Clutch spoke with Dalton Finney, SEO Analyst at BFO, about Clutch's 2016 Enterprise SEO Survey Results.
Please describe your organization.
BFO is a team of people specialized in different parts of SEO, like content marketing, link acquisition, landing page optimization and so on.
What is your position?
I am a senior SEO analyst at BFO specializing in technical SEO and site transitions. I’ve been part of the BFO team for three and a half years and have been in the SEO field for about 9 years.
I have had the opportunity to work on a number our clients’ website transitions. This is typically when website owners want to either upgrade their existing content management system, move to a different platform, or change their site architecture. This provides a great opportunity for improving the performance of a site, from both a backend and organic user experience perspectives.
There is, however, a risk that the site may lose traffic rankings over time if the transition isn’t architected properly. I come in to help mitigate the risk factor and make sure that we’ll have as smooth a transition as possible.
The URL structuring is one of the first elements that people tackle. Do you have any tips in this area?
Site transitions often bring with them the opportunity to re-architect the overall site structure, including rewriting URLs in order to make them more SEO-friendly. If there is an opportunity to reorganize a site and rewrite user URLs, it should be taken. It can bring a lot of long-term growth if done properly.
In properly writing URLs, there should first and foremost be a focus on ensuring that the site architecture is logical and intuitive in terms of how pages branch out from the homepage, from the category and subcategory pages and product pages in the case of retail or e-commerce sites. I advise making this intuitive and logical, which means having no more than seven or so main categories. By doing this, the site depth is kept pretty shallow. Search engines can now more easily traverse, crawl and index the site. If there are too many categories and subcategories between the home page and the bottom of the architecture, there will be a good chance that the site will not be consistently crawled in its entirety. Google and other search engines may not spend their crawl budget on your whole site. By making the site compact and shallow, the owners are doing themselves a favor.
A second point is to not use dynamic parameters for the page names. Many developers will default to this, because it’s the easiest way of creating pages. Even though it’s easy, it’s not good for SEO. Where possible, they should push for actual keywords and page names, using high value, relevant words to describe the content of a page. Thorough keyword research is important, as well as looking at the intent of every category page, making sure that it’s properly named.
And, finally, if there are multiple words in a page name, make sure they are separated with a hyphen.
Can you provide examples of transitions done poorly?
I don’t personally have any “horror stories”, per se, but I have seen site transitions with redirect strategies gone wrong. In these cases, there needs to be a comprehensive redirect map through which the domain and link equity can be transferred from the old version to the new one. If this is done well, taking best practices into account, then a great deal of the existing domain authority will be transferable to the new URL structure. Consequently, the rankings and traffic will follow.
I have seen situations where clients had rewritten their entire URL structure but refused to redirect any of the old product URLs to the new ones. This caused many issues with gaining back traffic. They lost a great deal of traffic—around 10-20%. Once this was done, Google just saw thousands upon thousands of orphan product pages on the domain, giving 404s. Just like an oil tanker, the site was spilling out all of its link equity. The solution for this is to have an airtight redirect strategy. I would argue that this is the most important SEO element of a site transition.
Do you have any noteworthy success stories to share?
We were working with a university client on site transitions for all of their individual schools—liberal arts, theater, business, and so on. Every one of the schools got its own subdomain. Over time, we helped the institution transition each of its schools, moving to a new version of the existing CMS platform.
In most site transitions, there will be a bit of lost traffic—maybe 30% in the first 60-120 days. Even the best transitions will see some traffic loss – it’s just part of the deal. With the university, we helped write the new site architecture, rename the pages, and create an airtight redirect map. Any traffic loss we saw was no more than 5% and recovered after less than a month. We also had the benefit of doing the site transition over the summer, which will be one of the lower traffic periods for a university. We had the ability to write an intuitive, SEO-proven site architecture and made sure that each page had a redirect, while we also had good timing, making sure that the client came out of the slump before the fall rush.
What are your views on reports, redirects, and tagging?
Redirects first. I can’t emphasize the importance of a redirect strategy too much. The first rule is that, if it’s possible to do a 1-to-1 redirect, then it should be done. If, for example, an existing site about page located at domain.com/about, will be changed to domain.com/about-us, there should be a 1-to-1, 301 redirect.
On many occasions, this isn’t the case. There may be categories that no longer exist, like certain product pages, and the site may also acquire new product categories. Pages are gained and lost all the time, which is natural. When this happens, it’s important to redirect users to the next most relevant page. This is determined partially through the internal knowledge about the product mix and content, but the change should also be supported through associated keywords. The most important thing is to have a 301 permanent redirect enabled in the CMS, instead of the 302. This will tell Google and other search engines that are crawling URLs that the link equity from the old page should be permanently applied to the new page and that they should no longer index the old one.
In terms of reporting, we recommend looking at least at twelve months of organic reports data prior to a relaunch. This allows us to have a year-over-year view, to see how large the inevitable decline of traffic and rankings was and to achieve better traffic in the future. Sometimes, the value of a site transition can be questioned at the higher echelon of the organization, so having this data is important.
We focus on collecting such metrics as organic traffic, keyword ranking, indexation levels and domain authority, as well as more granular aspects like organic traffic for each search engine and keyword rankings, as opposed to top line numbers. Every website has their high-value keywords, so they need to keep a close eye on that in order to know how far they’ve fallen and how quickly they can recuperate. Retail sites should collect monthly revenue data at whatever granularity level is appropriate for them, like conversions, average order value, total revenue, number of conversions, and so on. If they’re simply collecting leads, this metric should also be tracked.
Another portion of the prelaunch process is a tagging audit. We recommend looking at tags on the existing version of the site before it’s transitioned, specifically inner tags like Google Analytics, A/B tracking tools like Optimize.ly, revenue tracking tags, and so on. We make sure that these are available so that, once the new site goes live, we can check and make sure that they’re still in place. In addition to these, we also recommend keeping a good eye on meta data like title tags, meta description tags and so on. Finally, keep tabs on your canonical tags, indexation, and pagination tags. Typically, websites will employ some combination of these in order to control the actual type of indexation and to prevent duplicate content.
I’ve seen many occasions in which these were not included in the new build, creating a lot of trouble regarding how the new site would be indexed. There may be some serious duplicate content issues, as well as not indexing other pages that should be indexed. This should be part of the QA work of the developers once the site is launched.
Do you have tips for users choosing a CMS?
The majority of clients who come to us with site transitions have already vetted their CMS and put a development team in place. There are still a fair number of people who need a bit of handholding and advice, which is why they come to us.
My advice is to have a round table for the tech teams, web developers, digital marketing specialists and anyone else who will be a part of the project. They should then spec out what features are needed in the new CMS. It’s important to have a full list of specs and features upfront, so that the client won’t be left holding the bag six months or a year down the line.
I’ve seen clients who purchased a CMS license, only to find out that there was no native support for an important feature, like Schema.org or any other structured data. Because they didn’t do their due diligence and spec out the requirements with their CMS provider, they had to dole out thousands of dollars more and have the developers build in that functionality. Increasing the budget will usually not be looked-upon kindly by the bosses.
From a tactical perspective, if possible, the SEO team should act as a mediator in the process and translate the business needs into an SEO strategy and tactic, communicating it with the web developers and the CMS provider.
For example, an online content publisher like a new magazine or blog should put in place schema.org or other structured data. If the SEO team knows that that is a big issue, they will make sure that the new CMS can support it. They will need to communicate this requirement with the CMS team.
What do you think of Drupal as a CMS?
Many of the issues I’ve talked about so far are platform-agnostic. Whether the site is a 500-page WordPress site or a Drupal site with 100,000 pages, the recommendations I’ve given have to be taken into consideration. There are certain platform-specific questions that need to be considered, though.
I specifically like the fact that there are loads of SEO-oriented plug-ins for the Drupal platform. This will help remediate some of the risks of features not being supported natively by the CMS. Plug-ins integrate many different SEO functions into a single tool and view. Whether we’re talking about Google Analytics or a Google Search console integration, writing metadata, managing redirects, tags, keywords and creating content, many of these tools have been built into one.
I’m a big fan of two Drupal plug-ins in particular. One of them is the Yoast SEO plug-in. Another tool I like a lot is Drupal’s SEO Tools plug-in – it’s definitely the more robust of the two. Both tools are highly intuitive and come with many great features. Picking the right plug-in’s in Drupal will make the SEO job so much easier.
Do you have any final thoughts?
In terms of expectations for people who are new to the site transition game, either marketing managers who have added responsibilities on their plate or newbie SEO persons, they should focus on gathering business requirements upfront, before choosing a specific CMS provider.
Once they’ve gotten down to business and started working on the site transition, they should look at the redirect strategy and make sure that it’s airtight.
A third consideration is that traffic and ranking are going to be lost regardless. No matter how great the SEO transition is, it will happen. This is mostly because of the old and new sets of URLs. For a while, Google will only be familiar with the old one. Rediscovering a site will take some time. There are no guarantees, but the expected recovery time is three or four months, although I’ve seen it happen as fast as three or four weeks. The natural declines need to be discussed with the people who are evaluating employees by these topline metrics. This conversation needs to be had early and often. Partnering up with a good agency will stem the bleeding and mitigate the risks, getting the client on the track to recovery and future growth.