How to Migrate/Decommission a Website Without Losing Conversions

You run a big thriving site and one day you’re told it needs to be migrated/decommissioned – oh and do not lose a single conversion. HA! Not going to happen! There’s going to just have to be acceptable losses. Right?
Heh, now let me tell you how we did it.

Any major site migration/decommission has 3 major phases Migration, Optimization and Decommission. The phases can overlap, there is no reason why you can’t be mapping redirects while you’re building the new pages.  Our mantra through the process will be “Take care of the users, take care of Google” (or search). Every step of the process shouldn’t be too jarring for anyone who is coming to your site, be it a search bot or some guy in Belgium. It’s going to be a slow process but we don’t want to lose anyone.

 

Migration

Content Audit

First step take a long hard look at your site and figure out what content will be moved, removed and updated. This step might be much more involved than expected but there is no reason to move over junk. Any unneeded content should be removed or 301 redirected. Then create the new pages of content that won’t be changed on the new site and start updating any out of date content. (Don’t redirect these pages yet.)

Integrated systems

Today’s big thriving sites are typically more than straight up content. We used a Marketo API, complex cookies including remarking, webhooks, analytics, a wizard tool and even a couple of microsites including a support site that all needed to be taken care of in the migration and decommission. We won’t go into this here just be aware of these systems and plan for their move/removal as well.

  • Identify what content will be moved, removed, and updated
  • Remove and redirect unneeded content
  • Migrate unchanged content
  • Work with content stakeholders to migrate updated content
  • Identify integrated systems and create plans for move/migration

 

Performance Optimization

Tracking

Right before you launch your shiny new pages, sections and site make sure you’re tracking and reporting is in place! So many of the next steps hinge on making informed decisions. I’ve often seen this stepped skipped. Folks generally don’t think about until the need the data.

SEO

Also falling under the category of stuff that will bite you later – now is the time to review your on page SEO. It is very likely that you’re old on page strategies don’t apply to the new site. Or that you forgot to look for crosslinking opportunities on the new site. I’m not going to go into how to do this as there are several excellent sites out there that already do. Just don’t skip this step.

Conversion

Our migration was a slow roll to avoid losing a single conversion. We did not redirect pages until the new pages performed as well or better. This is when you really dig into your analytics. We started a comparative analysis on traffic, conversion rates, time on page, and bounce rate. Once our new pages were out performing our old and most of our content had been redirected, we jumped through extra hoops to make sure we took care of Google.

On our product pages we had broken out each of the tabs to separate pages and simulated a tab change because Google seemed to like this better than the javascript we had been using. This left us with a huge number of pages (49) for only 5 products. On the new site, it really would be only 5 pages. So we did a consolidation, kind of half step, to take care of Google. We created 5 pages that looked just like the new ones and placed them on the old site but with the new folder structure. Then we redirected the 49 pages to the 5 new pages on the old site. It took Google 2-4 weeks to figure this out and for out stats to level out again. Once this was done we checked the conversion rates again and found that the rates on the new site were almost double that of the old. Yep, at this point we were actually hurting our business by keeping the old pages. Time to do the final move.

  • Ensure tracking is in place for new pages, sections and sites
  • Generate and monitor reporting
  • Pre-launch on page SEO optimization
  • Identify and implement optimization of pages to perform better than old pages.
  • Once performing better, flag old page for decommission
  • Consolidate pages/URLs as needed

Decommission

And done.

Wait we’re missing a couple of pieces that we could have be working on this whole time. This is not a problem for you though because I know you read this whole post before starting, right? Good.

Redirects

Start by creating a master plan. This spreadsheet should (at least) have all of the URLs for the old site, the new URLs, estimation on when they will be redirected. This will help both from project tracking and site maps later on.

For this type of project always use a 301. Even on our consolidation pages we used a 301 redirect. Don’t let Google think anything your doing could be temporary (302). Wherever possible link 1 page to another 1 page instead of redirecting at the folder level. This is a better user experience AND Google is happier too. Also as you are adding redirects clean up any chains. You should not be redirecting page A to B to C to D. Just clean it up so that page A now redirects to page D.

Once the redirects are in place test them! Bang around and see if you can find any pages you missed. Heck, even ask the intern to Google it and test the redirects!

404

Create or modify the 404 page to let folks know the site has moved and where stuff can be found on the new site. Why do I need to do this if I’m painstakingly redirecting everything on the site, you might ask? Well I’m glad you did. See not everyone is perfect and this will catch anything you missed. It will also still serve its intended purpose. Say someone links to /thatcrazypage on your old site, this was never a real page. This way will still inform them that the site has moved.

 

Wrapping up

The moment is finally at hand! You can officially decommission the site with full confidence that the migration was a wild success! Put those final redirects in place and put your feet up to celebrate! Or more likely get to work on the next project! Just a few things that you should do.

Our SEO Guru pointed out to me that, after all your 301s are in place you need to submit your old sitemap to Google. Google will crawl all the old URLs and follow the redirects to the new locations. This will update Google’s index and the SERPs (search engine results page) will show the new location. That way folks won’t click on a google link and immediately be redirected.

Next fill out the change of address in Google webmaster tools. Submit your new site map to the search engines. Where appropriate disallow the internet archive. This prevents the old pages from being archived but if you want them to live forever, Dorian Gray, feel free to skip this step. If you have a lot of time on your hands (or interns) notify any inbound links about the updated pages.

And finally once the whole world knows and is now going to the new site – update your DNS.

  • Create redirect spreadsheet
  • Always use 301 and whenever possible use 1-1 and clean up chains
  • Implement redirects and test
  • Create/modify 404 page
  • Submit old site map to search engines
  • Update your change of address in webmaster tools
  • Submit new site map to search engines
  • If applicable, disallow the IA
  • Notify Identify inbound links and update where possible
  • Update DNS

 

What other ways have you found to better take care of users and Google?

 

About the Author:

Mindy Guinn is currently the Localization Manager for Solarwinds and an artsy geek. By day she has almost 15 years of webmastering and building better websites. By night she’s reading, painting and playing with color, watching movies with explosions and BBC sci-fi, crocheting, gaming, making jam, and being a science groupie

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