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In-House SEO and Website Migration (Weekend Warrior)

Posted on 3.15.2012

In this edition of our regular Weekend Warrior series, we're excited to feature an interview with Jessica Bowman of SEO In House.

Bowman will be speaking next week at the SES Conference and Expo in New York, addressing the most common mistakes in website redesigns and migrations and how to avoid them. If you can't make it out to SES next week (expo hall passes are available free if you register before the event, by the way), fear not because WM has you covered with a sneak peak at Bowman's presentation.

There's lot to know about site migration from an SEO perspective, including merging domains, changing URLs, the myriad CMS requirements and lots more. So who better to turn to than an in-house SEO expert like Bowman? Without further delay, here's Website Magazine's interview with Jessica Bowman in advance of her presentation next week at SES. 


WM: In a general sense, what is website migration and what does it encompass?

JB: In a general sense, a website migration is taking a site and moving it from one platform to another. The biggest SEO issues that a migration presents is that many things have to change behind the scenes, and when this happens it introduces many SEO risks. Particular risks range from an increase in page load times to losing page equity and link values because of URL structure changes. If it is a new e-commerce platform, the product filtering functionalities often change, and this can create many crawling problems if it is not coded correctly.


WM: What role does SEO planning have on a successful website migration? Is there a “formula” for every site? 

JB: Planning is CRUCIAL to success. Few companies plan enough for SEO, and worse, few SEOs have experience doing the right up-front work to ensure that things are smooth post-launch. Identifying SEO requirements during a project is crucial, the challenge is thatthis requires a different type of thinking than finding SEO issues on already coded websites (which is how most SEOs are trained). In a website redesign or migration, you have to think about everything that could possibly go wrong and define requirements so that those issues do not become a problem.

We often talk about what we call the Project Involvement Pyramid. SEO at most companies is involved at the beginning of a project very little and SEO gets pulled in toward the end of the life cycle. It should be the exact opposite, where SEO is involved more at the beginning and less toward then end.

Unfortunately there is not a “formula” for each site, because each website’s front-end functionality is different and each company’s legacy systems are unique (even when using the same CMS platform). There are some over-arching basics that are consistent and inline with SEO best practices, but bringing in a seasoned SEO veteran can help close the gap between the best practices and the nuances that your site introduces and need to be addressed. The larger and more complex the website, the more important it is to find someone to help.

In my session at SES I will be giving a non-stop 45-minute presentation on all the things you need to think about during your redesign. We will talk about the process and activities, in addition to specific examples of what needs to happen and where things can go wrong.

Here are some of the key components you need to add to any project plan (they will all be addressed in the presentation at SES New York):

- Evaluate wireframes and incorporate SEO requirements
- Define SEO specifics to give IT (page load times, pagination, URLs, etc.)
- Define a URL migration plan
- Review project documentation written by other departments
- Conduct SEO Code Checks for each page template
- SEO QA testing pre-launch
- Metrics to gather for baseline reporting and monitor post-launch


WM: Who should the SEO person or team work with in a typical website migration and why?

JB: SEO should be involved with almost every role and every phase of a development project. Below is a breakdown of some of the most important places to involve SEO in a typical website migration:

- During the inception phase, the SEO team would ideally work on the scope document to define the business case for SEO so that SEO requests can be properly prioritized in a project.

- During the requirements gathering phase the SEO team should learn to understand all requirements by sitting in requirements meetings and reading and contributing to all requirements documentation.

- During the design phase the SEO team should work closely with designers to ensure that designs are search engine friendly, and have very clear and defined SEO requirements for the developer.

- During the coding phase, the SEO should work with development on an as needed basis. The exception is that the SEO team should conduct code checks during this phase, so that issues are identified with plenty of time to fix them before the launch.

- During the QA Testing phase the SEO team should conduct a structured QA test to identify issues that need to be fixed.

- Post-Launch, the SEO team should QA the site again (sometimes things go wrong) and monitor key metrics to ensure things are progressing as they should be with the new site.


WM: Where can a business owner expect the majority of theSEOtime/investment to be spent migrating a website? 

JB: The majority of time spent focusing on SEO should be during the requirements and design phases. This is the time when SEO requirements are defined and the designs are reviewed.

During the development phase the SEO team is involved to answer questions, conduct code checks and finalize the URL plan.

Many SEO teams do not spend enough time in the QA testing phase to ensure that all of the SEO requirements have been implementedand added correctly. This testing is best done before user acceptance testing, so that there is enough time for changes to be coded.

WM: What are some of the most common mistakes? What signals should be monitored that indicate something has gone wrong? JB: The most common mistake is allowing a single HTML render to appear with multiple URLs.

Another common issue is related to multi-faceted navigation for e-commerce stores – if you are not careful the URLs in the HREF tags can create spider traps.

Another big mistake is increasing page load times. Google has made it very clear that page load times are a ranking factor, and they want a site to load in three seconds or less. The mistake we sometimes see is that in an attempt to improve the user experience and branding, page load times increase rather than decrease.

The last big mistake is to skimp on SEO QA Testing. All companies understand the value of QA Testing, but many SEOs have a hunt-n-peck approach, rather than something systematic. As a result, they do not catch issues until post-launch when it is creating problems in the search results.


WM: When is the right time to pull the trigger on a website migration? When should you go live?

JB: You want to go live when the right changes have been made. This is why the Testing Phase is crucial, so that you understand which items are showstoppers (yes, some SEO changes are crucial enough to warrant delaying a release in order to get them fixed) and which items need to go immediately after the launch (in the first or second update) or are nice-to-haves.

What are examples of showstoppers? URL issues and spider traps are items that should be fixed before a site launches. If content is in Ajax, JavaScript or Flash and it is not on the current site or is needed for SEO, then this could be a showstopper depending on implementation. If the filtering functionality on an e-commerce site is in Ajax or JavaScript and an HTML layer was not created, then this might also need fixed before launch.

Content elements such as Page title tags and Meta Descriptions are crucial to SEO, and while it can cause issues after launching, can usually go live in the very next update. The severity of the issues should determine whether theyare a showstopper, immediately after launch or a nice-to-have.

Once thorough SEO QA Testing is complete and the major issues are fixed, then the site gets the SEO thumbs up. Just remember, SEO isn’t over just because you launched, it needs to be part of every release.

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