Migration SEO Tips Series - Part 1 - Planning Your Link Migration Strategy
We’ve all done it – worked for months on a migration, put in all the finishing touches, uploaded it to our server and closed our eyes (and probably crossed our fingers) while turning our shining new website live to the world. I expect many of us have also done this without thinking about the changes we might have made in the process, and particularly without considering any impact this might have on our position in search engines. I hope that this series of articles will give you some ‘top tips’ of things you must do before, during and after your migration to maintain your hard-earned search engine optimisation and avoid incurring penalties post-migration.
Migrating your website is more than putting a new template on your content and pushing the site live. Often you will be adding new extensions, changing your menu structure, removing old content which is no longer relevant, and any number of other changes.
Managing this process to ensure that you don’t lose the hard work you’ve done over the years building up your optimisation through link building, and organic linking to your site is critical, but often overlooked.
Before you push the new site live, but after you have the finalised content structure, make sure you plan your link migration strategy. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to take a look at your old site and new site against each other and just check that the URL structure is the same. Even if you think it hasn’t changed, I’ve been caught out before by not taking the time to rigorously check each menu item, for example, to ensure the structure remains the same.
All it takes is for one category or menu alias to have changed and you could potentially have thousands of links break quite literally overnight. Take the time to check, trust me on this one, you’ll thank me later!
Link migration strategy, you say?!
Like any complex task, it is important that you approach your link migration in a systematic and strategic way. If you don’t then in the best case scenario you’ll miss a few links, and in the worst case you could completely destroy your search engine optimisation efforts.
Unfortunately in most cases there is no easy ‘one click’ route to do a proper link migration, unless you are maintaining the exact same structure but simply prepending or appending something to the URL structure, or changing a domain name. Even if that is the case, I would still recommend you follow the process below.
There are several ways to identify links on your site, I tend to use multiple systems to ensure I capture all the link on my site currently indexed by search engines.
Use your sitemaps
- Old website sitemaps
A great starting point is to simply grab your XML Sitemap (if you don’t have one yet, try one of the extensions in the Joomla! Extensions Directory) and dump the URLs into a spreadsheet. Here you have a list of links based on your menu structure, but it’s important to note these often don’t show every single article - just the top-level items.
- New website sitemaps
Once you have your structure set up for your new site, install a sitemap extension and use this to generate your new sitemap. This can then be used to match old URLs to new URLs - and potentially to spot patterns from which you might be able to establish redirect rules, saving you time and energy!
Using site scraper/crawler tools
There are numerous tools which will scrape your website and construct a list of links which you can then use to check your redirections and pick up any link you might have missed. These often also give you an indication of how 'important' those links are - as a measure of how frequently they are visited, how many sites link to them, and so forth. This can help you to focus your attention on the 'important' links, although in an ideal world no link would be overlooked in a migration strategy.
- Screaming Frog
A really useful tool, Screaming Frog (multi-platform support) will index your site and all resources on your site. Be aware that it will often trigger security packages and firewalls which have flood-protection enabled, so you may need to disable any such extensions before running it. This is also a useful tool to check periodically for SEO-related problems on your site.
- Majestic SEO
Another useful tool, Majestic SEO gives you very useful information about the importance of your links and also allows you to look at historical data. Well worth using for ongoing monitoring of your domains.
- Webmaster Tools
Whether you use Google or Bing, you'll want to grab a list of URLs from Webmaster Tools and cross-compare with the list you get from the two above. Both tools allow you to sort your URLs by the most 'important' and export into a spreadsheet - Google naturally lets you do this directly to Google Sheets which is handy if you use Google Docs.
Once you have a comprehensive list of your links, you need to decide what you are going to do with them. In an ideal world you would retain the exact same structure, however this is very rarely the case and there are almost always changes in site structure or content along the way.
I have put together a spreadsheet which will allow you to enter your list of URLs in one column, then add any changes to the URL structure and generate a 301 redirect for you automatically - feel free to make a copy of the sheet and use it for your own purposes (Please note this is provided without any warranty - use at your own risk).
Exact matches with no changes
If the link has an exact match in the new site you don't need to do anything - just leave it alone as nothing has changed.
Direct match to new link
If there is a direct match from an old link to a new, you can use a 301 redirect. This is a permenant redirect which tells a visitors' browser that the page which was at the old URL is now permenantly moved to the new URL.
No direct match, but similar page
If there is no direct match but there is a similar page, then you can redirect traffic to the similar page using a 301 redirect.
No direct match, no similar pages
If there is no direct match and no similar page on the new site, you can either leave the link to drop naturally (which will show as a 404) or you can pro-actively kill the link by telling crawlers and visitors that the page has 'Gone' – and they should not try to come back again to find it. Opinion is divided on this topic, however if you want to have the dead links removed quickly, it is suggested that a 410 response is the best way to go.
With all of the options above which involve redirecting, generally this can be done by adding the redirection rules to your htaccess file. There are several SEF extensions which feature redirect managers, however these rely on the 404 occuring and then being fixed – we want to prevent them occuring in the first place, and use such systems as a 'fall back plan' in case we miss any.
So, do I lose my customers coming to my dead link pages?
Absolutely not, with a little planning! It is possible to intercept error codes and have them route to specific pages – and I'd recommend you do that for your 404 and 410 links. An example might be if you're not providing a specific product or service any more, so you 410 the link and on your 410 page, display information about the products and services that you do provide with the aim of converting the traffic which might otherwise be lost.
How do I make sure I didn't miss any important links?
It's really important after a migration or site move that you play closer than usual attention to your monitoring and analytics systems. This will give you an early warning signal of any links which might be broken. Firstly, keep an eye on Webmaster Tools which has a section devoted to crawl errors. If you see links appearing which you didn't intend to be broken, make sure you fix them and submit a reconsideration request.
It's also worth setting up an alert on Google Analytics to warn you if there is an increase in 404 traffic - check out my earlier article for some hints and tips on making the most of Analytics.
The top tips from this article are as follows:
- Create a list of all your URLs before you start the migration
- Create a list of the URLs on your new site once you have the architecture set up
- Map the old links to their new location and create 301 redirects
- 404 or ideally 410 any dead links - lnks which are no longer to be indexed
- Optimise your error pages to convert visitors who may land on dead links or outdated content pages
- Monitor after your migration to pick up any links you might have missed
Next month we'll be considering how to ensure continuity of data monitoring when you migrate or move a website.