When migrations go wrong

16 Jun 2016

How much is your website worth? Think about online sales, contribution to offline sales, CRM, reputation… everything. What about investment in design, build, maintenance and management, marketing?

Now imagine you've invested in a redesign. After months of hard work and investment the new site goes live. You enjoy a drink at the launch party. Then you wake up to this:

SEO performance of a global brand's key consumer terms pre and post migration


SEO performance of a single key term pre and post migration

Hard-earned months of consistent top ten results reduced almost to nothing overnight.

I'm not naming names, but this isn't an obscure site. This happened to a global brand with turnover in excess of a billion. How could it go so wrong?

Failing to plan is planning to fail

You might reasonably expect the planning and resources committed to web migrations to be more or less proportional to the project as a whole, and to the business value at stake.

In practice, this is rarely the case. It's not uncommon for migration planning to start as little as a couple of weeks before launch, with critical tasks left to last minute.

In our example above, hundreds of product pages were 302 redirected to the homepage which, to Google, looks like hundreds of soft 404s. No plan. No redirect mapping.

Even changing the 302s for 301s would be an improvement, with no impact on resource or cost. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that whoever took that decision lacked experience of commercial website migrations.

I can’t imagine any billion dollar plus organisation leaving, for instance, a major IT infrastructure project to the inexperienced. Why do it with the website?

Losing traffic: a self-fulfilling prophecy

Perhaps part of the problem in planning and resource stems from the common perception that substantial losses in performance are unavoidable. This is (mostly) wrong.

True, it takes time for search indices to update and rankings may briefly be disturbed as a result. And yes, you'll lose some value through the redirects. But huge losses months after the site migration? Only if something went wrong.

Tips for better website migrations

  • Discuss your migration plan right at the start of any build project. Set deadlines, assign responsibility, secure resource.
  • Ensure that one person is responsible for delivering the migration. Ideally, they should be involved throughout the project so they fully understand site architecture and behaviour.
  • Make sure new URLs are written and signed-off as far in advance of go-live as possible. Ideally at least a month. Leave it too late, and the redirect mapping process will be rushed and prone to errors.
  • Test redirects as soon as you go live. They should be 301s, and they should go to an equivalent or near-equivalent page.
  • Be in a position to track traffic, search engine rankings, PPC activity, everything… on a daily basis.
  • Have a rollback plan. If all else fails, be ready to quickly put things back as they were before things get worse.

If you are currently planning a site migration and would like more detailed tips from the Pi team, or if you would like to see our tools in action, we’d love to hear from you.

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