Site updates and migrations

Much like any offline business that likes to refresh the paint, reorganize a storefront, or renovate the same is applicable to online businesses or just the web presence of a company. However, when reconfiguring an online presence there is a lot more that must be considered especially when it comes to SEO.

Choosing a new technology vendor, folder structure, or just a homepage update will most likely have an impact in the way that Google or other search engines perceive a site. This isn’t to say that change should be avoided at all costs just to not upset the apple cart; rather, certain precautions should be included in the plan.

The biggest concern when updating a site is that search engines will no longer be able to find the old pages where they used to be and will also have a harder time finding the new pages. This will have a double impact of lost visibility on old pages and not recovering that visibility on new pages. Therefore, the goal in any update is to maintain the structure of the old and nimbly pass users and crawlers on to the new.

The best practice to achieve this goal is to set up permanent redirects from the old page location to new URL. Technically, this is referred to as a 301 redirect which will force browsers as well as crawlers to update the cache for the new URL. This is in contrast to a 302 redirect which is considered to be just a temporary redirect. Temporary redirects are very useful in passing users to a new URL as a result of a particular state (login cookie, time based, location) but the primary URL still remains the same in the memories of a browser and search engine.

Due to the complexities that might arise with a permanent redirect, a temporary redirect ends up as the default redirect option in many popular CMS (content management systems) tools. As a result, setting up this permanent redirect must be a deliberate exercise.

In theory, this redirect will also pass forward the earned equity that is acquired from external sites linking into a URL as well as internal links that used to link to the URL. Additionally, when a site is rolled over a new website or merged into an existing site this redirect should also help pass forward users as well as authority.

Steps to avoid breaking redirects

Regardless, even with this best practice followed to the letter there will still inevitably be complications with the redirects. Many of the issues stem from missed redirects which end up as broken pages. The most sure way to avoid missing any pages is to have a comprehensive list of every URL on a site placed  in a row on a spreadsheet and in a parallel column there will be a row with the new URL location.

Since the redirect file will not be a 1 to 1 old to new map and will likely use algorithmic rules on redirection, pages can still be missed. Before launching the new build of a website, the entire site should be crawled and verified that old URL’s correctly redirected to new URL’s.

Even with the best laid plans, there can still be issues with how redirection plays out. When a redirect instruction is given to a search engine, the engine is being requested to consider the new URL as being equal to the old URL. In practice, that decision is completely up to the search engine like all things related to their indexes.

As the redirect is a change being introduced to the search engine, it is possible that the request is not adopted, and the previous authority is not passed to the new URL. This is a not an insignificant risk and therefore complete site restructures and site migrations should not be taken lightly.  A full site migration should only be undertaken when absolutely necessary for legal purposes or branding needs. In these instances the primary business need will overshadow the potential loss that could come from a migration that leads to a loss in traffic from the migrated URL’s. If the business need could not trump a migration that leads to a loss in traffic, alternative plans should be considered.

I have overseen redirects that have managed to maintain traffic to a new location exactly as it was before, but I have also worked on projects where there was a 50%+ loss in traffic after the redirect. There is no real way to know whether the redirect will be accepted until it is rolled out.

Even redirects within a site have the potential to cause unfavorable adjustments in rankings and a full site rearchitecture should be undertaken carefully. Again, if traffic loss is an unacceptable cost to an overarching business need, then alternatives should be found. An option in this scenario is to use a staged approach where parts of the site are redirected and once traffic has stabilized, the next tranche of the site will be redirected. This process can continue tranche by site until the full site has been updated.

One major consideration to keep in mind with all redirects, is that the redirects likely have to be maintained in perpetuity. For as long as there are backlinks or users that might find the old URL, the redirects have to remain in place to avoid sending users and search crawlers to the wrong location.

These best practices to proceed cautiously when doing redirects and to maintain the redirect mapping forever will apply in any scenario where URL’s are changing, including a site update that just moves a handful of pages.

Even with all the associated risks, change should not be avoided just out of fear. Even if there are temporary drops in traffic, traffic may recover slower or there will be an even more substantial growth in traffic due to a better site structure. The primary takeaway on updates and migrations is that they should be done carefully and slow