How to Plan Your E-Commerce and SEO Migration

planning for an e-commerce website migration

So, you’ve just migrated your e-commerce platform. A few weeks into the launch, you discover something shocking: Despite performing technical due diligence, hiring the best development agency, and spending a fortune on the migration, your traffic and Google rankings have dropped significantly. If this sounds familiar, you’ll want to keep reading.

With several technical elements to consider, an e-commerce site migration can be a daunting project — reviewing integrations, potentially hiring a new agency, etc. While all elements are important, one of the most overlooked factors to consider is search engine optimization.

Some platforms may include basic SEO features, but the bulk of the work is up to your digital marketing expert to assess, implement, and verify. You absolutely cannot avoid this and expect your new shiny platform to retain and migrate your SEO juice automatically. Following is a summary of 12 critical tasks to be implemented.

1. Plan Your Launch and Cutover Date

Start with a detailed project plan for your SEO migration. There will be multiple teams involved in a successful implementation — marketing, development, and third parties — so having a project plan that includes task tracking and assignments is critical.

Leverage Excel, Asana, JIRA, or any project management tool that suits your team. When creating your plan and timelines, be sure to consider contract start/end dates (and auto-renewal clauses!) with your current and new platform providers, along with your marketing schedule for the year.

2. Clean Up Product, Category, and Customer data

Data cleanup is one of the most important steps you can take with respect to a migration. Like a good spring cleaning, having a well-organized dataset for migration will make the whole process a lot easier to manage.

Remove any old, outdated, or inactive products and categories. I suggest doing the same for customer records, too. If a customer has not purchased from you in the last year or two, it wouldn’t make sense to migrate that individual’s data.

Of course, you’ll still want such customers in your marketing automation pipeline (assuming they opted in), so retain backups of all these records. Use this opportunity to revisit and revise your product content (title, descriptions, etc.). More on this topic later.

3. Secure an SSL certificate

***Get SSL-certified!*** Google has been using the HTTPS protocol as a ranking signal since 2014. In fact, it has taken a strong stance toward PCI compliance enforcement, so any site that processes transactions and is on the non-secured HTTP protocol will be marked as not secure.

If you do not secure an SSL certificate, your Google rankings will decline drastically, and visitors will be shown a rather scary blurb cautioning them to stay away. Ensuring that your entire site is on HTTPS will increase customer trust and brand loyalty over time.

4. Review Meta Tags

A migration initiative is a great time to revisit and evaluate the meta-tagging structure on your content and product detail pages (PDP). After your new site is launched, Google will crawl your site. This is an opportunity to make a good impression and potentially get your rankings higher than they were before.

The only way to increase that probability is by following Google’s guidelines and best practices for SEO and meta tags. So, as a rule of thumb:

  • Title Tags should be no more than 60 characters.
  • Description Tags should be no more than 320 characters.

In 2017, Google increased the meta description limit from 165 to 320. This means you may now revamp your PDP and content page meta descriptions without feeling like you need to stuff a bunch of keywords within the 165 limit for the bots.

Here’s an example with 304 characters as it appears on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP):

Search Engine Results Page (SERP) example

5. Add Sitemap and Robots Files

Ensure your new platform has “robots.txt” and “sitemap.xml” files at the root level. These files are critical for bots to crawl and index your site.

Ensure the sitemap file has a complete list of all the URLs of your content, as well as all the product pages you want to be publicly accessible. Also, make sure you have a method of keeping this map updated every time you add or remove products.

Finally, be sure to submit the sitemap URL on your Google search console and to any third-party prerender or cache services.

6. Create a List of 301 Redirects

Create a list of 301 redirects for your most active pages/URLs. You’ll want to ensure you don’t lose the SEO value of these links when switching platforms.

If you don’t want to map out and redirect everything, then use Google Analytics to find your top landing pages. These are pages people are hitting directly either via a blog post, forum, promotion or email campaign.

Map out and 301 redirect only the pages that have the most sessions. You can test the 301 redirects by simulating a user (or bot) visiting the previous URLs and verifying the responding status.

7. Track 404 Errors

No matter how much you plan, there most likely will be a few straggler orphan pages that slipped your radar. These pages will throw a 404 error for bots and visitors trying to land on them.

You’ll want to monitor these very closely during the first month of your launch and triage them accordingly, with the end goal being no more 404 errors.

Either direct these visitors to appropriate pages on your new site or create a custom 404 page, giving them options to navigate your site and ultimately find what they’re looking for. Google Analytics offers a template report for 404 errors that you can import into your GA account.

8. Optimize Your Images

Google bots cannot “see” your images, so the best way to have them index your images — for the search results, and specifically for the Image search tab — is by ensuring the images are stored on a publicly accessible URL (perhaps on an AWS S3 bucket).

Since a migration is an opportunity to revisit all aspects of your site, consider image optimization techniques, such as renaming images to contain your product title and ensuring all images have ALT tags — which not only helps with SEO but also with visually impaired readers — and leveraging an image CDN that dynamically resizes and compresses images served up to the client browser and device.

9. Check Your Backlinks

Over the years, you’ve probably collected a number of backlinks from marketing and social media efforts. As a part of the migration, you’ll probably want to know who is linking to you, and to what page.

For this, you’ll want to go to your Google search console and click on the Links to your site report. There, you’ll be able to review backlinks and ensure that they are either replicated or redirected.

10. Enable Google Analytics and Search Console

Be sure to verify and enable Google Analytics and Google Search Console (previously known as “Webmaster Tools”). Your new store will need the same setup steps and code snippets embedded as your previous site.

In addition, set up and test the e-commerce tracking functionality within your GA account. This is how you can determine your conversion rates and other key performance indicators.

11. Review and Update Footer Links

It is a best practice to leverage your footer area for links to your internal pages or external blogs, forums, etc. — yet these links often get ignored when you’re busy rigging up the other critical aspects of your migration project.

Evaluate all the links on your current footer to determine what makes sense to keep or purge. Links on your homepage (and therefore the footer) do get higher crawl priority by bots, which is one of the reasons webmasters tend to dump a plethora of URLs in the footer.

There’s a weighted algorithm at work here, so try to balance what you put on the footer for the bot and for humans.

12. Resubmit Your URL to Google

Finally, let Google know that you’re ready for its bots to reindex your site!

Visit Google’s Submit URL tool for more info.

Sara Hicks

Sara Hicks is cofounder and CEO of Reaction Commerce, based in Santa Monica, California.

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