Website Changes & Migrations – the answer to one of the most frequently asked questions we get….”what is the most common reason for websites breaking?”

Breaking in our instance (as an SEO agency) doesn’t mean literally breaking, e.g. due to a server blowing a fuse of heavens forbid, catching fire,  but breaking in terms of losing their visibility online, so that the website is impossible or at best just very difficult to find through searching unless that is you already know the exact URL address, which of course few people do and certainly not prospects new to your company.

The answer is surprisingly simple… changes.

So we are saying you shouldn’t make changes to your website once you have some presence online?…and that must be why leading online sites like Amazon, Google and Facebook haven’t changed their look and feel much in decades?

No, sadly these are different sides of the coin. The big sites don’t need to change much as we are set in our ways and know how to navigate them quickly (so they daren’t make many changes) plus of course the leading search engines aren’t likely to drop them from their index as they drive so much Internet traffic overall from which they all benefit.

  • On a related side note from the archives of SEO history, it is rumoured that even a brand as big as BMW can get things wrong and become bad, leading to their site becoming invisible for a period of time. This was alleged because they were hiding hidden keywords on the website in a very small font and in the same text colour as the background page, so humans couldn’t read the text but search engine automated robots could, and they didn’t like it! True or not it serves to illustrate how website changes can be dangerous if the search engines think you are trying to game the system.

Anyway, back to the plot. For most websites, it is a very good thing to regularly make an investment in your website. This is for several reasons, adding extra content and functionality, simply to give users a fresh new experience or to keep up with subtle design fashion changes which creep up on us over the years just as the current flavour of our times are WordPress styled sites.

Change then is good but it has to be done in the right way.

This is where the concept of website migration comes from. It sounds as if it applies if your business is moving country but in practice, it’s a lot simpler than that and impacts almost every website owner with both positive and negative impacts.

To explain why and how let’s consider for a moment how search engines work, at a strategic level.

The search engines attempt to build up a picture of everything online by seeking out as many URL’s and pages as they possibly can, they then need to quickly scan said pages, try and reinterpret harder to read content (this used to include things like images and PDF’s), and ultimately decide which of this content is worth running through their algorithms and AI to deduce what it’s about which can then be married with searchers requests to drive the priority of search engine results and priority order based on perceived relevance and quality.

Now you’d think Googles biggest costs might be staff to study websites or write code, in actual fact its rare for human intervention in results however big your company (although we do suspect of the hand of Google a bit like Maradona’s, God bless him,  creeps in from time to time) and its largest cost is server farms and the energy to run them, made worse of course by efforts and costs attempting to cut the carbon footprint.

So Google junks huge amounts of data without spending its full quota of cash or energy on them and reserves its effort for the content deemed most important to its end users. And this is where website changes become important.

If you have a well-performing and well-optimised website the search engines will be visiting your website very regularly and looking for changes to update their index. But get anything wrong, even just a little bit wrong, or make a strategic error as BMW are alleged to have done, and the search engines will penalise your website, literally the moment they spot it. So for a regularly spidered website that might take minutes or hours, for most sites, there are a few days grace.

Penalisation normally means you’ll drop down the rankings and lose some prominence, which you then need to work hard and invest time and effort regaining their trust to have a hope of regaining those positions, but it won’t be easy as by then a competitor will be deemed more worthy until they make a slip-up or have less good content generally.

If the search engines believe, rightly or wrongly, that you are trying to game the system and cheat, for example by having multiple websites so you can appear lots of times in the search results and crowd out competitors, not only will you lose positions but the penalisation can go as far as being removed from the index completely or even having your website banned. At its worst we did once take on a client whose past efforts had been so spammy, the webmaster himself (personally) had been marked with a Red Card!

So how easy is it for website changes to cause problems? With circa 140 factors impacting how well your web pages rank in the results lots of things can and do go wrong, and if they are not spotted quickly the results are irreparable – you cant appeal to Google etc for a rematch, you just need to start your online marketing all over again. So Migration is the important skill involved in mapping out what the proposed changes are and handling them in a way, alongside your web developers, that ensures the change is seen as a good thing, not a dubious or downright bad one.

A successful migration strategy takes a few hours and a few £hundred for a small website, a few weeks (and £ thousands) for a big one, so it’s not inexpensive, but the costs are a lot less than when it goes wrong. Once the new site goes live, there is almost always a slight drop in traffic and prominence but this is generally followed by a quick and permanent bounce upwards, meaning a lot of this unexpected cost is recouped in increased revenue and ultimately quickly paid back.

Website changes typically go wrong when new pages substitute old ones incorrectly, content is junked with no detailed strategy, servers or URLs are changed or when a website swaps from one technical platform or hosting company to another. And it’s surprising how often websites are impacted, even amongst the big boys.

My favourite example of that over the years ago was with the BBC. I was lucky enough to visit their impressive tech hub, at the time one of the best in the world and staffed with legions of highly skilled people, and yet on two separate occasions they made seemingly innocuous changes to their website with disastrous effect on the number of pages indexed by Google – two different factors impacted them years apart, in one, circa 80 million pages of content was dropped from the index representing about 95% of their website prominence, in another case they lost a mere 80% which took many years to build back.

If the BBC can get it wrong it’s understandable and there are potentially 140 factors to consider it’s easy to appreciate how a website can suddenly go bad for any site owner or developer, as even the best occasionally slip up through no real fault of their own.

So don’t be afraid of making changes to your site, in fact as data storage costs drop, the search engines positively encourage change, but make sure you make the right changes for the right reasons!