Practical Ecommerce

SEO: For Redesigns and Migrations, Prepare for the Worst

You spend months preparing for your ecommerce redesign or migration. You take search engine optimization into consideration and anticipate an increase in organic search traffic after launch. But what happens at launch can make or break your performance. It’s important to expect the best, but prepare for the worst.

SEO performance invariably changes based on the state of a site post-launch. Whether that change is positive or negative is based on how well you strategized, designed, and implemented for SEO. The launch of a redesign or migration can change the way search engines crawl and index your site, which in turn changes rankings and natural search traffic. You plan for that change to be positive, but it doesn’t always turn out that way.

But there’s another factor: the launch strategy itself. There are four critical steps.

301 Redirects

One of the most important SEO factors in a redesign or migration is the 301-redirect strategy. A 301 redirect tells search engines that the old page that has moved to a new location.

The redirect gets the search engine bot to the new URL so it can index it. But it also acts as a request that the search engine transfer all of the authority it had stored up in the old URL to the new one. After that, the search engine can drop the old URL from its index.

One of the most important SEO factors in a redesign or migration is the 301 redirect strategy.

This process is critical to the launch because that authority is one of the top determiners of ranking ability. Without redirects, the new pages have to start from scratch, building up their own authority without the help from all the authority your old site had earned over the years.

Your developer team will help you implement the 301 redirects. To develop a plan, see my how-to article at “For Redesigns, Protect SEO with 301 Redirect Strategy.”

Do not skip this step, ever. It’s not a fun step, and your developer team won’t enjoy doing it. But the consequences of launching without 301 redirects are immediate and dire, as shown below.

ImplementationChange in Natural Search Traffic
No 301 redirects Down 50%, until 301 redirects in place, then 4-12 weeks to recover.
Flawed migrationDown 30%, until flaws resolved, then 4-12 weeks for new performance.
Flawless migrationUp 10%, fast stabilization at new performance level in 4-6 weeks.

When you launch without 301 redirects, you forfeit the portion of your natural search performance that relies on non-branded queries. Those are the hardest searches to rank for — the ones that don’t include your company’s brand name.

Your branded search performance typically fares better because it’s usually represented in the domain name for the site and peppered all over the site’s pages. But if there is much competition for your company’s brand, you might find resellers or other channel partners ranking higher for those searches than before your launch.

Analytics

The pre-launch phase is also an excellent time to collect baseline analytics so that you have something to compare post-launch performance to. You do not want to be scrambling for data in the hectic post-launch period if there’s a problem with SEO performance. Collect it before launch so you’ll be prepared.

Collect weekly data going back at least eight weeks pre-launch. It’s a good idea to also capture the same data from the previous year. If you measure eight weeks pre-launch and eight weeks post-launch, that’s four months of data, recognizing that seasonality may come into play. You need to know if an uptrend or downtrend in your analytics is due to the launch or to seasonality.

At the minimum, capture from your analytics natural search sessions, orders, and revenue by week.

In Google Search Console, capture weekly clicks, impressions, click-through rate, and average rankings. Note indexation and error levels. Remember that Google Search Console data is not archived, so every day you lose data. Play it safe and download the data regularly.

Capture all the metrics that your management requests as the ones critical to analyzing SEO performance. For example, if your boss is a fanatic about bounce rates, you’d better capture natural search bounce rate data in your baseline.

Gather everything you could possibly need. Having the time to collect it post-launch may be a luxury you don’t have.

Communication

Some teams set up a war room of sorts from which to manage the launch’s progress and triage any issues that arise. Your SEO pro should be in that room. If not, she should dial into it on an open line. She will need to know when the launch is complete, when 301 redirects are live, and when issues arise that may impact SEO.

Make sure that the entire team has her contact information, and that she has the phone numbers, emails, instant message IDs, and whatever other primary methods of communication your team uses. Do not get caught after launch not knowing whom to contact with a critical issue.

If she meets resistance from other team members, circulate the chart above that showed performance impact of launch issues. This data has been generalized over many launches. It is a pattern that recurs unfailingly. Use that data to help the team understand that SEO is a critical part of migration and is utterly affected by technical implementation.

Make sure your SEO pro has access to your developer’s ticketing platform so she can submit bugs and critical issues as she finds them. Otherwise, provide her with a point of contact, to funnel issues to.

Post-launch Testing

Know what you’ll test post-launch and plan it out ahead of time.

Your first step should be to double check that there’s no global disallow command in the robots.txt file, and that pages do not have meta robots noindex tags on them. These are two common ways of keeping search engines out of development sites. They sometimes get copied, accidentally, to the live production site, which results in the deindexation of your entire site. A quick check at the start saves a lot of pain later.

Your next step should be testing those 301 redirects. Problems with their implementation should be fixed immediately — before the search engine bots find them and start to change their indexation patterns.

There are more things to test than I can outline in this article. For your launch, make a list beforehand. Afterwards, check each thing off and write detailed notes, with examples, if you find errors. Separate the critical issues from the bugs and communicate them accordingly.

The tone of this article has been doom and gloom: Prepare for the worst. Some launches come off without a hitch and organic search performance immediately improves. It does happen, but not very often. Redesigns and migrations are typically complex events in the lifecycle of a site, with so many moving pieces that it’s almost impossible to have a perfect launch.

Expect the best, but prepare for the worst.

Jill Kocher Brown

Jill Kocher Brown

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