Published August 25, 2020
When you’re replatforming your ecommerce site, search engine optimization (SEO) is one of the most important factors to consider. In this video, two of ROI’s SEO experts show you everything to keep in mind while replatforming, including potential technical problems, potential content problems, and other major areas of focus.
Carolyn Wilborn: Hi everyone. My name is Carolyn Wilborn, and I’m a content manager on the Search Engine Optimization team at ROI Revolution. I’m joined by Kathryn Mueller, one of our SEO Technical Analysts, to talk about site replatforms and some of the biggest potential problems a business might face when doing a replatform.
Kathryn Mueller: So let’s start with a basic question, which is, what is a replatform? A replatform is the process of moving a website from its current CMS, or content management system, to a different CMS. For example, in the world of ecommerce you might move from Shopify to Magento or vice versa. You could be shifting to a new version on the same platform, like migrating from Magento 1 to Magento 2, or you might have an old custom-built site that is getting hard to maintain, and you’ve decided to move it to an ecommerce platform like Shopify, Magento, or Big Commerce.
CW: A replatform is a huge undertaking, but if you create a new site that will improve your visitors’ experience, lead to more conversions, and be easier to maintain, it pays for itself.
KM: And if you have good dev and SEO partners to help, it’s definitely an easier process.
Potential Technical Problems
KM: The number 1 reason that a replatform can kill your organic rankings, and therefore traffic and revenue, is that URLs change. A replatform offers you a great opportunity to clean up the structure of your site. For example, you might redo your navigation to have either more or fewer layers of category depth, or you might move subcategories into newly created categories. You can end up with a site that offers a much better user experience with a higher conversion rate.
CW: Well, that sounds great!
KM: It does! But this is where the danger lies as well: say your women’s shirts used to be at the URL example.com/women/shirts and now they’re at example.com/women/tops/shirts. Even if the content on the page is identical, as far as Google is concerned, if the characters in the URL are different, it’s an entirely new and different URL. If you just drop the original URL, you lose all SEO value that URL has gained over time, you break any backlinks pointing to that page from other websites, and the new URL has to start from scratch to acquire backlinks and page equity.
Although this video is focused on replatforming, any major site redesign that involves changing or removing URLs – for example, going through a redesign or moving to a new template on the same CMS – can cause a major blow to your organic search rankings and traffic.
CW: So, what can be done to minimize the effects of a replatform on SEO?
KM: The single most important thing you can do to protect your site before replatforming is to create a Core URL list. This is a list of the pages on your site that have SEO value in terms of organic traffic, backlinks from other websites, and rankings for keywords.
For any page on that Core URL list, if it is going to exist at the exact same URL on the new site, you’re fine as long as your internal linking will still lead search engines through the site to get to that URL. But if that page won’t be on the new site, or it will exist but at a different URL, you need to implement a 301 redirect to transfer the SEO value to the page on the new site.
CW: So, how do you choose what page to redirect to?
KM: We look for the most similar page that could continue to rank for the same keywords the Core URL could rank for. If there’s not a one to one match, we suggest a higher level category or subcategory page. Redirecting to a higher level category could lead to a rankings drop because the new page is less specific to searcher intent, so you really want to find the most similar page whenever possible
CW: And what do you do with those Core URLs once you have them?
KM: Well, as soon as the new site is launched, you want to implement 301 redirects from the old high-value URLs to the best-match URLs on the new site. Although you do lose a little bit of link equity through a redirect, it’s a lot better than walking away from all the SEO value those pages have built up over time if you just let them become 404-status pages.
CW: So Kathryn, what are some other technical things to check for after the new site launches?
KM: Other things that can hurt your SEO after a replatform are forgetting to remove a “noindex,nofollow” meta robots tag from your site before it goes live, so that search engines can’t crawl it, or inadvertently blocking important pages with disallow instructions in your robots.txt file. These are things you might’ve implemented on purpose on your staging site to keep it from being indexed, but then you forget to remove them when the site goes live.
Also, even if you’ve been careful to assign redirects, you can end up with a bunch of 404, or error pages after a replatform, and search engines do not like to see a large number of 404s on a site. You can also end up lacking an XML sitemap or serving Google an old XML sitemap that doesn’t reflect the current site. So you should spend some time checking these things as soon as the site is launched.
Then, a replatform can also create index bloat or even a spider trap if features such as layered navigation and sorting URLs aren’t properly handled. You’ll want to leverage tools such as a canonicalization, the rel=”nofollow” attribute, meta robots tags, or your robots.txt file. And depending on the situation, it could require a combination of these tools to avoid wasting crawl budget and causing index bloat.
And then one last thing: occasionally a replatform is combined with a domain migration, which is when you change your domain name. When this is the case, you’ll want to use the “Change of Address” tool to inform Google about this change, in coordination with those 301 redirects, to help migrate your site in Google’s search results. Keep in mind though, that by changing domain names you do significantly increase the risk to your SEO.
Potential Content Problems
CW: Well content, and by that I mean the actual text on each page of the website – it’s an area that can be overlooked during a replatform. In my position, I look at page titles, meta descriptions, on-page header tags, and any descriptive text or copy that’s found on each page. During a replatform, any or all of these elements has the potential to be ignored or just forgotten about. Businesses are usually pretty good about carrying over page titles from the previous pages, but things like meta descriptions and especially descriptive on-page copy are sometimes forgotten in the move.
KM: And why is copy so important?
CW: Google needs text on your website to provide context to the page. It gets a lot of information from structural elements on your site, things like H1 tags or the name of the category that the page is for. But having some amount of copy on the page can give Google more context to understand the purpose of that page. Information about how to choose the right product, how to use that product, what makes your products better than the competition – your value proposition – all of these things provide useful information to potential customers and to Google as well.
Now, I’ve seen multiple replatforms in which the copy is never moved to the new site or the structure of the new version of the site is pretty significantly different – as you mentioned can happen – and when copy is moved, it’s no longer really relevant to the pages that it ends up on.
KM: And Carolyn, what happens when copy isn’t moved to the new site?
CW: Most often, when you don’t migrate the copy or it’s not really optimized for the page that it’s on, you see rankings drop pretty dramatically – and quickly. Lower rankings typically lead to less organic traffic to the site, and of course fewer visitors usually means less revenue.
CW: It’s not uncommon to see a small ranking decline immediately after a replatform. That happens because Google’s just getting a new understanding of the website, but if everything is done correctly, that decline should reverse and traffic should, ideally, get even better than it was previously, because you’ve got a better site.
Most Important Areas of Focus
KM: Sure! First, you’ll want to create that Core URL list of all pages that have SEO value in terms of organic traffic, backlinks from external sites, or rankings for keywords.
KM: Then, you should also audit the dev, or the staging site to look for any crawl anomalies that could prevent the site from being crawled and indexed efficiently, and clear them up before the new site launches.
CW: Make sure that every important page on the new version of the site has content on it – either moved from the current site or optimized specifically for the move. Our team typically focuses on category and subcategory content – some sites call those product listing pages or PLPs – but any page on the current version of your site that you consider important needs to have the same or better content on it on the new site.
KM: Then, once the new site is launched, implement 301 redirects from any Core URL that doesn’t exist at the same URL on the new site.
And last, after the site launches, check how Google is crawling and indexing your site. You can monitor your Google Search Console to make sure the pages you want indexed are being included in Google’s index.
CW: Any other advice for a business contemplating a replatform, Kathryn?
KM: Yes, definitely. Take the time to prepare for a replatform, ideally, 4-6 months. Remember that a Core URL List takes time to create, as does assigning those redirect destinations and then having your dev team implement the redirects. Performing a dev site audit, implementing its recommendations, and checking implementations is also time-consuming.
CW: And what happens if you launch without all that preparation, and you see your organic rankings and traffic suffer?
KM: You’ll be playing catch-up, but you can turn things around. You can create a Core URL list in reverse and assign redirects to valuable pages that were on the old site. You should also audit the new site for crawl anomalies and correct them.
CW: And, you should review the state of copy on the new site, as well as look for page layout changes. For example, did all the copy move to the bottom of the page, or are your reviews now hidden? Make any necessary changes.
KM: But be patient. It can take months for improvements on the site to be reflected in your organic rankings. That’s why it’s much better to do the work in advance of your new site launch.
CW: Going through a replatform is a stressful time for any business. It’s a huge project, and inevitably you’ll run into roadblocks and delays. Focusing on our Top 5 List can help minimize any negative effect on your organic rankings.
KM: And if you don’t want to go it alone, the Search Engine Optimization team here at ROI can guide you through the process – just get in touch with us. Visit roirevolution.com and click Talk to Us to start the conversation. Thanks for joining us.
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