Rory Martin

Seattle Times Case Study

URL Migrations for Large Content Sites

Introduction

Search Engine Friendly (SEF) URLs are an important part of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Sites that don’t have SEF URLs often have lower rankings than their search engine friendly counterparts, and should consider migrating content to a new URL structure. URL migrations can be complex, because there are multiple tasks that must be performed correctly to prevent crawling and indexing problems. These problems often result in lost rankings and organic traffic.

The Seattle Times Company wanted to migrate their web URLS from their previous nwsource.com subdomain to a streamlined seattletimes.com domain. The website, seattletimes.com, hosts “millions” [sic] of content bearing pages, making their domain migration risky. The RoryMartin.com team assumed project management of the URL migration – from initial benchmarking and competitor analysis, to technical aspects of a major URL overhaul, to continued monitoring and reporting.

Background in Brief

The RoryMartin.com team worked to create a list of different aspects that needed to be taken into consideration in order to implement and validate a domain migration from an SEO perspective – specifically for large, content-heavy sites like news sites. We examined how a major domain migration would affect this type of site, how we would classify negative effects, how we would respond to any issues that arose, and the factors we would need to take into account to properly assess the status of this project. Our main challenges were to determine how such a migration would affect rankings, traffic, and the site health overall. We also needed to come up with a mitigation strategy to ensure that should rankings drop significantly we have a plan to regain any lost traffic.

SEO was a primary concern in two different sections of the site: the individual content indexes (ex. Sports, Local News, etc.), and the archived search indexes (so that archived links would reflect the change as well).

Because it was impossible to benchmark and monitor each content page, we monitored the search data on 19 news indexes that represented the Seattle Times’ highest traffic pages. We also picked 24 specific keywords to measure the Seattle Times’ ranking over time. We also provided any technical barriers to SEO reported by Google’s Webmaster Tools, since Webmaster Tools errors often hinder ranking on Search Engine Results Pages (SERP).

Technical Barriers to SEO

301 Redirects and Link Authority

Due to the large number of URLs that would change, the Seattle Times needed to perform multiple 301 redirects that would reroute old links to the new page URLs. This is a risky move for SEO because the old links carried a certain amount of “authority” or search relevance, and a high number of inbound links were affected as a result.

Research shows that through a 301 redirect, accumulated authority evaporates for a period of time. With a redirect, a site that is rerouting URLs will see a dip in rankings that would theoretically rebound – the question is how much? To test the effects, our team recommended setting up a staging site to find out how these redirects would affect search ranking, allowing us to determine the reasonable amount of time in which we could expect rankings to rebound.

Site Errors – The 404 Problem

In addition, the Seattle Times site had a large number of HTML and Meta errors on their current website. Before the migration they had over 80,000 404 errors, over 100,000 duplicate Meta descriptions and over 300,000 duplicate title tags. While Meta tags can be autopopulated, our main concern was the number of 404 errors.

Google discovers content by following links from one page to another. Generally, a Not Found status error (a 404 HTTP status code) is returned when Googlebot attempts to visit a page that doesn’t exist—either because the page was renamed or deleted without redirecting the old URL to a new page, or because of a typo in the link.

404 pages waste a site's crawl allowance on pages that no longer exist, indicating to search engines that the site is not "fresh." These errors must be addressed prior to a major URL migration because a migration will cause more errors – a snowball effect that’s detrimental to SEO during the migration process.

404 pages also cause a high bounce rate - users land on the page, see that the page no longer exists, and quickly leave the site. Users are vital to the site and our goal in SEOs is to not only ensure that the site gains organic traffic, but that the users stay, browse through the site, and ultimately, convert.

For any 404 links that could not be fixed (URLs with simple typos), we recommended a 301 redirect either to a search page or a home page. Redirecting expired links help ensure site usability for visitors, and pass on link equity to the 301 destination page.

Monitoring the Migration

Since our focus was on Search Engine Optimization, we were interested in entry points to the major sections of the Seattle Times website – specifically visits that came from search engines. We also monitored Google Pagerank , since it’s a good indicator of how long it takes a site to rebound. And finally, we monitored the keywords for any drops in search engine ranking.

Results:

Days After Migration Keywords Change Major Search % Referrals Change Google Pagerank Change
0 Baseline Baseline Baseline
15 Increase in Ranking Increase in % Referred Decrease
30 Increase in Ranking Decrease in % Referred Decrease
60 Increase in Ranking Increase in % Referred Increased

The first major negative effect was seen on Google Pagerank. After 15 days, the Seattle Times saw an increase in major search referrals and an increase in keyword ranking.

The second major negative effect was seen after 30 days, where Google Pagerank continued to decrease, and the site experienced a major decrease in referrals from major search engines. However, the site continued to perform well in keyword rankings.

By the third reporting period (60 days) the Google Pagerank had recovered, and the referrals from major search engines had increased showing a rebound from the negative effects of the domain migration.

Conclusion

The RoryMartin.com team found that for major news sites, or large content-based sites, the period of recovery can be anywhere from 60-90 days, and that ranking for keywords should stay constant as the site is migrated. Because the migration did not include any site changes (content, layout, major code, etc.) the rankings rebounded in a relatively short period of time. In addition, the new SEF URLs increased the site’s PageRank and keyword ranking, proving that the migration does help site performance.

The Seattle Times company now also has a straightforward plan to continue to increase their rankings for desired keywords and terms, because the mitigation strategy the RoryMartin.com team created can be used at any time to continue to build the site’s authority over its competitors.