Website migrations present a host of challenges and potential issues, any of which could cause a crisis of cascading problems in the future. Sometimes migrations are as simple as moving from an unsecured environment (HTTP) to a secured one (HTTPS). Sometimes migrations are extremely complex transitions from one ecommerce platform to another.
Brand Labs specializes in utilizing the BigCommerce platform, which was literally made for large scale e-commerce sites, and developed a multipoint plan that mitigates the many risks associated with large scale migrations. It is also designed to allow us to see and improve on website elements that can be use to promote the website in the future. While some points might seem minor and others redundant, following a protocol that accounts for possible problems and works to optimize existing strengths serves to turn a complicated process into seamless transition.
A quick note about migration risks might explain our level of precaution. The two most typical types of migration are platform upgrades and the addition of SSL (HTTPS). When a website upgrades to a more robust platform or when it moves behind an extra layer of security with the HTTPS protocol, a new set of website addresses or URLs are created.
For example, the website at Example.com wants to move behind a secure socket layer (HTTPS) from its current unsecured (HTTP) address. With the addition of the extra character noting the secure server, the URLs http://www.ExampleURL.com and https://www.ExampleURL.com differ from each other just as 123 Anywhere Place differs from 321 Anywhere Place. When the website’s address is changed, even with the addition of one extra character, the base address of every document, image, video, form, and all other elements are changed. Handled improperly, that change can cause chaos as a web-server tries to pull items from an address structure that no longer exists.
That in turn causes chaos with every link and reference accumulated by the website over the time it has existed. Search engines such as Google or Bing will have crawled or “spidered” to index pages from those old addresses. Banner ads will direct clicks to pages that produce 404 errors, and paid-search campaigns will push landing pages that fell off a cliff. A badly executed migration can cost you all the traffic references your website has managed to accumulate over its lifetime. Careful planning and testing is required to avoid post-migration accidents.
From a technical standpoint, there are two primary goals of a migration. The first is to move the assets that make a website function from one place to another so that everything works perfectly. The second is to do so in a way that makes the contextual clarity of the website easier to understand and the user experience better. From a client-service standpoint, we also want to make sure the website remains visible in search and other digital marketing endeavors. This has led to the development of a 25 point migration plan we offer clients.
Our planning divides task groups into three unique phases:
- Pre-migration planning
- Pre-migration benchmarking
- Post-migration management
Pre-migration planning might seem self-explanatory but as anyone who has looked at the workings of a large scale website knows, the more you explore, the more there is to think about. The pre-migration planning phase tries to anticipate and mitigate problems by exploring and measuring the website and talking to the customer. A website might seem like it’s just tech but in reality websites represent people and products, goods and services, brands and businesses, and each is a social and commercial asset for their owners.
Website migrations often happen during a period of growth or redefinition and dictate which pages survive a migration and which are cut or repurposed. Migrations necessitated by platform upgrades frequently require a high level of coordination between IT and marketing teams. There are a number of questions to explore, including the goals behind the migration, new product introductions and old product deletions, new messaging and imagery, and other alterations that might change the technical structure of the site. All changes need to be accounted for and planned around, and because a site migration can involve so many unique areas, elements, or items, centralized planning is helpful.
Centralization has a slightly nuanced meaning in a pandemic. Where we once met to exchange ideas and examples in person, we now use cloud-servers and collaborative work-flow software to share and map-out the different task groups, and assign responsibilities among the teams.
An early look inside a pre-migration group server would see the creation of multiple spreadsheets used to keep track of existing page URLs, traffic and site referral statistics measuring different types of visits over (and compared to) unique periods of times. Establishing baselines for pre-migration web traffic and comparing them against post-migration traffic is often the best way to spot technical or user-experience issues that might not have been anticipated or seen by IT and development teams. It’s not unusual to create several 30-, 60-, and 90-day traffic-related spreadsheets that are viewed only once before being discarded or used to compile a larger report.
The actual migration from one set of URLs to another (or from one platform to another) is generally completed without issue. With proper planning and execution, the process should be as easy as moving files from one folder to another. When the migration takes place, redirects are written and put in place to seamlessly direct traffic from the old URL to the new one without the user noticing. The same redirects, if written properly, should also move requests from search engines and other traffic-referring servers to the correct address without any loss of promotional or rankings value.
Once the migration has been completed, a number of short tasks need to be performed immediately, including the creation and submission of a new sitemap for search engines; updating the Robots.txt and .htaccess files; and ensuring correct tracking codes are correctly installed on each page of the migrated site. Thereafter, the post-migration period should only require a great deal of monitoring and recording information in order to ensure the migration was as undisruptive as possible.
After a migration, a site is expected to see a temporary decline in traffic referred from organic search engines and social media. This traffic generally recovers over time, though, while direct assistance through social media promotion of ideas or articles are often helpful. If you don’t see a fairly obvious recovery, a continued loss of traffic often indicates a problem that happened during or just after the migration.
Website migrations are challenging processes because the stakes of failure are rather steep. Any downtime experienced by a commercial website risks loss of business and a likelihood of decline in marketing potential on search engines and in social media venues. Extreme planning might seem somewhat obsessive; however, its value is seen when a website migration takes place with no visible issues, problems or worries.
Speaking of migration, it could be on your plate sooner than later. Volusion recently filed for Chapter 11 and got many thinking about the what-ifs. If you’ve outgrown your current ecommerce platform or find yourself shopping for a new provider, check out the blog, Headwinds or Opportunities: Volusion Customers Look Ahead.