Minimizing SEO Impacts When Re-platforming An E-commerce Store

From Volusion to BigCommerce to Magento and more recently Shopify, a shift in e-commerce platform dominance is witnessed. During this shift, e-commerce merchants are faced with the major issue of potentially losing their organic search rankings.

The impact of organic search rankings is the single most point of failure resulting in the dire consequence of a crippled business. I have seen it happen before where an online business earning low 7 figures in revenue per year went bankrupt just because URL redirects were not handled correctly and they lost the bulk of their organic search traffic. Since it is rare that any two migrations are the same, it is important to understand the process of managing redirects during a site re-platform.

In fact, here are the results of a recent botched job back from October last year where an e-commerce agency was hired to complete a site re-platform from BigCommerce to Shopify. As you can see there was a significant drop in daily impressions a few months after the re-platform.

Ref: Screenshot of organic impressions from Google Search Console for merchant based in Guelph, ON

Initially, one would think switching platforms is easy. Providing you keep all the pages nothing should break. Though in theory that is true, in practice some e-commerce platforms like Shopify have a URL pattern that must be followed. This makes it very unlikely that an e-commerce merchant can keep the same URL structure from one e-commerce platform to another.

URL redirects allow visitors to access the same content on their new e-commerce platform. Behind the scenes the redirects will direct search engines to the correct new page and tell them there is no error. Ideally, there is a 1–1 mapping using permanent 301 redirects to prevent redirect chains where a web visitor is redirected multiple times before arriving at the final destination page.

By finding a solution to handle site URL redirects, we can reduce the number of 404 page errors and maintain organic search rankings when re-platforming an e-commerce store.

Current Workflow

Before we jump into possible solutions, let’s look at the current workflow of your average non-technical merchant.

  1. Move all products over
  2. Don’t add any redirects
  3. Let search engines re-index your entire website

The major issue with this approach is that merchants may never be able to get to the same rankings they were prior to the migration. There may also be significant loss of revenue during this recalibration period where search engines learn about their new site. The other downside of this approach is when third-party websites link to specific web pages that have been moved to a new URL during the migration. All that external traffic comes to a halt.

Requirements For Improvements

There are a few possible situations we should consider:

  • Orphan pages — where a page is not linked to any other parts of the site and the only way to arrive at an orphan page is a direct link.
  • Existing URL redirects on the current site
  • Possible site changes during the migration such as removal of a product page
  • PDFs or images of size charts linked within product descriptions
  • Static pages such as a gallery page, about us, contact, privacy policy, etc.

Though I will not do a side-by-side comparison between the different migration techniques, each requirement is considered for each technique when determining the recommendation.

Migration Technique #1: Manually Add URL Redirects

This technique is when a merchant pulls a sitemap of their existing site prior to the re-platform and then maps each one individually to the corresponding URL on their new site. This is an exhaustive approach that is prone to human-error. The upside of this approach is of course each URL can be manually examined to determine the best possible mapping.

Being that the sitemap is the source for all the existing URLs any orphan pages (that is any pages that are not linked to any other parts of the site) will not be mapped resulting in a “404 page not found” once the re-platform is complete. Orphan pages are quite common for e-commerce sites that do marketing campaigns and have secret landing pages that are not hosted on a separate subdomain.

The second problem is links to pages only found within page content such as instructional guides for each product. This is especially true for fashion, apparel and electronic brands where there are size charts or PDF downloadables.

To improve the number of URLs pulled from an existing website some developers have recommended the use of a site bot (such as Screaming Frog) or scraping a search engine for URLs. You can even use a Chrome extension called scraper to scrape the top 1000 indexed URLs found in Google. Even though bots would be able to detect size charts or informational PDFs linked within product descriptions they would still be unable to detect orphan pages.

The process of manually mapping URLs during a site migration is great for accuracy but cannot guarantee a 100% success rate of fetching all URLs from a website.

The one app I highly recommend for merchants re-platforming to Shopify is called Easy Redirects by Eastside Co. It allows merchants to easily upload a CSV file with URL mappings instead of manually uploading URLs one-by-one through the Shopify admin interface.

Migration Technique #2: Cart API Migration Service

In most cases, this technique leads to fewer “404 page not found” errors than manually mapping URLs, however the accuracy of mappings cannot be guaranteed. This is especially true when a merchant decides to restructure their website prior to launching the version on the new platform.

Cart migration services such as Cart2Cart or nChannel can cost a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars and typically take 72 hours to complete depending on the total number of URLs. Such services will use the APIs of both the existing and the new e-commerce platform to enter the URL redirects. This is very safe and will not result in human-error.

The main disadvantage of this approach is not every web page is accessible through an API; for example, blog posts, account register pages and even static pages such as About Us. Therefore, the manual process of mapping those inaccessible URLs after a cart migration service is still used for the URL redirects to be complete.

I recommend this technique for merchants who do not have a blog, no more than 50 static pages, a non-complex site in terms of navigation and are not planning to restructure the main navigation of their new website.

Migration Technique #3: Auto-Add URL Redirects

This technique can be the riskiest if not implemented correctly. However, it can be the most powerful to maintain rankings as no URL will lead to a 404 page more than once. If someone visits a webpage that is not mapped correctly it will result in a 404 page. Once that 404 page is detected, a third-party app will loop through all the available pages it is aware of through the API and make its best guess at mapping the URL to the correct page by adding a URL redirect. Though this is great it comes with two potential disadvantages.

The first disadvantage is that the API doesn’t have access to all of the webpages and therefore it may not make the best guess but rather the best guess based on the webpages it knows about. This results in many webpages being mapped to the homepage. The second disadvantage is that the merchant will have to manually go in and fix the URL mapping once they have a chance to review the redirects implemented by the application.

This real-time 404 repairing works by having an app that has a lookup table of all the page URL handles, page titles, meta information and product SKU number. Whichever page has the highest match it then automatically adds the URL redirect. If there is no page that has at least a 50% match the app will then map that page to the homepage as a default. Such an app can then log errors and the mappings that were automatically added by the app so a merchant can then overwrite them if they wish in the future.

There are two such apps that work wonders for Shopify stores, SEO Manager by venntov and Transportr. They allow merchants to import 404 Logs from Google Search Console and so they can view how site visitors are accessing a broken page and how often.

Ref: View from inside the Transportr Redirect Management application

In the case of our botched job, it will take several additional months before a cleanup is fully complete. A quick look at the Crawl Errors within Google Search Console we can see new URL errors are being detected every day:

Ref: Screenshot of URL Errors from Google Search Console for merchant based in Guelph, ON

The worst part is each of these URL Errors have to be manually fixed one-by-one. A very tedious and time-consuming process I don’t wish upon anyone.

Conclusion

I would recommend most e-commerce merchants use an automated service in addition to a bot to fetch URLs. This would be able to fetch majority of the high traffic URLs. After that, I would recommend merchants use an app such as Transportr to not only detect 404 errors but fix them with a best guess. Merchants can then review the auto-mapped URLs and improve the mappings if they feel they could do a better job. The thought process around this hybrid solution is that having a URL redirect in place is better than not having one at all. Though, it is understood merchants should spend the time to improve and update URL redirects on high traffic pages to provide the best experience for potential customers who visit their website.

There are some additional tools such as Google Analytics and Google Search Console to assist with finding orphan pages and even missing redirects once the migration is complete. However, they are much more powerful at finding issues if they are correctly setup and configured at least 30 days prior to the re-platform is started. This allows a merchant’s current impression and click counts to be tracked. It will also indicate whether search engine updates that negatively impact organic rankings coincide with the re-platform.

Merchants can then use Google Analytics to compare organic search traffic and bounce rate from before and after the migration to potentially find incorrectly mapped URLs. During a re-platform it is also a good idea to check URLs used in other marketing initiatives such as Google AdWords and email marketing campaigns.

From my experience a typical drop of 5–10% in organic traffic for the first month is considered normal as search engines re-analyze a merchant’s new site. If you are within that range I would say the re-platform from an SEO point of view was a success.

Lastly, I recommend merchants resubmit their new sitemap to Google Search Console to assist Google in re-indexing their new site. It takes several months for all of a merchant’s web pages to be indexed. As long as the percentage of web pages indexed continues to increase they are on the right track.

Ref: Screenshot of Sitemap Web pages indexed from Google Search Console for merchant based in Guelph, ON

Note: Two parts of this URL redirect process I decided to leave out of this discussion was redirect chains and existing redirects from an even older re-platform. This is another reason why it is so important to set up proper analytic tracking prior to a re-platform project begins.

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