SEOs Can Do More: Site Migrations and Content Strategy
In this post, I’d like to explore the idea of tackling content strategy when handling a site migration. Although they may appear on first inspection to be somewhat disparate strategic activities, I believe site migrations can present a great opportunity to investigate and overhaul website content strategy.
Site migrations – no mean feat
Many digital marketers will encounter at least one site migration at some point in their careers. Working agency side and having been involved in numerous site migrations to date, I find projects like these can involve some of the most exciting work for an SEO. Each migration is different and I relish the wide variety of challenges: the success often hinges on the effective collaboration of many different stakeholders in a sometimes epic feat of project management, diplomatically merging disciplines and skill sets. The ideal scenario is where you work as one cohesive team, all moving together towards a single goal… That said, the reality is often not that rosy! Site migrations can certainly be stressful. There may be high stakes involved, or the set up could be complex (whether technically or politically), adding pressure to the project. In some instances, it may be a huge challenge to even get SEO on the radar, let alone keep it within focus and as a priority throughout the process.
With that in mind, you might be wondering why you would chose to look at content strategy when dealing with a project like a site migration, when there’s a lot of important SEO work that needs to happen. But before I delve further into my point, it’s worth considering why a site migration might happen and recapping the role of an SEO in such a project.
A site migration – whether it’s the changing of a domain name, building a new site, merging content, etc – may be instigated for a variety of reasons, for example:
- Changing vendors: whether it’s changing dev teams, marketing agencies, etc.
- Updating technology or changing CMS: necessary for keeping up to date and overcoming limitations.
- Renewing visual design and layout: whether it’s a rebranding exercise or restructuring based on business needs, the addition of new products, etc.
- Overhauling content: perhaps the strategic direction of the website has changed.
But the primary role of an SEO in handling a site migration is protecting organic visibility, i.e. ensuring relevant and valuable content remains visible to search engines, maintaining rankings and therefore traffic, revenue, etc. I shouldn’t understate the importance of ensuring a smooth migration, since there are often so many things that can go awry. A quick bit of Googling will reveal plenty of site migration horror stories if you fancy some bed time reading.
Traditional role of an SEO in a site migration
So what steps should an SEO take to protect organic visibility? Well, the focus of this post is not to go through the “how to and whys” of conducting a site migration, since there are plenty of great articles on that subject already (although I’ve popped some links towards the end to refer to). But here’s a selection of key areas across pre-, during- and post-migration, that an SEO would typically look at (although not limited to):
- 301 mapping: vital to have these in place from old site to new site.
- Moving content: ensure all valuable and relevant content is transferred across, paying attention to internal links as well.
- Tracking and tagging: analytics is in place, tagged coherently and firing correctly.
- XML sitemap: revise and update in line with the new site changes.
- Site architecture and URL structure: define based on business/brand needs, restructuring if necessary and having clean, user friendly URLs.
- Benchmarking and reporting: meticulously record and monitor backlinks, keyword rankings, organic traffic, pre-launch and checking daily post launch for any fluctuations.
Site migrations also give you an opportunity to tackle legacy SEO issues, so there will be those to consider as well. But before most of this activity gets underway, it’s really important that you understand why the migration is taking place in the first place. What are the brand and/or business objectives that are driving this? How have these decisions been made and who (client, agency, vendor, or otherwise) will continue to dictate and influence the project as you go? What resources are available for this project and for SEO?
The answers to these questions will guide the research that needs to take place to see what solutions are best, ultimately shaping the SEO solutions you recommend, as well as let you know who the relevant parties are.
So where does this content strategy element come in?
Beef up your pre-migration research
There is a level of auditing necessary during the pre-launch phase, particularly around assessing the value of content to see what is worth transferring across, what pages from the old site need redirecting and what can be deleted. As part of an effective migration, a good deal of research will go into many elements, and assessing the value of content – by looking at backlinks, social shares, organic traffic, internal links, keyword rankings, etc – will be one of them.
The context of this research is taking place under the guise of a site migration but, if you think about it, your research can also be used to help inform content strategy (before I band around big, lofty terms like “content strategy” I should be clear that I’m talking about content strategy specifically in relation to the website!)
So my argument is, that, by beefing up the research pre-migration, I’d like to challenge the traditional role of an SEO and consider that it is possible to address website content strategy and future-proof the site for content as part of the migration process. With the role of content becoming ever more important, it’s an ideal opportunity to take the content bull by the horns.
Our primary goal is to maintain traffic, yes, but we want our clients to have the best possible product at the end of the migration, i.e. the best possible website. So, can we be more ambitious and look to actually increase traffic over time, by overhauling content?
Pre-migration research = building blocks of content strategy
If you’re feeling all fired up and ready to tackle content strategy, then pre-migration research can be categorised into these three key areas:
Let’s now look at each one, detailing what the pre-migration research can entail.
Clients: Whether you’re in-house or agency side, the starting point is understanding the client, i.e. the site that’s being migrated. Inputs for this research phase can include:
- Target audience: what data do we have on them and their behaviour? E.g. CRM databases, Facebook data, etc.
- Auditing owned/earned assets: relative success and roles of these, focusing on SEO metrics where relevant, e.g. backlinks, social shares, organic traffic, internal links, keyword rankings. What current investment in content is there? Are there plans to invest more? Who are the relevant content stakeholders?
- Previous campaigns: DR/brand or otherwise – focusing on those that either did well or fell short, understanding objectives and learnings.
- Current website strategy: what is the role of the website, relative to other channels?
Always remind yourself of the key question again: What does the client want to achieve from this migration?
Through this research, you can get a really clear picture of the client’s current performance, with a view to what’s working and what’s not on the site. Valuable for site migrations, but also useful for thinking about content strategy, no?
Competitors: Similar to client research, we would also look to see who is doing well in this space. Where there is overlap between our client and their competitors, this is where we need to think about how we can differentiate.
Inputs for this research can include:
- Share of Voice: assessing organic search, as well as social channels
- Backlink profile: can give insight into content strategy and historic SEO activity
- Estimated traffic: paid versus organic
- Recent campaigns: as with the client, understanding the success of any recent campaigns and the intended target audience
This will start to give us a competitor overview, which can again help to inform decisions about elements to do with the migration (e.g. seeing what filtering and categories are being used), but the insights also have value for content strategy.
Customers: A vital piece of the puzzle. Where there’s crossover between the client research and customer research, we can assess whether the current content is doing a good job at both targeting core search terms and satisfying user needs. And how do we compare to competitors?
Inputs can be drawn from sources such as:
- Keyword research: evaluating the relevancy of existing target terms and looking to build this list out from a variety of sources, e.g. social listening, competitor research, PPC data.
- Search trends: being aware of potential seasonality, and shifts towards more longtail “how to” and “why” queries.
- Survey data: are there any surveys that can illuminate customer behaviour, needs, expectations, any pain points with the brand or products, etc.
- CRM or demographic data: whatever you can access, drawing on CRM data, or from display, PPC, Facebook, etc.
- Customer journey: using analytics to understand how users are interacting with your site, or perhaps even interviews with focus groups to show you what people expect from your site
The aim to get a really clear picture of the customer journey, their needs and desired experience online.
Bringing it altogether
The great benefit of all this research is that you are now in a strong position to make robust recommendations for the migration that are well tailored to the client’s set up and vertical, having truly got under their skin. But why stop there, when all this research can act as the building blocks for website content strategy, where you can inform the build/design/functionality of the site to serve the ends identified in the research!
For example, our client, competitor and customer research can inform:
- Site architecture and URL structure: where should content be, based on SEO requirements, as well as user expectations?
- Language/target terms: what language is our audience using? Are there other terms, e.g. longtail queries we can be targeting?
- Content opportunities: what’s working well, is there scope for new content to address user needs, e.g. FAQs, or a content hub?
- Content formats: are users more receptive to videos, or long form content? What’s the most suitable for the target audience?
I appreciate all the important SEO work that has to go on with a migration will need to take precedent. And doing this kind of additional research obviously requires more resource. However, it can be valuable to you and your client in so many ways. For example, tackling this kind of research at the pre-migration phase qualifies you to move the conversation on from “we would like to have XYZ on the new site”, to “you need to have this on the new site”, encouraging the client to effectively target user needs and differentiate from the competition.
This is certainly where tight working relationships play a key role and, as an SEO, you should look to be involved as early as possible and get as broad a view on what’s being decided when and by whom. The site does not necessarily have to go live with all the content recommendations from this research and it certainly may not be feasible or practical at the time of the migration, as has been the case for some of our clients. Nonetheless, this client, competitor and customer pre-migration research provides invaluable insights that produce robust and detailed SEO recommendations but with the added benefit of informing website content strategy in the long term.
Think beyond just the usual role of an SEO with a site migration (although it’s vital to nail all that as well!) you should consider whether there are opportunities to address content and future proof the site. Comprehensive research on client, competitor and customers can inform content strategy AND best practice SEO.
Draw on as many sources as you can access in the pre-migration phase, as these can inform the recommendations, ensuring they are well tailored to your client, their vertical and the target audience.
And as a general rule of best practice, be involved in the process as early as possible and understand the project objectives.
A selection of resources on handling site migrations: