Like it or not, your website will likely go through a migration at some point.
Whether you’re changing domains, rebranding, or making substantial changes to the structure of your website, a migration is a must, and doing it the right way is paramount to minimize any ranking disruptions that can affect your bottom line.
Just as moving to a new home can be an intense process, so can a website migration, but if you plan ahead and work with an experienced team, you can migrate all of the content, links, search rankings, and metadata with minimal disruption and see positive gains in only a matter of weeks. The purpose of this guide is to provide an overview of the website migration process from an SEO perspective. While not a fully-exhaustive technical instruction manual, you should come away with a better understanding of website migration, why it’s essential for revenue growth, search rankings, and visibility, and the various steps and stages involved to pull it off with success.
What is a site migration?
A site migration is a broad term used to describe significant changes to a website that can have effects on the site’s search engine visibility. From an SEO perspective, a website migration must be carefully considered and not something to undertake on a whim.
Companies choose to migrate their website for a few different reasons such as rebranding, switching domains or subdomains, changing platforms, updating content or adding or removing entire pages. All of these can affect the way search engines crawl and index the site, and if a migration is rushed, the site could experience significant disruptions, losing rankings and traffic, and it can sometimes take months to recover. For this reason, before you begin your migration, you need a plan and approach the project like you would any large-scale endeavor with a clear set of stages, and every step mapped out on a timeline.
Although a website migration is a considerable undertaking, breaking the process up into clear stages will make it seem less daunting, and you can make sure you cover all of your bases and don’t miss a step. While every migration will be different, these are the typical stages most companies follow in their project.
Why are you migrating your platform? Understanding the purpose behind the project first will help you determine how you’ll get it done. During the Strategy and Scope phase, you’ll put the project in perspective and evaluate where your primary focus should be and any issues or opportunities you should address during the move.
Identify Opportunities and Risks
Because website migrations are complex and feature many different variables and moving parts, there’s a lot that can potentially go wrong, and if you fail to address these risks, you’ll inevitably encounter them without a plan in place to mitigate them. From lost traffic to lower rankings and less revenue, the list of potential hazards of a poorly executed migration is endless.
On the flip side, because a migration is complex, you have a chance to address other site issues that you’ve put off for far too long. More times than not, companies find that a migration is the perfect opportunity to fix legacy issues such as updating outdated URL structures, correcting old redirects, sorting through and consolidating subdomains, and more.
Set Objectives and Goals
Along with opportunities and risks associated with the project, you need to determine the goals of your migration. What do you hope to accomplish? What would a successful migration look like and how will it help your business online? Communicate your goals and objectives with all relevant stakeholders to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Prepare Your Plan
Before you can begin development, you need a plan laying out the entire scope of the project. List every phase of the project with dedicated tasks assigned to their respective owners (SEO Consultant, UX Consultant, Web Developer, Content Editor, etc.) along with clear due dates to keep the project moving forward without missing any crucial steps (hint: every step is critical).
TIP: Never launch a new site just before or during a peak period of business as traffic fluctuations are bound to happen and losing traffic during the peak season can hurt your revenue. In an ideal world, every site migration project will go according to plan, but this is rarely the case, so add in some wiggle room, so you avoid running behind schedule.
With the big picture of your migration in perspective, now it’s time to strategize to make sure that the project hits your goals and meets your projected timeline. The pre-launch phases are the most important because they can impact how well your site performs once you’ve launched so take your time and ensure you’re hitting all of these points.
Review SEO & Best Practices
If you’re like most, you want to not only maintain but boost your site’s SEO value after the migration. To do this, your website and content must be on point, following the latest and best SEO practices. Audit your site and check for any existing or potential SEO or UX issues at this early stage. You can’t fix what you aren’t aware of, so make sure to check and double check the content on your site and any proposed changes to the copy or design.
Compile and provide all of these SEO changes and requirements into an SEO Specification document for your web developers. To speed up the process and avoid any mistakes, write this document with actions in mind. You want it to be easy for them to understand and implement these suggestions and requirements rather than deciphering what they need to do based on broad ideas and explanations.
Identify Priority Pages
Your priority pages – the pages that drive the most traffic to the current site, have the most links, or convert the best – are critical to the success of your migration. If you forget to transfer these pages or fail to do it correctly, you could negatively affect your site’s search rankings.
You can check within your Google Analytics or Google Search Console to identify your priority pages based on the following:
Identify which pages have the highest values in these categories and ensure they exist on the new site. If your URL structure is changing, you will need to place a 301 redirect to prevent major indexing issues once you migrate your site.
Identify Current Rankings
When checking your rankings after launch, it’s challenging to determine if the migration went well if you don’t have a pre-migration ranking report. A final ranking report of the current site a week or so before launch will provide more insight into the success or missteps post-migration. Without it, you won’t have a basis to compare the new site’s ranking to.
Also, your current rankings report will help you diagnose any problem areas of the current site along with any underperforming pages that need special attention during the migration process.
Review the Staging Environment
Before you make the new site available in a staging environment, ensure that search engines cannot index it. You can either make the site only available for specific IP addresses, password protect the staging area, or edit the robots.txt file to prevent search engines from crawling the site’s page.
Once the new site is finished in the staging environment, you can start moving forward with quality assurance and testing of the site to see where it stands as well as uncover potential issues or new opportunities to address before the launch phase.
Review All Pages & Templates
Using a crawling tool, go through the entire new site and map all pages and templates and compile them into a list. You’ll want to pay special attention to any duplicate pages or duplicate URLs to ensure they don’t transfer over as this can hurt SEO for the new site. Also, find orphan pages that no other pages link to and make sure to link to them during the migration process.
Review All Content
Now is an excellent time to ensure that your website content is aligned with your SEO and migration strategy. Consider the keywords that you’re ranking for along with the keywords that you’re working towards – what can you do to improve?
Consider the pages with the highest SEO value and make sure they’re included in the migration. Additionally, if you’re adding new pages or editing the content on a page, refer to the latest SEO best practices and make sure that you’re optimizing these pages and content accordingly.
Your review isn’t just limited to text on the page as search engine crawlers look at your images as well. To ensure that they’re SEO-friendly, you need to check the file name includes keywords and accurately depicts what the image is, optimize your alt text, and make sure that traffic-driving images and videos from the legacy site are moved over to the new site.
Review Internal Links
As you’re mapping out the pages on your site, you’ll want to review any and all internal links so you can map and transfer them during the migration. Check for any broken links or 404 redirects and either remove or replace them during the migration. Keep in mind that while a website crawl can effectively find most pages, it won’t always find all of them, specifically orphan pages without internal links.
Check your internal records and databases for complete lists of website pages and also look at your Google Analytics to view the pages of your website to see if any are missing from the crawl.
Test and Test again
This is a good time to test all of your forms or other types of functionality on your site. Check how the CSS responds to different devices and see if there are any issues. For testing, it’s best practice to view your new site in many different browsers on many different devices to cover all types of uses.
At this stage, its also a great time to test your contact forms and any other functionalities. Test validation errors or when/how it breaks to prevent visitors from doing the same.
With your website content checked and optimized for SEO, now it’s time to dive into the technical details of your site to make it more SEO-friendly as well.
Before launch, make sure that you check, establish, and optimize the following:
The day is finally here, and it’s time to load the digital moving van and launch your new digital home. On launch day, it’s an all-hands-on-deck process and depending on the size of your website, the number of pages, or the scope of the project, it could take several hours.
Launch day activities include migrating your metadata, mapping out redirects, and creating and testing multiple site functions to ensure Google and other search engines are interacting with your new website correctly and efficiently.
Metadata for pages, content, and media is crucial for SEO, and if you haven’t transferred it from the old to the new site correctly, you’ll notice traffic and ranking problems. You should have optimized your metadata in the pre-launch phases, so this step is about transferring everything over seamlessly without missing or skipping any piece.
To double-check, look at your new site’s:
In addition, if you have any user-generated content (such as reviews or testimonials) don’t forget to include them in the transfer.
Your redirects are crucial to site performance and user experience as they help both users and search engine crawlers find pages that either no longer exist, have a new name, or have moved to a new location on the website. Without redirects, search engines will take longer to index the site’s new URLs if they can index them at all, and they won’t be able to understand how the old site’s pages associate with new site pages.
Without correctly implementing redirects, users will hit 404 pages and irrelevant pages that will increase your bounce rate and reduce conversion rates. You could also lose ranking signals passed over from the old website causing a drop in organic visibility.
For these reasons, it’s crucial not to rush or skip this step and cover all of these redirect types:
Robots.txt Creation / Checking
The new site’s robots.txt file should have been prepared in the staging environment where you can test it for errors or any omissions that can cause search engine crawl issues. If you used the Disallow: / directive to prevent search engines from crawling the staging environment, make sure to remove it during the migration.
Make sure that the new site’s robots.txt file:
Also, make sure that you have a copy of the legacy site’s robots.txt file and has been reviewed if you need to carry it over.
Canonical Tags & Link Structure
Your canonical tags will tell search engines which version of a page is accurate, and the pages will be crawled and displayed. During this stage, review your site’s canonical tags to make sure that you’ve tagged the right pages.
Server Response (Key Pages)
Server Responses on your key pages will tell you how your server is serving content to users. You can determine if your key pages are running smoothly or if there are any issues based on the server response type. While crawling your site and checking canonical tags, you want to ensure they return the right server response. As you crawl, you’re looking for a 200 server response. If you don’t get the response, work to update them and eliminate 3xx, 4xx, and 5xx server responses.
Pat yourself on the back – the hard parts of the migration are over. After launch and the new site is live, it’s time to start monitoring everything to make sure that your new site is performing well, and you can jump on any issues early on before they hurt your SEO. If you’ve followed every step to a tee thus far, you shouldn’t have any major emergencies to deal with, but it’s still necessary to check and monitor.
Check Google Search Console
After the site is live, you should open Google Search Console and upload an updated sitemap. Doing this will help indexing your new site. After uploading the new sitemap, you can monitor the following:
If you see any abnormalities or issues, contact the development team and fix them as early as possible before your rankings are significantly hurt.
Monitoring SEO Performance
Immediately after launch and into the future, you’ll need to continue monitoring the performance of your new site from an SEO perspective – after all, improving your site’s SEO value was likely a primary goal of the migration.
The performance of your site is essential to several stakeholders with business impact likely a top concern. Keep in mind that you’ll see fluctuations in many areas right after the migration which is typical unless you work with an experienced team or have done a migration before.
However, to make sure that your migration was successful, continue to monitor the following metrics every few days post-migration. If you see significant drops or don’t see any improvement after a short period, then you need to identify and address the issue.
Comparison of Pre/Post-Performance
Finally, you’ll need to compare the new site’s performance to your old site to see if the migration was successful and worth it in the end (it usually is). Using data from Analytics and the Google Search Console, compare the following with the same data from your old site pre-migration:
Continue to monitor this data and compare it to the launch data over the next three to nine months. Generally, you’ll see improvement after the fluctuation period but continue to check for any performance issues that can impact your SEO and user experience.
And there you have it – the site migration process from start to finish. Although it isn’t a simple process, it’s a necessary process to ensure your site remains stable and doesn’t lose visibility or damage its rankings. Without taking SEO or how search engines will interact with your website into account, you could end up vanishing from SERPs and waste all of your previous hard work.
However, when you sufficiently plan ahead and work with the experienced team of SEO professionals at VELOX Media, your migration can go off without a hitch, and you can come out ahead on rankings and site performance soon after launch.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in May 2019 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.