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Ask a News SEO: Jason Pollack on site migrations
We discuss the importance of having early involvement in the process, communicating success (and failure) and the challenges of merging multiple sites to one domain.
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This week: We’re back with our Ask a News SEO series! We sat down with NBC’s Jason Pollack and talked all about site migration. We discussed the importance of having early involvement in the process, communicating success (and failure) and the challenges of merging multiple sites to one domain.
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Let’s get it.
WTF is SEO?: Your site recently went through a major site migration. How long did that take and what were your priority concerns?
Jason Pollack: Start-to-finish, the entire process took over a year. The idea behind the migration was to address UI/UX issues and revamp the whole design of the site, but we were lucky enough as an SEO team to be looped into the process so early on.
And the first thing we started working on was cleaning up the legacy URL architecture. The old site was using subdomains and we wanted to use this migration effort as an opportunity to reorganize all of our content and pages into more search-friendly subfolders. So we went from something like
After that, we started the redirect mapping process. We were actually merging three sites into one: NBC Sports, NBC Sports Edge, and GolfChannel. (We staggered the migration of Golf Channel due to a major tournament happening, so we’re actually rolling that out as we speak).
But even just the redirect map for just NBC Sports and Edge ended up being a pretty intense undertaking. We used various crawling tools to gather the URLs, which in and of itself was a process. Everything said and done, we probably had spreadsheets of about 4 million unique rows of data. (Which really pushed the limits of Microsoft Excel and my laptop’s RAM.)
After we ingested all the URLs, we really wanted to hone in on all of the highest value search pages that got exported. But first, we had to simply understand which page types were most important and see if we could cleanly divvy up all of these pages into smaller buckets, like grouping all the articles or all the video pages together so we could find easy redirect pathways for our product team to implement.
Then, based off of our initial recommendations on URL structure, we made sure that all of these pages had a proper destination on the new site. Either we recommended the page get pathed over to a brand new URL, which was the case for a lot of our recently published articles for example. Or we determined that a big grouping of older, less linked-to and overall less valuable pages should just return a 404.
But the rest of the pages we mapped over via 301 redirects, and the challenge here was doing this accurately at scale. We obviously had to deal with hundreds of thousands of URLs, and this step was the most crucial to get right because, when done correctly, these directives really go a long way in passing along all the right link equity from your old pages to the new ones. They also ensure that people who stumble upon these old URLs, via backlinks for example, have a good user experience and land on a relevant page. And based on most of our initial reporting coming out of the migration, it seems that Google thinks we did an okay job (which is a relief).
WTF is SEO?: Having search be involved almost immediately — how important was that for this migration, and how important do you think it's going to be going forward?
Jason Pollack: Really, really important.
In my experience, it can be rare to have a strong developer-SEO relationship, especially within a large company. But we were lucky to have partners that trusted us. Actually, we used this project in many ways as a catalyst to an even better working relationship going forward.
We were also lucky to have such a responsive team to partner with, because we would typically hand over deliverables, and then have like six or seven follow-up meetings with them about very specific follow-up questions they had about the recommendations we were making. It was a lot of back-and-forth, but that’s really why for us it was so important to be involved early on in the process.
They would hand over the design mock-ups to us and so we were even able to identify things that we might have wanted on the page, or features we knew we wanted to optimize around. I think that was really key to the success that we're seeing now with this new optimized site.
The biggest example of this was us identifying that we needed a live blog page type within the new CMS. Previously, our editorial teams were publishing live blogs under the normal page type, which obviously didn’t make for the most effective or smoothest user experience. Because of that, Google wasn’t really ranking these blogs competitively. We also couldn’t implement the proper schema to indicate to Google that the post was being regularly updated — and we weren’t getting the red Live badge in any SERPs that we did end up ranking on.
So, building a custom live blog page type within our CMS was crucial, and our editorial teams were really excited about it. The new format makes it really easy for them to build, edit, embed and publish quickly. And that’s a direct result of our early involvement in the process. We knew from the get-go that this was really important element to prioritize from an editorial SEO point-of-view for any sports news site. So this was a big win.
WTF is SEO?: What is your process when something goes wrong?
Jason Pollack: We’re lucky, we really didn’t deal with many major issues. To be honest, I’m not sure we really discussed what the plan was if something did go horribly wrong during the rollout and a fire broke it. I assume it would have just been a very hectic back-and-forth on Slack or Microsoft Teams.
Of course, it’s not like everything went exactly according to plan, either. We have definitely observed some ranking drops already in keyword groups we consider very important. We knew going in that Google might get a little confused, just given the sheer size of the website. So, we communicated these kinds of losses to our stakeholders and now we’re trying to offer up some explanations of what we think is going on.
Because we were rolling multiple sites into one, and multiple sites with similar types of pages, we think that opened the door for Google to interpret instances of duplicate pages, or landing pages that target the same keywords. So to prevent cannibalization and even more keyword losses, we made some recommendations that will start to differentiate these pages a little further — and we’re already seeing some traction in the right direction.
Another thing that didn’t go exactly according to plan was the rollout for certain page types. The product team staggered the migration in different stages, and we noticed that we dropped off a cliff for some important keyword groups because we suddenly didn’t have an offering on our website anymore. This is a lesson learned for us. In future migrations involving a large number of pages, we should prioritize the migration of the most important page categories.
WTF is SEO?: What is one thing you wish you knew when you started in the news SEO world?
Jason Pollack: How different it is from the task of SEOs who are much more focused on tracking organic rank. I don't really look at rank tracking unless it's within the context of the Google news ecosystem and I think that was a pretty drastic shift from the traditional types of reporting that I was trained to care about early on in my career. Really, it’s about visibility and share-of-voice for a select period of time around the major tentpole events on the sports calendar.
I used to think the biggest challenge for all of us working in the industry was in the daily grind of steadily climbing up the search results page, like from page eight to position one. And while there’s still an element of truth to this, results pages have changed so much now. There’s just a much bigger emphasis on incorporating new SERP features for each and every query, and with the emergence of AI and SGE, this is only becoming more and more apparent. I think it’s going to be a challenge for all SEOs, not just those of us in the news world, to start shifting their attention to optimizing their content in different ways than the traditional way of doing things.
Thinking back on it, I really had no idea how different SERPs would look now. And there’s a good chance that in a year’s time, Google is going to look unrecognizable. They could finally move away from the “10 blue links,” which has been the foundation of search — and really the whole internet — for such a long time now. Only time will tell, but it’s definitely a very exciting time to be in SEO, and specifically within news SEO — where a lot of this change is already underway.
WTF is SEO?: What's the thing that you remind yourself of when you're dealing with the chaotic environment that is news SEO?
Jason Pollack: That it's not about winning every time. It's really hard to win the news box on most Top Stories carousels, and even when you do, you’re generally only in there for few hours before you get bumped.
I still think rank tracking can be a really valuable KPI to report on for some of our more evergreen pieces of content, but I try not to focus on winning every SERP. Instead I zoom out, and try to define success using metrics like visibility or share-of-voice over the course of a larger period of time, maybe over the course of a week, or weekend.
Working in news SEO, or news in general, you can get pretty swept up in fast-moving news cycles. So whenever things get a little too chaotic, I remind myself that it’s more important to take things day-by-day, event-by-event and even season-by-season. That definitely helps deal with ups-and-downs of working in this industry, but it also helps tell a better story. I try to approach reporting on performance in as broad terms as possible and that approach really helps me start to see the bigger picture a little better, and not lose sight of the forest for the trees.
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