How to maintain organic performance when merging multiple websites
Migrations and mergers can be unpredictable. Here's how to identify and prioritize your most valuable pages for your new site.
Developing a new organizational structure when merging two or more businesses is a complicated affair, but if your new business is going to rely on its website to drive sales, leads or audience engagement, then defining a website structure that preserves and builds upon the performance of any existing websites that the merging parties own should be a top priority. With that in mind, creating a sitemap that draws on the strengths of the current websites will help to give the new business/brand the initial visibility it needs in order to be successful.
Over the years, I have managed many website migrations, but in the past year, I have had the opportunity to manage the successful migration of a merger of three different businesses/websites into one new website. In fact, I have been lucky enough to successfully manage this scenario twice in the past year and I’ve learned a lot in the process. By cherry-picking the most valuable pages to develop the sitemap, one project resulted in the website retaining nearly 100% of the traffic the previous domains were getting (there was some loss where previous services became irrelevant and therefore pages were removed), and the other project resulted in the website increasing traffic levels post-migration. For what was essentially two entirely new brands, this gave them a hell of a head start when entering their respective markets.
While the migration strategy involves a lot more than just structuring a sitemap, when it comes to mergers this is a particular area of importance, and it needs the appropriate level of analysis to ensure the migration is a success. Get this part right and the new website will be well on its way to retaining and even improving upon the performance of the merging sites.
What should you look for when structuring the new sitemap?
So, what exactly qualifies as a “valuable” existing page, and which pages are we looking to retain? This may look different from website to website, but as a general rule of thumb, I look at the following:
Traffic drivers. Pages that are already driving a lot of traffic to the existing websites are obviously going to be important, particularly pages that are driving traffic that is still relevant to the new business’s offering. Even if the high traffic-driving pages are slightly less relevant (but not completely irrelevant) to the new business’s offering, it might be worth keeping them to help build brand awareness in the early days. This won’t work for services/products that are no longer offered, but for loosely related blog topics etc. it can be a good brand builder to keep that traffic flowing through the site.
Convertors. Pages with a high number of conversions/conversion rate should be considered, as long as what users were converting for is still relevant to the new business. These pages can keep the sales/inquiries etc. rolling in whilst the site builds its rankings/visibility up in other areas.
Ranking pages. The new site will likely have a target keyword list, but your current sites might already be ranking for some of those keywords. Finding pages that rank for valuable keywords, whether they have high search volumes or not (maybe they don’t drive a lot of traffic, but they attract the RIGHT traffic that converts) and whether they have high rankings or not (if a page ranks position 36 for a target keyword, it can be developed and improved to rank better, rather than trying to start completely from scratch) will be an important part of the strategy.
Pages with backlinks. Backlinks are a big part of what strengthens a domain over time, so if you don’t bring across pages that have backlinks, then the new site will be missing out on all of that potential authority-building goodness. This gives the new site a shortcut to quickly building a healthy backlink profile.
Priority page supporters. Some pages may appear to have no value as they get no traffic, conversions, rankings or backlinks, but they might be the supporting architecture helping to hold up the rankings of other pages. Relevant and high-quality content which links to priority pages that are already ranking should be retained where possible to ensure the priority page’s rankings don’t crumble because the architecture has been deconstructed.
New business offering/priorities. Of course, the sitemap needs to look to the future, and not just to the past, so any new offerings or priorities for the newly formed business will need to be considered within the sitemap, and pages will need to be built out within the proposed architecture to cater for these new offerings.
How do we find these pages in order to add them to the sitemap?
So, now that we know what we are looking for, how are we going to go about finding these pages? The following audit process pulls together data from multiple sources and analyses each page on the existing sites to discover whether any of them qualify as a “page of value” for the new site once the merger/migration is complete.
1. Keyword audit:
Pages of value discovered: Ranking pages and New business offering/priorities
Tools used: Semrush (or similar tool)
The first step is to conduct keyword research based on the offering of the new website. At this point, we are looking for relevant keywords for every product, service and user intention, as well as local variations of “[keyword] + [location]” if appropriate. If using Semrush, you can then add that keyword list to a new rank tracking project, and add all three (or more/less, depending on the merger) existing domains to that project. That way, you are able to see which pages on which domains currently rank best for each keyword, as you might find that more than one domain ranks for some of the target keywords. Pick the highest-ranking pages for each keyword (you might want to set a limit for what is an acceptable ranking to try and retain, e.g., position 40 or better) and add them to the sitemap if they seem like a good match for the new business and can be optimized/improved going forward. If the ranking for a keyword is too low, it might be better just to start from scratch when targeting that particular keyword.
2. Content performance audit:
Pages of value discovered: Traffic drivers and Convertors
Tools used: Google Analytics (or similar platform)
Next is the content performance audit, where we look to discover pages that are driving traffic and/or conversions deemed valuable to the business going forward. Most website owners will be keen to retain as much of their current traffic as possible, and as long as it is still relevant, then high traffic/conversion driving pages should be kept.
Using Google Analytics, filter by organic traffic and look back at a specific timeframe (I usually look at the past year). Go to the Behavior > Site Content > Landing Pages report and sort by “Sessions” (descending). At this point, you need to set a limit for how many organic landing sessions a page should have had in the past year to be deemed valuable. This might be a specific number of sessions or just a percentage of the traffic overall. The limit will vary from website to website. Pull together a list of all the pages that are over that threshold and sense check them to ensure they are still relevant to the new business offering.
Next, you’ll filter that same list by Goal Completions or Revenue, depending on whether it’s an ecommerce site or not. Again, you’ll need to set a limit as to how many conversions / how much revenue is deemed valuable, and keep those pages that are driving a high number of conversions. You can also look at pages with high conversion rates, but be sure that there is enough traffic going to the page to make an informed decision about whether the conversion rate is actually good or not (e.g., one session at a 100% conversion rate could be a fluke, but if you have thousands of pages like this, it does add up, so again, decisions are made on a case by case basis).
3. Content architecture audit:
Pages of value discovered: Priority page supporters
Tools used: Screaming Frog (or similar)
At this point, you should have an understanding of which pages are performing well on the website, whether it’s through rankings, traffic or conversions, and you should also know which pages/services/products are going to be a priority going forward for the business.
Using Screaming Frog, crawl each website. You’ll then need to find the landing pages that are deemed a priority by searching for them in the “Search” box. In the bottom navigation menu, you can then click on “Inlinks.” This will show you all of the pages that are linking internally to the priority page and may be supporting its success. Keep in mind that if your priority page is in the footer or main navigation, every page on the site will likely link to it, so this gives you an idea of where that page should sit within your sitemap hierarchy.
Of particular importance are any pages that are linking internally to the priority page using keyword-optimized anchor text, but other internal links may be helping too. At this point, you need to look through the list of internal linking pages, decide which ones are still relevant, and keep them in the sitemap if possible.
4. Backlink audit:
Pages of value discovered: Pages with backlinks
Tools used: Majestic SEO (or similar)
Next, we need to try and retain any pages that have strong, authoritative backlinks pointing to them. The best way to retain the value from the backlink is to replicate the page on the new site and redirect it appropriately. Later down the line you can then contact the owners of the site linking to that page and ask them to update it to the new domain.
Using Majestic SEO, search each of your domains, and filter by “Root Domain.” That way, you can see all of the backlinks across your site. Then, head to the “Backlinks” tab and export the data (ideally, you will look at “All backlinks per domain,” as this will show you if you have multiple pages being linked to from a single domain, but you may hit a limit on how many you can download, depending on your subscription). If there are less than 5,000 backlinks on your site, you can go ahead and export the data, but if you have more than this, you will need to create and download an Advanced Report.
Once you have exported your data, you can sort by “TargetURL,” which will give you an understanding of which pages have the most backlinks and are a higher priority to keep. Majestic SEO has “TrustFlow” and “CitationFlow” scores which will give you an indication of the quality of those backlinks. Depending on the size/quality of the backlink profile, you may again need to set a limit on the quantity/quality of backlinks you want to retain and add those pages with high quantity/quality of backlinks to your sitemap.
5. Defining the information architecture:
Now that you know which historic pages hold SEO value, you need to define the information architecture in order to better enable crawling and indexing of priority pages. The safest way to migrate pages and retain their value is to keep URL structures as they are, but this most likely won’t be possible when bringing multiple sites together, so you’ll need to consider two things. One, is the priorities for the new business, i.e., which pages are going to represent the main offering, and two is the performance of any existing pages on the old domains that represent those offerings.
If one of the existing sites is performing much better in terms of rankings, traffic and conversions than the other sites, and you are bringing across multiple pages from that domain, it makes sense to try and maintain that URL structure, if possible, and then replicate that across any similar pages coming from the other domains. Migrations do present an opportunity to improve URL structure, but as previously mentioned, the safest bet is to maintain current structures and not deepen the crawl depth/folder level of priority pages if possible.
Simply put, your top performers/priority pages need to sit at the top of the information architecture, and maintain as much of their current URL structure as possible. You can visualize your new sitemap and information architecture, and also ensure you have a spreadsheet that details all of the information you have discovered during this audit process for each page so that you, your client or your boss can see the justification behind each page.
Defining the sitemap/information architecture using any existing data is only one step in the migration process, but it is without a doubt one of the most important steps as it can lead to retained traffic, rankings, conversions and brand presence in the SERPs. That doesn’t mean you can then ignore the technical setup, landing page design, content optimization or any of the other factors that go into a successful migration, but for business mergers, this is one of the best places to start.
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