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June 25, 2008

Website Transition Planning Critical When Making Changes

Picture this … you’re ranking really well for an important keyword(s). It’s driving a lot of traffic and life is pretty good.

You decide it’s time to take better advantage of that traffic by giving your site a face lift.

The next thing you know, you’ve fallen out of the SERPS and you’re left shaking your head, not quite knowing what happened.

It’s an all too common scenario. To us Marketing People it was just a “face lift” a “re-skin”. We didn’t really make any major changes that should matter to the search engines.

No reason to let our SEO team know in advance that we’re making these changes. After all, it’s still the same site. or is it? Google doesn’t think so.

The search engines (and Google in particular) are all about trust. We talk about trust in human terms. For humans trust is difficult to define. It’s part of our feelings. Some might even say it’s influenced by intuition. But the Search Engines don’t have feelings and intuition.

They have to take something that is very much subjective and make it entirely objective. What we call “trust” for the search engines is really a mathematical formula (algorithm) that is looking for enough “cues” to determine it’s next course of action.

…… If I visit your website and see this….. then I should do “A”…….

…… If I visit your website and don’t see this….. then I should do “B”…….

My good friend and colleague Ruud, understands that changing everything changes everything. He often describes it like this…..

You’re walking down the street and you bump into an old friend. Except that your friend has gotten extensive plastic surgery and he looks nothing like he used to. He’s shaved his head. His face is totally different and he’s wearing weird clothing.

His voice is the same and he swears it’s him. But you don’t quite trust what you’re seeing right away. You need more cues.

It’s the same as the search engines. You can make changes to a site, but you need to leave enough cues so that SE’s know it’s still the same site. And they don’t have the benefit of intuition. It’s all math.

What to consider when building your Website Transition Plan?

If you’re making changes to your site and you don’t want to risk losing your search engine positioning then there are some critical steps that must be taken.

#1 – What to do with your URL’s – The best case scenario is to make sure that your urls stay the same. You may think that your urls are staying the same but you need to watch for hidden changes:

  • If you decide to reorganize your sub-folder structure this will change your urls.
  • If the programmer needs to move from .php to .cfm then this will change the urls.
  • If you decide to make the naming convention of you urls’ more intuitive then although this might be a good move from an SEO and Usability perspective, it’s still changing your urls.

If it’s not possible to keep your url’s the same or if you decide that you’re better off moving to intuitive, keyword friendly urls then you need to 301 (not 302) redirect each page of the old site to it’s new destination on the new site.

Note, your CMS may be able to do this using a .htaccess file (assuming you have apache based server) to do a bulk redirection.

#2 – Content Changes – If you want to make massive changes to your content fine but remember the cues. If your site structure is changing, your urls’ are changing and now you want to make massive changes to your content then you will risk the search engines losing trust in your site.

#3 – Internal Link Structure – If you are making changes to your site structure don’t forget to anticipate the impact it will have on your internal linking structure. Internal links tell the search engines what’s important about your site. Plus they help to distribute the link power to your more important pages.

#4 – Timing – To minimize the risk, you may wish to consider implementing changes on a phased basis. Change the content, wait a month or two for the search engines to reconcile / come to terms with the changes. Then change the site structure / urls / do the redirects.

#5 – The plan doesn’t end once the changes are implemented – You will want to make sure that you’re watching the search engines and your server logs closely in the days and weeks following your site changes.

Look at your server log files for 404 pages or any other signs that something was missed or went awry. Monitor the search engines to make sure that they are indexing your new pages as they should.

By understanding the cues that the search engines look for, and anticipating what could go wrong in advance, you will be able to formulate a transition plan that minimizes the risk of change while maximizing the effectiveness of your site!

Author: Jennifer Osborne writer and marketer for Search Engine People.