migrations – at least, those that include URL changes – involve some temporary SEO traffic losses. But if you haven’t seen traffic rebounding / returning to normal after 1-3 months, something may be wrong.
Claim all URL variations in Google Search Console. This includes:
- All subdomains, including the site with and without www
- HTTPS vs. HTTP, if applicable
- All combinations of these. An example for a standard HTTPS site:
Crawl the site using your preferred crawler of choice. We’re big fans of both DeepCrawl and ScreamingFrog.
Collect any needed broken pages to set up redirects:
- From your live site crawl
- From GSC
- From your new URL changes
Document your Google Analytics migration plan, so you don’t break traffic or goal tracking. Doing so really makes it hard to measure, well, anything, but mostly how the migration is going.
Document anything that could/should be improved prior to or post-launch, including your meta data, on-page copy, alt tags, page load speeds, structured markup, canonicals, noindexes, etc.
Phase 2: Audit the Dev Site
Ensure that your dev site is “SEO QA ready” before beginning in order to reduce the chances of wasted work (and/or work with your development team to test specific changes when they are ready.) This generally means all functionality is complete, all content is in, all changes are made, etc. The site should be “dev-complete” in almost all cases for a final SEO check.
Ensure the dev site isn’t indexable — you don’t want your stage site in Google! Generally, this is as easy as blocking all user agents in your robots.txt file.
Set up & QA redirects as necessary. Always use a 301 (permanent) not 302 (temporary) redirect whenever accurate. Only use 302s when the change is literally temporary, and you will be building the new resource after the fact.
You can check this by inputting the URL in question in the header checker of your choice.
Crawl the dev site. Compare it to your live site. Are all the pages there? Is all the content you’d expect on all those pages? Is the meta data equivalent to or better than what’s on your live site? Etc.
Fix any broken links – errors you don’t introduce to Google aren’t really errors, after all!
Browse the site with multiple devices. We’re living in a mobile-first world! Check various page templates for mobile-friendliness and page speed issues. Fix them!
Browse your site with JS & CSS turned off. Ensure you can access all content & links. Dropdown navigations are notorious for not working in this scenario, and you can and should build a work-around!
Work with your development team to fix and QA all issues prior to giving them the “SEO All-Clear” to go live.
Phase 3: Go-live
Build in time to QA the site once it’s live! This is a critical step to ensure all went well.
Check your robots.txt file – you shouldn’t be blocking all search engines anymore!
Check robots meta tags and canonical tags (assuming you are utilizing these) to ensure they are used accurately, and that you aren’t accidentally blocking pages you want indexed.
Check your redirects – do they all work as expected? Also check in on broken pages in GSC, and set up redirects as needed for any new issues Google finds.
Check GA – is your data collecting? Are your goals still tracking?
Crawl the live site again. Ensure there are no broken links –- and no links to the stage site. If there are, fix these ASAP. Verify that all the changes & content are as you expected.
Submit your site to Google for a re-crawl as needed. You can do this by submitting an XML sitemap of the new/correct pages, and also using GSC’s Fetch & Render tool.
Phase 4: Post Go-live Monitoring
Finally, watch GA and GSC in the days, weeks and months following launch. Perform cleanups as needed. If you see greater-than-expected drops in traffic, use the documents you collected in Phase 1 to understand why (e.g. Which pages are seeing drops in traffic? Is something wrong with those pages?).
About the Author
Tory Gray has over 10 years SEO/digital marketing experience in both marketing & product roles, in agency and startup environments. She’s grown digital marketing results dramatically for eCommerce, consumer product & retail clients. She works independently and at Inflow, an award-winning eCommerce agency.