How to screw up your e-commerce site when re-platforming

This article is a write up of my BrightonSEO talk in September 2023, which you can also see on the YouTube video above.

So, first things first, this is what the article will cover:

  1. Why businesses re-platform
  2. Why Businesses fuck them up
  3. How do we prevent them from going wrong

Why do businesses re-platform?

In my experience, businesses will need to re-platform for one or more of these reasons.

There’s a lack of marketing control

In many cases, I have encountered instances where the marketing team has very little control over the key marketing pages of their company website as the product team owns it, or the pages themselves are hard coded, and change requests can take weeks.

I’ve worked with many clients where the marketing team needs to re-platform to take control of the marketing side of the website.

Lack of functionality

Sometimes, it could be down to a website that does not function as it needs to as the reason that a re-platform is needed.

Outdated technology

The technology behind the website or CMS may be outdated and needs to be brought up to date. For example, an e-commerce website on Magento 1 would be unsupported, on old technology, and would be required to migrate to Magento 2.

Old/poor implementation

It’s possible that the website was created 5-10 years ago, and it needs a massive refresh. Or the implementation of the website no longer meets best practice standards due to its age.

Has outgrown the technology/software

Another reason could be that the business has outgrown the website/cms it currently uses and needs to re-platform to meet its growth targets.

New management wants change

This is something that I have come across often. Either you have a company acquisition or a new marketing manager comes on board. This often results in them wanting to use a CMS that they are more comfortable with and results in a website re-platform.

Wants to re-brand

Lastly, it could be that the company is going through a major re-brand, and as part of this, there is a requirement to re-platform to meet the needs of that re-brand.

Why do businesses fuck them up?

Now we’ve been over the basics around why businesses need to re-platform in the first place, it’s important to understand now how easy it is to fuck up a re-platform project, resulting in a detrimental effect on a business’s organic traffic and revenue.

First, I want to show you some examples of businesses I have been involved with to some extent where the re-platform did not go well.

Example 1

This example shows an e-commerce business in the plumbing trade industry.

I have overlaid the year-on-year comparison to show the effect the re-platform had on their organic clicks. You can see there that after 12th June 2023, organic clicks took a sharp decline and have not recovered to the previous year’s clicks.

In this instance, we had a situation where in 2022, the company was acquired, and over the course of 12 months, they decided to remove the existing marketing and development team, including all of their external contracts, and move the website under their existing marketing and development teams, resulting in a website re-platform onto the technology that their other business used.

The major risk they made here is that URL file name and file paths were not kept the same, and many re-directs were not implemented.

Example 2

This next example is from an online soft furnishings brand.

This brand re-platformed in February 2022, but it took them over a year to decide to take action on the decline in organic performance by hiring an SEO agency. This decline was mainly due to tech issues within the implementation that had no SEO foresight. This is a classic example of the business or web developers not thinking they need SEO for the re-platform project.

This is actually a new client for the agency I work at and having just onboarded them in the last few months, we’re not yet at that recovery/growth phase.

Example 3

The third example is an e-commerce business that specialises in fragrances.

Similarly to the previous example, this re-platform went live in March 2022, and it took them until December to engage with SEO agencies to help recover their losses. The reasons behind the decline in organic visibility and traffic were a mixture of technical SEO issues and poor implementation of fundamental metadata.

Despite pitching for this client, my agency lost out on price in December 2022, and we can see that they still not not seen any recovery 9 months later.

Example 4

The last example is an active client within my agency where not only have they done a site re-platform, but they have done a top-level domain change from .co.uk to .com at the same time.

As a result of doing the top level domain change and the re-platform at the same time, they have lost over half of their traffic since the re-platform went live in June.

Further to this, the business were reluctant to give our SEO team the relevant access required to fully test the site before it went live, resulting in a rush once live to find and fix the many issues we came across. This is a good example of a business thinking they have the SEO covered.

What are the main things all these businesses have in common?

Almost always, there are similar reasons as to why re-platforming your website fucks up. These are:

  • URL changes – For example, if you migrate from Magento to Shopify (pr vice versa) this will force URL changes as Shopify is quite restrictive in how you can have your file names and file paths.
  • Content changes or missing content – Often, we see businesses not realising the importance of the content that’s already there and remove or prune large sections of it. Or they’ll miss content altogether.
  • Removal of internal linking – Similar to the above, removal of internal linking due to the lack of understanding of its importance is something that is quite common.
  • Changes to site structure
  • Poor implementation of redirects – Or, quite simply, the re-directs were poorly managed or forgotten about completely.

As part of my preparation for my talk, I also wanted to find out what SEO’s biggest challenges were when working on site re-platforms.

Over a third said that “SEO is always an afterthought”, whilst just under a third said that it’s a “Lack of understanding” the business has that is the most challenging. A quarter of SEOs believed the business “ignoring their advice” was the most challenging, whilst just under 10 per cent felt that the business not thinking they needed an SEO was the most challenging.

It’s no real surprise then that SEO’s see website migrations or re-platforms as an SEOs worst nightmare.

Darth Autocrat (Lyndon) puts this quote well when discussing his SEO nightmares on Twitter/X.

So we can summarise some of an SEO’s worst nightmares when it comes to re-platforming being:

  • SEO is an afterthought
  • SEO is brought in too late into the project
  • Businesses believe that they don’t need SEO
  • Or businesses ignoring the advice of SEOs

But that’s not even the number 1 issue! 

The number one issue that I experience when working with e-commerce businesses with site re-platorms is the lack of understanding within the business itself as to why SEO need to be heavily involved.
Business owners often do not understand the negative impact a poorly managed site re-platform can have on their organic visibility and revenue.

Andy Frobisher

During re-platform projects, huge amounts are often invested in areas such as Design, UX, and Development, but this is not replicated in SEO. SEO is always a much, much lower investment or a complete afterthought.

However, in my experience “the higher your clients budget, the more likely they are to understand the importance of an SEO focused re-platform”.

But why is this the case?

Generally speaking, the more money a client invests in their SEO, the greater they will understand and focus on ROI.
It’s this focus on ROI that drives e-commerce businesses to treat SEO seriously during a website re-platform.

Andy Frobisher

So how do we prevent these from going wrong?

Even with any client budget, you can follow this one piece of advice when it comes to working on a re-platform project.

As SEO’s, we should own the project management of all e-commerce website re-platforms and migrations.
Businesses want to see an ROI from their investment, so make sure an SEO is running the project.

Andy Frobisher

This is an example of a re-platform project I at Digitaloft was recently involved in:

As you can see, this was a very successful re-platform / migration. This compnay was an online vehincle insurance provider and they re-platformed from a bespoke system to WordPress.

For this project, we took ownership of this from start to finish.

What did we do?

  • Provided forecasting which included best and worst case scenarios
  • Client understood the importance of ROI
  • Took ownership of the project management
  • Built a robust project roadmap & SEO checklist
  • Ensured everyone knew their roles in the project & what they were responsible for
  • Ensured that URL & content changes were kept to an absolute minimum

The outcome: The largest month on month growth in sessions the month the re-platform went live.

Wrap up

So to wrap up what we’ve been through in this article:

  • Don’t let SEO be an oversight – Make sure you have an SEO at the table for the re-platform project from the start.
  • Invest in SEO when running an e-commerce website re-platform project – Don’t let the investment in SEO be a fraction of the investment in other areas of the website. SEO is just as important to e-commerce businesses.
  • SEO’s should think and act like a project manager – Work and think like a project manager and make sure you plan and deliver a project plan with key milestones.
  • Keep changes to a minimum – The less you need to change, the lower the risks.
    • Keep URL FilePath and FileNames the same
    • Try and keep content the same
    • Keep internal links the same

My top tips

And finally, here are my top tips to take away to consider when running your own re-platform project.

I don’t recommend re-designing or changing domain at the same time – The more you change at once, the bigger the risks are of losing organic traffic, rankings, and revenue.

Do one thing at a time (e.g. replatform then re-design) – Rise-platform, let that settle, and then consider the re-design. This minimises the risks.

Crawl logs are your best friend – Make sure you have crawls for each key milestone. For example, run crawls on the live site at the start of the project, a crawl of the test site once it’a available, again before go live, and then once live. This way you have a clear change log where you can find and fix issues before they actually become an issue.

Educate the business and other partners on the importance of SEO as much as possible – Even if you’re not going through a re-platform process right now, make sure when you have touch points with your clients provide insights with whats happening in SEO, Google updates, and the latest trends. Showcase that you’re the expert and when they come to re-platform they’re more likely to think of and come to you first.

It’s not always going to be 100% perfect and that’s ok – It’s all about minimising the known SEO risks. So if there’s a genuine business case of why a business has to re-platform, and that carries more risks than you’d be naturally comfortable with, thats okay. Just manage and minimise those risks as much as is realistically possible.