When creating a new website, there is always an element of risk of losing your keyword rankings. Moving content around, removing text, deleting pages, adding pages, and making changes to title tags can impact your rankings. Still, if you have a large website or are going for a complete and very different redesign, it is often not very easy to keep everything the same when implementing a redesign.
With some preparation, it is possible to prioritize the important traffic-driving keywords and retain their rankings. A new website can also be a chance to tidy up the organization of your site, declutter, and only include content that is important to SEO and the user journey.
There are some steps to planning and implementing your SEO migration strategy:
- Keyword Research
- Page Importance Work
- Site mapping
- Content Attribution
- Content Movement, Redirects & New Content Creation
- Metrics & Analysis
Much like any other marketing activity, success isn’t guaranteed. Still, by completing these steps and analyzing the results, you can ensure that any damage is minimized and you are in a position to increase organic search traffic in the future. Any drop in search traffic will be attributable to specific changes, pages, and content so that you can make fixes or further changes following your post-launch analysis.
1. Keyword Research
Using Google Search Console, you can find out, first of all, which keywords are bringing the most traffic to your website. To do this, you’ll need to go to your property in Search Console, then go to Search Traffic → Search Analytics.
Through this tool, you can see which search terms are currently driving traffic to your website. If the list includes only branded keywords (search terms that are basically your business or website’s name), then you don’t need to worry so much. However, if you have a number of non-branded keywords driving traffic, then you have a lot of work to do.
If you scroll down the page, you will see a download button. Click to download the information into a spreadsheet so that you can copy your keywords. Once you’ve opened the spreadsheet, highlight the keywords that are driving significant traffic. Now, you have a list of all the relevant keywords that your website is currently (successfully) targeting.
2. Page Importance Work
In Positionly, assuming you’ve already added your website, create a new group. I usually call this “Top Traffic Drivers,” but you can name it whatever you like. Once you’ve made this, add the keywords that you highlighted in your Search Console keywords spreadsheet. Once Positionly has found the rankings for these search terms, you’ll be able to see which pages are receiving the traffic (and ranking highest) for those keywords. You may want to run through your keywords and delete any that are clearly not relevant to your website.
3. Site mapping
SEO isn’t the only driving factor behind the inclusion of some pages and not others in your sitemap. However, the work with Search Console and Positionly will allow you to find those pages that you need in order to retain keyword rankings.
On the opposite side of this, you will also be able to see which of your current pages aren’t generating organic search traffic. You can verify this through Google Analytics in Behaviour → Site content → Landing Pages, adding the secondary dimension of Default Channel Grouping. To make it easier to read, you may wish to click the ‘Advanced Search’ and include Default Channel Grouping containing Organic Search.
Here, you will see all of the landing pages that generate search traffic, which should ideally match closely to your previous findings.
When creating your new sitemap, you don’t necessarily need to exclude all pages that aren’t driving traffic, but you will be able to see which are the most important pages for your SEO migration. So those that are driving the most traffic should really be included on the new website.
Key points for your new sitemap:
Include those pages that are currently important to your SEO
Be sure not to duplicate these pages in other parts of your site (although if you do, you can use canonical links to highlight the main page to Google.)
I generally draft out a sitemap in a spreadsheet with these columns:
- Main Keyword (this is the one that is relevant and drives the most traffic)
- Main Keyword Searches per month (Found in Keyword Planner)
- Main Keyword Competition (found in Positionly)
- Secondary Keyword
- Secondary Keyword Searches per month
- Secondary Keyword Competition
- SEO title
You may want to include tertiary keywords and any others. These are the ones that are less searched for. Be sure to include all of the most searched-for keywords (from your Search Console investigation) in your sitemap.
Once you have completed your sitemap, be sure to note down any pages that are on your current website but won’t be in the new version, as well as any pages that will have a new URL.4. Content Attribution.
For the keywords that are important to your website, visit the top-ranking pages and make notes of the reasons why the page is performing well. For example, if you have a page called footballs.html and it is generating traffic for ‘Training Footballs,’ make a note of whether the search term is in the page content, title tag, or headers. Any content or tags that are likely to help the page rank for the target keyword should be noted.
5. Content Movement, Redirects & New Content Creation
For the pages that you are happy to copy word for word, you don’t need to be too concerned about the content, but if you are looking to streamline your site, it can be easier to keep the important content, as found in the content attribution step. If this isn’t practical, you will need to make sure you keep the same keyword density and placement.
If you are creating new content, you’ll need to make sure you don’t duplicate other content across the site. Through further keyword research, you may find additional search terms to include in your content; however, when dealing with the migration of your SEO, the main focus is to avoid damaging current search rankings.
As for the redirects, at this point, you will have a list of pages that didn’t make it into the sitemap and a list of pages that will be having a URL change. Prepare your 301 redirects to be added on launch. The pages that will be lost in the site move will need to be redirected to suitable replacements (even if not perfect matches), and the pages that will have new URLs will need to be redirected to those new versions.
6. Metrics & Analysis (Post Launch)
Once you have launched your new website, you will need to monitor the analytics. These are the key metrics for your SEO migration:
- Overall organic search traffic
- Organic search traffic to the pages that previously ranked well
- Keyword rankings (keywords that once generated traffic to your site)
These metrics can be monitored in Google Analytics (traffic) and Positionly (Keyword ranking). The benefit of creating the group in Positionly, specifically for the keywords that previously drew traffic to your site (as mentioned in step 2), is that you can keep checking the group rankings at a glance.
Now is the time to use your findings from the previous steps. If your search traffic has dropped, check if there is a fundamental issue, for example, if the robots.txt file is set to no-index or individual pages are blocking search engine spiders. If everything is in order, then look at the pages that previously ranked well and keywords that once generated traffic to see if you can pinpoint any problems.
You may then need to improve the on-page SEO for those keywords to make up for the drop in rankings and traffic. Technically, you could work on your off-site SEO and brand building to help this, but in theory, that shouldn’t have been damaged with the website move. If you had missed out any pages when redirecting, however, you may find that websites linking to you later removed the links so they would not be directing their traffic to broken web pages. Otherwise, the general domain authority shouldn’t have been damaged, so your new website would have the potential to attain the same level of organic search traffic as the old website through on-site SEO work alone.
Repeat steps 6 and 7 until you are happy that your organic search traffic is as good on the new website as it was on your previous website. As mentioned previously, the retention of your search traffic is not guaranteed; however, by running through all of the steps mentioned in this guide, you can at least be able to attribute any drops in traffic to an action, page, or keyword and fix that without too much difficulty.