On the 14th of June 2018 we held Risky Business, an event in London focusing on the perils of website migration and how to successfully navigate them. A team of industry experts gave insights based on their experiences in handling website migration. After the keynotes were over the audience had their chance to ask questions. Here’s a rundown of what was asked.

The Experts

  • Dan Patmore – Natural Search Strategy Manager, Argos
  • Claudia Higgins – Natural Search Insight and Technology Manager, Argos
  • David Wise – Director Channel Sales EMEA, Magento Commerce
  • Jonathan Fink – Head of Search and Innovation, Organic
  • Joe Ford – Digital Marketing Consultant, Organic
  • Simon Dale – Senior Account Manager, Organic

Q: How long would you expect results to get back to normal after doing a “big bang” style migration?

Joe Ford – It depends on the type of migration, how big your site is, what you’re changing and how your performance recovers from site changes generally. So for sites like Argos, Amazon, Ebay, they will come back fairly quickly because they carry a lot of weight with Google. But for much smaller sites that don’t have the domain authority to back the site up, the return can take much longer. That’s why assessing the risks ahead before you start is so important and you have an idea, personally and for the project, what is going to happen.
Dan Patmore – I would support that and I think the key point is it depends on what you’re changing. What I would also add is that the time when you see volatility, from when Google picks up the changes, varies. At Argos we used previous changes to understand that. For Argos it would be 4 to 6 weeks to see the volatility and the path to recovery would then take 6 to 8 weeks, but we knew that we could add 50% onto that if changes were implemented poorly. I think understanding the curve of response to change is important.
Jon Fink – Yes, from direct experience when I was involved in a site that used 302s for redirections, and that site also had a wide variety of dodgy links, when they did the migration they lost 80% of their organic traffic. Understanding not just the technical aspects but also the history of penalty recovery helps you avoid a double whammy during the migration.

Q: In terms of planning a migration, if it’s taken two and a half years, how do you plan for emerging needs given that SEO and everything changes so quickly?

Dan Patmore – It is challenging. It really goes back to being clear on your strategy, and clear on what you aren’t doing as much as what you are. You have to be intentional about what you are, and aren’t, doing. Being in natural search you try and do everything, so you have to be strict. By and large people that succeed in natural search are interested in the area and really thorough, but I think that having someone to say “that’s a great idea, but not now” has been something that you [Claudia Higgins, Argos] and I have massively benefitted from giving each other.
Claudia Higgins – I think going from a big site change to looking at what you change next, from a data point of view, is that you have to give yourself time to understand what the impact of the changes you’ve just made have been on the site. What worked well, what you maybe don’t want to do again. So if you go immediately into making changes again you will have to work out the impact of all those things. So just giving yourself the time, freezing everything to make sure you measure how it’s working, is really important.

Q: Argos deferred the move to HTTPS until after this migration. Was there pressure in the business to do it all at once?

Dan Patmore – Initially there was. But as the technical teams began to better understand the level of work they would have to do, they realised actually they wouldn’t be able to do it as well. So it resolved itself quite quickly once we could explain the amount of change that would be going on. And as always it’s how you communicate it.
Jon Fink – People tend to take a sharp intake of breath around a domain or URL migration, but don’t realise there’s so much going on around whether a migration is secure.
Dan Patmore – Yes and there are high profile examples of it being cocked up. While to some people it just looks like putting an S in part of the URL, it’s a complete migration as well. For us the benefit of having them separate was understanding the mapping exercise, and doing it in a more controlled way.

Q: With big sites there is an almost constant migration instead of one point in time where you have to execute one. Do you feel technology is speeding up the need for migrations?

David Wise – Like Dan was saying, his project took two and a half years. That’s a long time, especially in ecommerce. Some of the things I’ve been talking about today didn’t exist two and half years ago, so how can you as a merchant start to do things when you’re having to take into account unknown unknowns? The only way is to break down the thinking about how to do things, thinking about flexibility, then looking at the process, and of course the technology. If you’re migrating a website you’re thinking about the CMS, payments, how can you unpick everything without breaking it, and then build it into the new systems. You need the most flexible people, technology, and processes.That’s why the big legacy systems are struggling, the pace of change is just so breakneck that they struggle to deal with it.
Dan Patmore – Absolutely. You need the right setup to be flexible. So one of the reasons Argos’ project took so long is the co-dependencies we had on other workstreams. The other challenge, with the pace of change, everybody has a limited amount of capex, so which new emerging things do you back and which do you wait to establish itself? It’s a risk and reward situation, because you can’t jump after every new trend, because if nothing else you’ll make a hash of it and those things may not even leave the ground.
Jon Fink – You have all these new technologies and changes in behaviour. Often the structure and taxonomy of a website reflects who they are as an organisation, and the language reflects that too. It often isn’t reflecting the users and what they are searching for, what their drivers are, and that’s where Amazon has a real advantage. Their taxonomy reflects the market, not their own understanding of their catalogue. And so for many businesses, whether that’s professional services or commerce, it takes a huge effort to start creating language and UX that reflects the market and where it’s going. It’s the boring part of the everyday change, but once you get into it and reflecting the market intent that’s constantly moving then you have to keep it under observation and understand what’s driving those changes.
Joe Ford – Changes will always be ongoing; migration is just a change. What you need is to ensure these big migrations, and any big changes, set a good base so you can make further changes with relative ease. For Argos making a simple change two and a half years ago would have been a nightmare.
Claudia Higgins – I think that’s down to how well organised we are as a team in knowing what the process is, what’s needed, and having a log on the site. We now have such a good view of what’s going on with the site, and how we work through those changes, and understanding what’s needed that now if someone wants to make a change then we know the workflows and can go through them.

Q: Who are the friends in the C-Suite that the SEO person can get an audience with and fight for the relevance of SEO within a business?

Dan Patmore – You don’t necessarily have to hit the C-Suite immediately. Integrating with other teams, the taxonomy team, the content teams, digital planning team. The product team can be difficult because there are so many stakeholders. Working out which conversations to assert yourself in gets easier, especially as team stakeholders are engaged. From a C-Suite perspective, really it’s whoever is in charge of ecommerce and technical products.
Simon Dale – I think in a big company it’s easy for departments to be siloed. SEO has a lot of touchpoints in all the different departments, even including PR and social. SEO is in a good place to break down the barriers, and help with integration. If everybody is pulling in different directions then there’s no point doing it. So I think SEO is ideally placed to make those friends and pull everything together.
Jon Fink – It’s always better to plan SEO in strategically from the beginning than bring it in later to try and fix problems that have arisen.
Claudia Higgins – I think inserting yourself consistently into other teams processes, such as asking to see wireframes before a page goes live, helps you build advocates in other teams who will say “We shouldn’t really do this before speaking to SEO”.
Dan Patmore – Nothing is delivered in isolation. As a business grows there are lots of people that have the opportunity to affect your digital future. It used to be that not following [SEO] best practice led to a missed opportunity, but now it’s the case that actually a big negative could come. For us, it’s not about empire building, but being a bastion of credibility, empowering other teams to have the knowledge they need, and know when we are best involved.
Claudia has invested a lot of time in which technologies to put into the hands of content writers and traders, so we can move beyond “where are we ranking for those keywords” to “how can we effect change”.


Download the Risky Business Whitepaper

If you want to find out more about migrations and the risks involved then you can download our free whitepaper on website migrations here, as well as watch videos from the event.