Restructuring B2B Websites Through SEO Migration
Everyone knows the story. You have been given the task of folding multiple appropriated (or legacy) domains into one for your client's B2B site. It seems like there's a world of complex implementation ahead of you, yet no solid information in terms of preserving all your Google rankings.
You've worked on similar projects before and it always seems to be the same story. The demand is to retain 100% of rankings and traffic from the old sites permanently. People are convinced that 301 redirects always transfer 100% of Google rankings and SEO authority / equity, so long as they are 'done right'. If that isn't the end outcome, then senior members of staff can get frustrated.
But what are the challenges of achieving this vision in a lasting way? Certainly, it is easy to perform a basic B2B SEO migration which temporarily sees loads of traffic coming through to the new (destination) site. Though this is true, traffic often tails off in the long-run leading to disappointment and tense exchanges.
Is it possible to avoid this? Is it actually possible to migrate 100% of SEO performance in a lasting way? It is true that the majority of SEO performance can be migrated through 301 redirects in a lasting way, though it is monumentally difficult to achieve and requires a tremendous amount of work. Not just work from the SEO person, either. There's content production and re-production, site re-structuring and expansion, content similarity analysis and tweaking. To be blunt, to achieve the holy grail of SEO migration uses huge amounts of human and operational resources.
But why is that? Surely, it's just a matter of 301 redirecting some pages to some other pages, right? It's called a 'permanent' redirect, so Google should just permanently redirect those rankings without thinking? Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. But to understand the DNA of the perfect B2B SEO strategy for fold-in based migration projects, we have to understand a little more about how Google treats the mighty 301 and why.
How Google Treats the 301 Redirect
Imagine a world where Google applied the 301 redirect blindly. A webmaster or developer applied a 301 redirect from one page, and the associated Google keyword rankings were immediately and permanently transferred to the destination URL. In effect, Google would lose control of their own ranking results. Suddenly, there would be a huge black market for selling Google keyword rankings (from one site to another) via 301 redirect purchases. A site has some rankings you want? You could contact the webmaster and pay them a sum to redirect that page to one of yours.
A similar issue did in fact exist in the past, where webmasters would buy up expired domains which had high Domain Authority and then redirect them to their own sites. Obviously, tactics like this don't work anymore, or at least – they don't work without significantly more legwork.
That's because 301 redirects now pass through, what we believe in the SEO industry, to be some kind of content (and possibly branding) similarity evaluation.
It works something like this:
- Googlebot will follow the 301 redirect from the page sending the redirect
- Google will land on the page receiving the redirect
- Google will check its last cache of the page sending the redirect
- Google will check whether the content is similar
- This would be achieved algorithmically or mathematically, using something like Boolean string similarity
- Google will also (to a lesser degree) check for brand-affinity
- Google will make a determination on how much SEO authority and rankings to 'permanently' transfer
Why does Google do this? Certainly, to prevent an expanding black market of selling 301 redirects from old pages (or old expired domains) from being effective. Google doesn't want their keyword rankings or SEO ranking authority to be sold by 3rd parties as an effective commercial product, which distorts Google's true results.
Were this to happen, Google would become less useful to users as a search engine. Users would turn to alternatives like Duck Duck Go. Were that to happen, Google's paid advertising platform wouldn't be able to serve ads to so many users, and their ad business would dry up in short order. Google does put users first, so that they can maintain their PPC / Google Ads profitability.
If the content on a page which is receiving a redirect is substantially different, why should it permanently gain all the rankings, keywords and SEO authority from the redirect origin page? The redirect origin page 'proved' its value by ascertaining backlinks and performing well on Google. If the new page has substantially different content, it should be disconnected from those legacy backlinks which it did not earn. New content should be forced to re-prove itself within Google's various query-spaces.
How Can We Evaluate Content Similarity Between Addresses?
Now that we know that Google wants content to be 'similar' at each end of a 301 redirect, how can this be evaluated?
During a redirect migration project, whilst you are planning the redirect mapping, both sites should be live. At the least, the old site(s) should still be live, and you should have access to a staging site (or live new pages) on the new site. You may also have access to preview unpublished pages on the new site which is already live.
You need to decide upon your mapping, and then compare the content (Boolean string) similarity between your redirect origin and redirect destination URLs:
You have to have a spreadsheet where your URLs have been mapped from redirect origin (old page on the old site) to redirect destination (new page on the new site).
Boxed in yellow, you can see where content from all of these pages has been scraped and dumped in a cell. Not that content does not refer to all text on a webpage, a special expression was written to harvest the text, just from the main content area of each page.
In order to achieve this, you will need to be familiar with XPath (to target the content on each page), Screaming Frog (to actually crawl the pages, where you will place your XPath expression) and VLookup (to re-assemble the data from Screaming Frog's export, back into your original mapping sheet).
Those tools, languages and functions will allow you to target and fetch the content from each page. They will also allow you to pull the content back into your mapping sheet. Boxed in red however, is an actual percentage similarity metric for each origin / destination URL. How did we get this? Obviously, you need some kind of custom formula to reference both content cells and come back with a similarity percentage. This is not native to Excel. Extend Office has some pointers here ranging from basic true / false similarity matching to more in-depth string similarity comparison. The best thing you can do, though, is to pick up a copy of Excel Power-Ups and use the Power Similarity function:
This MS Office extension pack will give you access to a formula which does exactly what you need it to do.
Main Challenges for B2B SEO Web Property Restructuring
Now that you know how Google handle's 301 redirects, and now that you have a rough method to discern content similarity between redirect origin and redirect destination URLs – you will probably have a lot of questions!
In most situations, you will have been given one or multiple external domains to fold into your client's main website. But you have just learned that content granularity and content similarity have a drastic impact on the ability of your client's main (or new) site, to retain SEO authority and rankings from the old site(s) in the long term.
If the depth and similarity of content isn't there in terms of the redirect destination URLs which you have been given to map to, the project will see immediate success and then will trail off as Google evaluates the content and removes non-earned rankings.
These are the main challenges:
- If the client's new, or 'main' site does not contain a similar number of destination URLs (which are obviously relevant) to map to, then results will suffer in the long term
- If the client's new site doesn't contain pages which have mathematically 'similar' content to all of the distinct redirect origin URLs, results will suffer over time
- If the client's new site has significantly different branding and is related to a completely different brand-entity (as understood by Google), then Google may see the redirect project as a cheap attempt to buy un-earned SEO authority (and thus results may be limited)
- Between these issues it is extremely unlikely that you will see 100% long-term retention of SEO results
- Immediately you will see all the traffic pass from the old site(s) to the new site. But as Google more fully digests the redirects and any content dissimilarity (or shedding / streamlining), results will then drop off
- This could leave you with most of the SEO authority and rankings from the old site(s), or a thin sliver of traffic instead (depending upon your situation)
- In other words, where your client's budget is limited in terms of re-creating all the content from the old site(s), then results are bound to suffer
The Way Forwards for B2B SEO Integration: Go Big or Go Home
So now you understand the challenge. You can do a very simple project whereby you take some of the top URLs and you map them to the most relevant page. Usually though, this will result in thousands of pages being mapped to hundreds of addresses.
As a result of streamlining, content shedding and address-funneling, most redirect origin pages will seem largely dissimilar to their associated redirect destination pages. This will result in lots of rankings, SEO backlink authority and keywords being removed over time.
The other option is that you can heavily invest in re-creating loads of pages from the old site(s) and integrating them into your client's new or main website. This isn't so quick and easy as it sounds, especially if you are folding multiple domains into one.
You have to decide how the chaotic structure of multiple domains for closure, will neatly fit into your client's new site in a logical and unobtrusive way. Even just creating the structural strategy will take a lot of time!
In addition to that, you then have to find a way for the web developer(s) in question to move the content from one place to another, migrate the Meta data and URL slugs etc. Once all of that is done you then have to 301 redirect all of the old pages on their associated legacy domain structures, through to the new pages in their new uniform structure, on the client's new / main website.
People who will need to be involved:
- The client to sign off on all this work and provide resources from their side
- Web developers to make things happen
- Probably a UX specialist to give oversight on the new structural integrations
- Content teams to tweak and adapt content where required
- A project manager
- You, the SEO specialist
It's possible that your eyes are now watering. How do you decide which approach to take, and manage expectations if the lesser approach is taken?
Deciding Upon your B2B Redirect Mapping Approach
Obviously, the work that works is... well, it's a lot of work! If the site(s) which you are folding in see large amounts of SEO traffic which results in a lot of SEO channel-attributed revenue, then assuredly you need to 'go big'.
If the domains are small and are mainly being consolidated for branding or legal purposes, if the domains don't see a lot of traffic – then use the 'go home' fast methodology. There's no point using up so many resources for such little potential gain.
If there isn't enough traffic and proven revenue (or leads) to logically pursue the 'go big' approach, then you must manage expectations in terms of how traffic and rankings will only be temporary. Performance will be lost over time, and you must be up-front about that.
B2B SEO Redirect Mapping: Top Five Tips
It's time to cap off this post with a few top actionable tips. These are the main things to watch out for during your B2B redirect mapping or SEO-site integration project:
- First of all, decide whether to go big or go home. Only the go big approach (factoring all URLs including legacy URLs, factoring content similarity and granularity of content) will result in the permanent transfer of SEO rankings and traffic, from one site to another (or from multiple sites to another). However, this approach isn't always worth it. It's very resource heavy and when you're folding in smaller sites, there won't be a strong return on investment
- Once you have decided upon undertaking a 'go big' or a shallower redirect migration project, it may be time to manage expectations. For shallow redirect projects where thousands of pages are folded into hundreds, the content granularity and similarity will not be there to ling-term retain the SEO results from the old sites. Make sure that you make your contacts aware of this (if needed)
- Factor content granularity. Does the client's new or main site, have enough unique pages to receive SEO authority and keyword rankings from the old domain(s)?
- Factor content similarity. Even if the new site has enough relevant URLs, if they aren't percentage-relevant (Boolean string similarity) enough to the redirect origin URLs (on the old sites) – then you may still run into issues. Does that mean the content team needs to get involved to tweak the new site content closer to the old site content? What can be done?
- Relax and have a beer. By this point, you've earned it! Redirect migration projects are often large and unwieldy, but your B2B SEO clients will thank you for taking the time to do it right.