A Migration Success Story: How the oldest museum in Australia beats Wikipedia for Position Zero in Google Search
29th of Oct 2020
Analytics & SEO Migration
Australian Museum is the oldest museum in Australia. And with that comes some serious clout. In fact, to prove that point, its largest organic competitor isn’t other museums…it’s Wikipedia. The museum ranks for thousands of high value, short tail keywords, especially for animal related searches.
Australian Museum page results appear for things that the most curious of us search for. Like when you’ve just finished drinking that apple juice, or chewing on that Fantale and want to confirm whether the little factoid at the back of the bottle top or label is for realsies. Or your kids when they’re in the depths of a school assignment. Or you, when you’re so sick of COVID news and you decide it’s time for a new hobby. These curious folks make up 60-70% of total site traffic outside of the homepage.
Even more curious…the most visited landing page?
“Stages of Decomposition”. Gross, but true. Other visitor favourites include deadly snakes, the Drop Bear (the urban legend behind the Koala!) and the bizarre looking Blobfish.
How we came to be involved with Australian Museum
Our initial stroll in the park with the museum, was as part of their first big migration from a custom CMS across to Wagtail (a Django CMS). We worked with Boomworks leading UX and then the smart folks over at Interaction Consortium who led development.
It was a pleasant surprise that the Australian Museum team were so switched on to the importance of both SEO and analytics. They felt the detailed process we presented to them gave a much clearer understanding of exactly how traffic risk was mitigated.
This was more than a token collaboration. Accessing the same Github repo where the backend code was housed provided complete transparency, meaning we could be explicit about our technical requirements, validate implementations and troubleshoot issues. Visibility on the system generated, client side tickets meant we could consolidate priorities.
Two big challenges surfaced during the initial migration:
1. Content Wrangling
There’s a whole role in film production called “Data Wrangling”. Well, when it comes to SEO, sometimes we need to Content Wrangle. The SEO and analytics project had begun while Boomworks and Australian Museum’s internal work continued on the IA, and was rife with complexity: interlinking, cross tree linking and different departments needing to provide input to create the best possible UX. In one particular case there were 40,000 image pages which added significant SEO value, but we needed to find an efficient way to match those legacy pages with the most relevant new page…not a process that made sense to do manually.
Criteria included fuzzy lookups of page title to image file name, alt text, and page title to image captions so we could more easily tie in those associations between new content assets and legacy image assets.
To craft an ideal workflow between multiple organisations we created a spreadsheet that would push data to another sheet where Australian Museum could input their changes live. After all, knowing where Dinosaurs should sit (in their own category…or under extinct animals?!), was a pretty important question!
2. Keeping Top Level Domains In Check
Right around this same time, the new “.museum” top level domain had been released. And of course Australian Museum was chomping at the bit to launch with it. We put a business case together that strongly recommended separating this requirement from the CMS migration project. Ultimately it would have made the process of troubleshooting far more more difficult if traffic were to drop post-cutover. Thankfully, Australian Museum agreed with the process of separating the two and that wise decision ensured that post initial migration, traffic numbers were maintained.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. On June 25th 2020, while the museum was closed for renovations, the .museum TLD migration went ahead. Two weeks later, traffic tanked by 40% within just one week of the cut over. The Aus Museum team reached out for help to troubleshoot. While never a fun scenario for a client to experience, helping solve these kinds of problems is what our beautifully nerdy SEO team brains live for.
So what was the problem?
The issue was that a variety of old domains that Australian Museum owned, were competing with the new one, and the friendly robots at Google were very, very confused:
- Trailing slash to no slash, as well as http to https redirects were creating multiple redirect “hops” or chains – sometimes up to 7 – before reaching the final destination page! As a back end dev, you might care that the request returns a page. As SEOs, we care about anything that could impact organic search rankings and traffic.
- On top of this, a number of hard coded references on the website to old website domains, dev environments and other IP addresses continued to create mixed signals (that is, suggesting that maybe the site was in fact another, less powerful domain – one no longer being used) thereby diluting the awesome power of its 80/100 domain rating.
- Hundreds of links from referring domains (especially from Wikipedia, continued to set off these chains). And Google still follows Wikipedia links as a way of crawling and finding site pages, even if it publicly states that it doesn’t attribute value to those backlinks.*
- When the museum closed for renovations, a range of events pages were removed, resulting in 404s that could have instead had a permanent redirect status applied to better utilise the value those pages had built over time.
The timeline from identification to resolution:
- June 25th 2020: Domain Migration
- The traffic drop started within the first 24 hours
- It bottomed out a week later with daily average down by 60%
- The Australian Museum analytics team reached out two weeks later and our investigations started on July 6th 2020
- We were able to identify the reasons for the drop by July 8th 2020
- We worked with IC and Australian Museum’s hosting company and fixed the bulk of the issues by the end of July 2020
- Traffic began to recover within a few weeks, but because of the competition with Wikipedia, the pre migration peak of “featured snippets” (at the ideal Position 0, versus Position 1), had finally recovered by the end of September 2020.
So in all, it was a three month recovery. Thankfully Australian Museum wasn’t open at the time this occurred so the revenue drop was negligible. We’ve been called on in the past where this isn’t the case and there is a really serious revenue impact – often in the range of 30%-60%. And you can imagine how painful that is. Every instance is different, and understanding the timelines to rectifying traffic loss is beneficial, because most often, there are very few people client-side who have had direct experience with managing the SEO risks and fall out of a migration.
Key actions for high traffic, information heavy sites:
- Have a solid understanding of how redirects will work after the cutover, taking into account any legacy rules. If brought in prior to cutover, we war-game it out to take preventative measures on redirect chains to mitigate risk.
- Crawl the site and understand what you’re linking to (either internally or externally referenced links). Make sure you’re not referencing either old domain properties or old URLs. In Australian Museum’s case they had instances where pages were referencing ausmus.gov.au – a domain they’d previously had that was no longer in use.
- Invest time in link reclamation. For instance, we run backlink audits and compile a baseline list of referring domains using tools such as GSC, Ahrefs and Majestic. Then use URL Profiler to quickly identify good links based on location, type and a range of other considerations to batch, categorise and then identify the top 20% in Domain Authority (DA) to prioritise outreach to (that is, actually contact the sites and get the backlink manually updated by that site owner). In fact, .edu and .gov domains should be included in that process, regardless of DA.
Fortunately, our friends at Aus Museum shared our satisfaction with the outcome.
“I am so thankful to have you on this project – you are awesome!”
Megan Lawrence, Digital Experience Director
“You all know your crafts so well and it just makes things so much more straighter-forward especially when troubleshooting, which is as you know not always the case! It has been an absolute pleasure working with you”
Jen Cork, Senior Analytics Manager
Foresight is a digital consultancy supporting established and emerging brands to grow, scale, demonstrate ROI and flourish sustainably. Foresight partners with high quality web development and UX specialist agencies as critical enablers.
Have a client who is planning a migration, needing growth, or struggling with a post migration traffic drop? Reach out for a chat any time at firstname.lastname@example.org
*While Google repeatedly confirms that there is no link equity for Wikipedia backlinks, often site pages are not found via XML sitemap, they’re often found via a referrer URL. We have seen this via referrers such as Wikipedia and Pinterest. As a result “no follow” backlinks are still important considerations.
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