Changing the name of your company is a major undertaking that goes well beyond designing a new logo and business cards. In today’s web-centric world, migrating your website to a new domain is a major consideration: You need to avoid disrupting the flow of traffic, or worse, sending your site into a black hole where neither search engines nor customers can find you.
oDesk.com recently transitioned to Upwork.com with the help of a cross-functional team focused on successfully crossing the chasm without losing our most valuable resource-our customers. Here’s a look at some of the work that went into it and a few best practices for anyone considering it.
THE FIRST ORDER OF BUSINESS
Start by developing a checklist of projects and tasks. Make sure everyone on the team is completely up to speed on what needs to be done and when it needs to be done by.
To compile our initial list of “must-haves,” we engaged Joost de Valk, a world-class domain migration expert and developer of the popular Yoast WordPress plugins. The resulting checklist and key deliverables-although seemingly simple-became critical to keeping the internal team, workstreams, and projects on track.
The Migration Checklist
“Before the migration, be sure your site is squeaky clean.” – Joost de Valk
Whether you have the technical expertise to tackle this list yourself or you’ll be engaging a technical team to help you, here are some steps and best practices based on our experience.
1. Reduce or eliminate 404 “not found” errors
Attention to detail and a clean site are needed not only when you’re doing a domain migration but also in general for the overall health of your domain. In this case, they were imperative for a successful outcome.
- First, we ensured web crawlers could quickly crawl the site without being deterred by errors or old, unresolved redirects. Errors will slow bots down, which hurts discoverability of pages, indexing, and ultimately the flow of natural search traffic.
- Once we’d identified any existing issues on the oDesk site, we carefully sleuthed out patterns or events that led to errors. If an issue was reversible, we deployed a fix. If not, we applied a redirect or canonical which tells search engines they can find similar pages on the site.
a. Cancelled pages were set to 200 with rel=canonical links to the active, relevant page.
b. For other page errors, we mapped to the relevant page with a 301 redirect to that page.
In short, think about combating errors like this: identify the source of the issue to determine the appropriate solution to apply. Then, continuously monitor results in Google Search Console (formerly known as Google Webmaster Tools) to see if the reported errors start to decline. If the number of errors persist-or increase-start over again.
We identified all existing subdomains and tagged each as “kill” or “keep.” Subdomains that were worthy of making the leap to the new domain were redirected. Those that didn’t make the cut were deprecated with a redirect to a new relevant page or area of the site.
3. XML sitemaps
Similar in nature to the subdomain work, which required lots of spreadsheets, all sitemaps had to be identified before they could be mapped to the new domain. Once the list was created and transferred to the development team, we moved on to the rest of the list.
4. Canonical links
In general, if you have similar content on your site, you should try to avoid having it classified as duplicate content, which can hamper your SEO efforts and lead to a possible Panda penalty and thus lowered natural search traffic. It’s a good idea to target a high converting page and canonicalize corresponding similar pages rather than split page rank across multiple versions for mediocre search visibility.
In this case, all canonical links on oDesk were identified and canonicals were mapped to the new domain and relevant pages. Again, this required some fancy spreadsheet work prior to transitioning the final list to the dev team for implementation.
Prepare the new domain
It’s a good idea to “warm up” your new domain before the official launch. We set up https://www.upwork.com/ about five weeks before launch and posted new content to the site once a week to help get a jump on being indexed by search engines. The content was general and not connected to the oDesk brand, so it wouldn’t be associated with oDesk before the big reveal.
In addition, establishing a strong PR presence is ideal in order to educate the market about the brand changeover as well as to start a flow of links and citations to the new domain.
Crossing the chasm
The cross-functional team came together to pull off a pretty miraculous feat: moving from oDesk to Upwork and migrating customers and traffic along the way, more or less seamlessly. Post-migration we enacted a contingency plan to triage issues. We also implemented an outreach campaign asking referrers to update oDesk links on their sites to the new Upwork site.
“SEO cannot live in a vacuum; all departments need to converse, collaborate, and push towards a singular campaign-focused goal in order to make a migration succeed.” – Joe Sinkwitz
Looking back, the core elements of the migration that served as a baseline for measuring success were:
- A carefully crafted plan-vetted by leadership and managed through our checklist.
- A cross-functional task force to implement the identified tasks.
- Smooth handoff of completed work to the development team for execution.
- Weekly check-ins to track against the timeline and deliverables.
Because the team and process were established early during the planning phase, everyone knew his/her role and what to do when things didn’t go as planned. Any new issues were folded into the overall list and attacked without abandoning existing projects.
We may talk about the migration in terms of “traffic,” but real people-our customers who use the platform and make their livelihood from connections made on Upwork-are at the core of our company. The ultimate measure of migration success for us is ensuring clients and freelancers can find each other and collaborate together to complete their projects on our platform.
From this perspective, the migration feels successful as both customers and search engines alike acknowledge the new domain and work continues on the Upwork platform.
Thanks to our panel of experts for participation and patience: Joost de Valk, Andrew Shotland, and Joe Sinkwitz. Read more about the technical side of the migration from our VP of engineering’s perspective.