Site Migration and SEO impactOn 14 December 2008
we relaunched the Econsultancy.com site. This involved a subtle name change (“E-consultancy”
became “Econsultancy”), a new logo, a completely new look site with a new
directory structure, a new URL, on servers in a different country. We had to
migrate 10,000s of pages, deleted a load of old ones, and created 10,000s of
new ones.

The background to all this is explained in my interview
about the new Econsultancy site
– and question 9, about the SEO impact of
this large change, is the subject of this post. What has happened to our
previously excellent search rankings since the changeover?

A few caveats before we dive in:

  1. I only really talk about Google in terms of search engines as it is so
    dominant and this is particularly true for us.
  2. When I talk about search ‘rankings’, what I really mean is the volume of
    organically referred search traffic. Ranking obsession is dangerous and
    increasingly pointless as everyone sees their own personalised results. So
    ‘ranking’ I use really as a proxy for search-referred site visits.
  3. I’m not a great believer in PageRank in as far as you can have a high
    PageRank and not get rankings and vice versa. So when I talk about PageRank
    here I mean in the vaguest possible sense of ‘reputation’ or ‘credibility’ or
    ‘authority’.
  4. I’m also pretty sceptical about anything that Google shows in the main
    search engine as being anything other than vaguely indicative e.g. the site: or
    link: commands don’t give data that is even nearly accurate or complete.

Background to Site
Changes

The reasons for completely updating the site are explained
in my interview
about the new Econsultancy site
. Further details are given in our press
release Econsultancy
invests $500,000 into new website
. On the domain change from http://www.e-consultancy.com to http://econsultancy.com I’ve also posted a
reply to a question on this in our forum: “Why
did Econsultancy drop the www?
”.

What did we do from
an SEO point of view for the site migration?

The short version of ‘what we did’ from an SEO migration
point of view was only two things:

Firstly, we used 301 Moved Permanently redirects
for all old pages which had corresponding pages on the new site. We did this by
exporting all the links (80,000+) that Google told us about via Google Webmaster Tools’ “Links  >
Pages with external links” and writing a script to do all the redirects
where there were database IDs for the old and corresponding new content, making
the mapping and redirects quite straight forwards even at this volume. Then we
did non-database-d content (e.g. flat HTML pages, including the ‘About’
sections, key section pages etc.) ‘manually’.

Secondly, we verified the new site within Google Webmaster
Tools so that we could keep an eye on how it was being crawled and so on. We
also set the geographic target audience to ‘United States’ here given our
business and content is increasingly there. Previously this wasn’t set to
anything.

We didn’t contact Google in any way (I don’t think you
can?), and we didn’t do anything in phases – more of a Big Bang approach!

What has happened
to our natural Search Referrals since the new site launch?

The graph below, showing, in Google Analytics, the number of
non-paid visits referred by Google since the launch, tells the story best.

We had a brief honeymoon period where we got ‘double
rankings’ where the old site and the corresponding page on the new site *both*
ranked well on Google meaning our page coverage was outstanding. On the old
site we used to get around 3,500 visits a day referred by Google natural search
– here we peaked at over 4,000.

And then things went a bit quiet… It was Christmas so this
is not atypical. But it hasn’t picked up since. Following are some more details
broken down by time period following the relaunch.

Econsultancy Google Referrals

Weeks 1-2 following
site relaunch

  • Rankings / Referred Natural Search Traffic: This
    went up in the first week (as you can see from graph above) as we
    ‘double-ranked’ for both the old site and the corresponding page on the new
    site giving us great page coverage. It then fell away – not unusual given it
    was Christmas / New Year which is historically very quiet for us. 
  • Indexation / De-indexation: The old site was
    still all showing in Google and in Webmaster tools. The new site was being
    indexed however – around 20% had been indexed by the end of the second week.
  •  External Page Links: We were getting
    links to the new site (around 50 a day) but these weren’t visible in Google
    Webmaster Tools. Legacy links still showed as pointing to the old domain. 
  • PageRank: Nothing showing on the new site. 
  • Other e.g. Site links, Google News, Google Alerts, Images etc.: Our
    Sitelinks (the sub-links to site sections shown in the search results)
    disappeared. And our Google News Feed was broken so we contacted Google News to
    get this fixed. Likewise Google Alerts for our domain dried up.

Weeks 3-4 following
site relaunch

  • Rankings / Referred Natural Search Traffic: No improvement
    in search traffic as per graph above. And the referrals we do get are almost
    all searches on our brand name or for ‘long tail’ keywords for newly created
    content which has new links since the launch i.e. the legacy content doesn’t
    appear to be ranking any more. 
  • Indexation / De-indexation: The old site now
    had only 7,590 pages showing in the index (using site:www.e-consultancy.com)
    when it had been over 40,000 before the changeover. So the de-indexing was
    happening very fast. The indexation of the new site was also up to over 20,000
    pages, around one third of the actual number of pages (using site:econsultancy.com).
  • External Page Links: New links were
    showing up in Google Webmaster Tools to the new site. Legacy links to the old
    site no longer showed up as pointing to the old domain, however neither did
    they show up as pointing (via 301 redirects) to the new site. They seemed to
    have ‘disappeared’. 
  • PageRank: Now showing on the new site. All the key
    section pages (Reports, Training, Events, Jobs, Directories, Blog, Forums) maintained their PageRank, or
    it improved. The Blog has the highest PageRank (due, no doubt to the large
    number of inbound links) at 6. Strangely, however, our homepage’s PageRank had
    dropped from 5 to 3. This might be because our new homepage, for non-logged in
    visitors like the Googlebot, has less dynamic content on it so fewer links and
    less frequently updated content? 
  • Other e.g. Site links, Google News, Google Alerts, Images etc.: Our
    Sitelinks reappeared in Google Webmaster Tools at week 4 and then almost
    immediately in the main index (search
    on Econsultancy to see main listing
    ). Our Google News Feed was back up and
    running (see recent
    stories on Google News
    ) and we were coming through in Google Alerts as
    before.

Weeks 5-6 (now)
following site relaunch

  • Rankings / Referred Natural Search Traffic: Still no
    improvement in search traffic as per graph above and the referrals we do get
    are still predominantly brand searches. By now, if you search on the old ‘e-consultancy
    Google brings back results only from the new site, so it appears to know that
    what was once ‘e-consultancy’ at the old domain, is now only at the new domain. 
  • Indexation / De-indexation: The old site now
    has only 1,490 pages showing in the index (using site:www.e-consultancy.com).
    The indexation of the new site has gone up to 26,500 pages (using site:econsultancy.com
    in Google). Yahoo!
    shows more at 33,000+
  • External Page Links: As per graphic
    below all legacy links are now
    showing in Webmaster Tools (over 90,000) as linking to the new site, so it
    appears that Google has figured out that the old pages have ‘become’ their new
    equivalents. However, this is not
    reflected on the main index using the link:econsultancy.com
    command which shows only the links acquired since launch – 563 at the time of
    writing. Yahoo! is now showing 52,444 inbound links to the new domain (using Yahoo!
    Site Explorer
    ). Checking for links to the old domain on Google (link:www.e-consultancy.com)
    now brings back the same results as for link:econsultancy.com so, again, Google
    appears to understand they are the same thing and that ‘econsultancy.com’ is
    now the primary / master domain. 
  • PageRank: No change – as above. 
  • Other e.g. Site links, Google News, Google Alerts, Images etc.: No
    change – as above.
Econsultancy external page links

So what are we
working on now?
A number of things including:

  • Looking at ‘Not found’ 404 errors
    reported within Webmaster Tools’ “Diagnostics
    >  Web crawl” to 301 redirect
    any pages we can.
  • Updating key links to our new domain
    – we can’t expect to update all 50,000+ but, for some, e.g. our dmoz.org listing we’re making the effort.
  • Continuing to get new links for the
    new site. Though this is mostly done via focusing on content and marketing/PR
    as opposed to explicit ‘link building’ efforts. The latter includes listings
    sites and directories (e.g. for our training and events). Also, we’re continue
    to build out our feeds and distribution (e.g. jobs data to job aggregators).
  • Working on getting images coming
    through in Google News and Alerts. Not directly an SEO thing, however. More
    about increasing click throughs – to then get links, to improve SEO indirectly.
  • Doing more PPC to make up for shortfall
    in natural search traffic. No wonder Google is in no hurry to make the
    updates… 😉
  • Bits of on page optimisation and
    internal link optimisation to promote the relevant pages within the site.
  • Reviewing whether to update the
    current homepage for non-logged in visitors (including Googlebot) to include
    more dynamic content so it refreshes more often and has more links and keywords
    on it. Not convinced this will help but worth a try.

What have we learned?

Page/URL changes
within a domain seem to be updated pretty fast (within a few weeks) assuming
you do the 301 redirects correctly. Not so for domain name changes it would
appear. Some people report 4 weeks, some 6, some 90 days, for the latter. We’re
at 6 weeks now…

The indexation and de-indexation process happened over a
matter of weeks too.

Webmaster Tools is useful for getting some insight into
where Google is up to. However, it’s not clear what time lags there are between
what you see in Webmaster Tools and how this translates to the main index.

We’re struggling to explain the drop in PageRank for our
homepage which has the most inbound links, particularly when PageRank carried
across fine in all other instances.

Otherwise, we’re playing a waiting game… All that’s now
missing is that search traffic. Ask me again in a month whether, in hindsight,
we shouldn’t have changed the domain name at all, whatever the brand police
might say!

(p.s. any useful tips, advice for us going
forwards greatly appreciated)