Over the past five years or so, I have given a number of presentations on digital and website strategy. One of the topics I have closely covered in these discussions has been website migration and how important it is for the success of future websites. Even after all this, what continues to worry me is the feeling that I am the only one who considers this issue to be worth looking into.
Defining website migration
When the online world first came into being, you could do practically anything on it without having to worry about a penalty. Quite simply, there was nothing there to land you a penalty.
Analytics were few and far between and rarely read by the clients. So, even if a penalty did come up somewhere, nobody would quite get to know about it.
Moreover, there were no useful mechanisms for the users to complain about new websites or any changes so the businesses had no feedback to work with. Chances are they would not have cared much even if there was one!
How times have changed!
Website migration is a relatively broad topic spanning the realms of introducing a new website function or website as a whole. This holds especially true if changes are made to an existing website function or website.
In the good old days, you could simply drop your old website and have a new one in place as replacement. Same would hold true if there was an upgraded or new piece of functionality.
Out with the old and in with the new was the mantra that businesses followed in those days.
..But now there is a penalty
Today, migrating a new website, web functionality or piece of web content requires careful planning and consideration. Arguably, this is the greatest risk involved in a modern website project and one that requires significant amount of focus across the entire range of website development skills.
Does this all seem a bit too confusing? Well let me try and simplify matters as far as possible.
SEO or Search Engine Optimisation
Most businesses consider achieving good search rankings to be an important and integral part of their online business strategy.
Nobody is quite aware as to why Google does the things related to search engine rankings. However, over time many of them succeed in finding a balance that actually works. This helps them achieve good rankings and eventually good site traffic.
A new website is a considerable disruption in this regard. You have changes being made to your technology, architecture, design and also website content. This is a huge risk for your website and may prove to be too big a hit to recover from.
Even when you are following the best practices and looking to improve website content and speed, you are unwittingly giving your business over to a big gamble though you may think you have everything calculated and measured out.
From personal experience, an improved website gets a good re-indexing from Google. However, if it is your aim to stay on top of the rankings then here is a piece of advice for you to follow: Take a look at your analytics, try to understand what is going on and what works for you. Go through one page at a time, deciding in the process what needs to change and all that can possibly remain.
The 301 redirects
Failing to migrate existing pages in your website to those on your new one will lead Google to turn against you. And this could prove to be a big time mistake for your business!
When you leave old and unaccounted pages in the Google index and do not offer clear instructions to the search engine on how they need to be handled, Google will simply return the favor by redirecting traffic away from your website.
The main aim for Google is to deliver users with the best possible experience. A “Page Not Found” is the worst possible experience that any user can have.
You need to ensure that every page on your website is well accounted for. It does not matter if they are old or irrelevant. Same holds true for images, PDFs and all other files in Google index.
Consolidation of old pages is quite possible. Hundreds of irrelevant and old news pieces and articles can end up at the same landing page. This is something the search engine does not really care about as long as you ensure that you have handled each of the pages.
Quite literally, you will end up with your website in the dark ages if you fail to manage this properly. And planning, in this case, involves only half the net effort.
Personal experience suggests that no matter how hard you try to map your existing web pages to the new site, Google along with the Net users always stay a step ahead of you. They are successful at knowing more than you are ever likely to find out.
A possible solution is to closely monitor your 404s immediately after launch. Follow that up by manually (and with immediate effect) pointing them to the new pages via the 301 redirectors.
Get this even slightly wrong and you will be staring at days back in the dark age.
Change is the only constant but users never seem to realize
When it comes to the users of a website, they are seemingly the worst. Change is something they hate and are likely to keep complaining about even if you have taken steps to make life visibly easier for them. And when I say “users” it is the entire lot that is being referred to (internal as well as external).
While various businesses have different adoption strategies to work with, the best thing to do would be to leave the older website version running while your users can adapt to life with the new one.
Talk to users often, get their feedback on the necessary changes, implement them and communicate the upcoming changes on a larger platform. This way, you can significantly reduce the unwanted social media zings and calls.
Risk minimisation 101 is the way to go
You don’t build a new hospital, transfer your patients to it without any warning, and simply burn the old one down.
True, a website is way different from a hospital. However, Google is seemingly the taxies that are aware that only the old hospital exists. Unless of course you point them out about the new one and help them reach the same.
Users, in this case, are the patients screaming themselves hoarse from the old hospital to the new one. Their complaint? They are unable to find the new bathrooms! The fact that the new ones are seemingly in an unknown location is more important to them than that of the new facilities having chrome showerheads and marble floors.
To put it simply, website migration is not a very favorable option. However, it is far better to opt for it to the best of your abilities rather than surrender the goodwill and effort you had worked so hard to build up on your old website.