So Google recently released an updated version of their site moves guidelines, which some sites (including their own Webmaster Central Blog) are reporting as “in depth.” I’ll admit I rolled my eyes, but then dealing with site moves, migrations and relaunches for such a wide range of clients across so many sectors tends to make one deeply familiar with a process that is fairly described as daunting by a vast majority of webmasters, so my version of an “in depth” guide would probably bear more than a passing resemblance to Tolstoy’s War and Peace in terms of sheer volume.
Of course, (shameless plug alert) that’s what makes the consulting team at 4Ps such an ideal partner if you’re planning to migrate your website or launch a new one in the next twelve to eighteen months. We do it all the time, so we know the common pitfalls and can offer the right advice to make sure they don’t happen to you.
Also, we’ll hold your hand if you want. Whatever it takes to make you feel more comfortable.
Google’s guide is functional, there’s no doubt about that. It clarifies what exactly is meant by a site move – namely with or without URL changes – talks about the core considerations like geotargeting and URL parameter setup in Webmaster Tools, and gives a reasonably solid guide on the process of setting up a 301 redirection plan. So the most critical bits are undoubtedly there, and one could argue that sticking to the core fundamentals in a self-help guide is perhaps the best way to encourage webmasters to follow best practice without drowning them in jargon and scaring them off.
The fact remains though that some of the really key aspects of a site migration and launch – namely the underlying strategy behind them – aren’t really addressed. Now I’m going to, for the purposes of this rant blog, focus solely on the instance where a site migration is taking place as part of a complete relaunch.
A new design (or “reskin”) that doesn’t affect anything other than the site’s appearance doesn’t really have any impact on search, and while a migration onto different infrastructure (new servers, etc.) is definitely a big event in a website’s life that needs careful management to avoid a localised digital apocalypse again, it is less relevant from a search perspective and, simply put, I’m not a server technician.
I think the part that particularly makes me flinch is the casual “prepare the new site” section, which barely touches on the many considerations that a brand should really be looking at when “preparing a new site.”
Now yes, practically the whole of the webmasters guidelines are chock-a-block with advice on general organic search performance, but would it have really been that hard for Google to even mention in their “in depth guide” to site moves that while you’re handling this “new site” malarkey you might want to take a good look at the fundamentals of onsite SEO while you’re at it?
The number of sites I see launched with missing basics like H1s and meta data is bad enough, but things like a shoddy URL taxonomy and poor content structure seem endemic even in this day and age, especially (if I may make so bold as to put a certain sector in the naughty corner) when it comes to online retailers, so many of whom seem to put everything together and then expect to be able to “do the SEO” as an afterthought. That’s an attitude not unlike building a house and then expecting to be able to add the plumbing in afterwards – sure, you can do it, but it’ll be a royal pain and never really be as effective as if you’d included it from the get-go.
That’s to say nothing of the missed opportunities that abound when people decide that things like optimised page speed (“but we made it responsive so that fixes our mobile visibility, right?”) and semantic markup can be “done later” because come on, look at that new homepage image and don’t you dare tell anyone you don’t want to see it live right now. Websites can have beauty that only runs skin deep too, you know.
There were also some noticeable flinches in our team at the casual advice to “use other tools to monitor traffic” – while I agree that real time Google Analytics can be invaluable during the move itself to make sure nothing is about to tip over, a new website should be an ideal opportunity to revisit a full measurement plan and really make sure your analytics data is providing what you need to help drive your business objectives, rather than just shoving in the same old tracking code and ticking a box on your to-do list.
So for goodness’ sake get someone to look over your staging site or, even better, get a search expert and some analytics bods involved at an earlier www. As early as possible, in fact. How about when you’re drawing up the brief for your developers? That’s the perfect time to get everything laid out as a core requirement. Because if search is anywhere in your business acquisition model, then really doing it properly (and measuring it thoroughly to make sure) should be a critical requirement of anything that happens to your website.
Google’s revamped guide is fine, no arguments there. But all it really provides is a tip of the iceberg view of the potential impacts a site migration can have on search visibility.
Is that all your want for your business?
More importantly, with the world of search becoming steadily more and more competitive, is that all you can afford?
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