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How to Start With Website Migration: A Step-by-Step SEO Guide

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Deciding to migrate your site is a big step. Done well, website migration can boost your site’s performance in the long run and, ultimately, set up your business for success.

To get it right, you’ll need a clear strategy and a dedicated amount of time. In this guide, find a step-by-step website migration checklist, actionable advice, and valuable tips for overcoming SEO risks.

What is Website Migration?

In broadest terms, SEO professionals refer to website migration as an event where you make substantial changes to your website.

Site migrations can be a complex technical process to go through and – if poorly executed – these changes can have a significant impact on ranking signals and affect the visibility of your site on search engines.

That said, migrations still offer a great opportunity to explore new ways to enhance traffic to your site by working on and improving important issues (e.g. duplicate content).

With a proper action strategy, you can effectively plan to migrate your site and mitigate any potential risks that could harm your visibility.

Site Migration Types

When it comes to SEO website migration, the type of migration that you choose will depend on the changes that need to take place. While you can certainly use different combinations, there are five main website migration types:

  • Site location changes
  • Platform changes
  • Content changes
  • Structural changes
  • Design & UX changes

Why Should You Migrate Your Website?

As a site owner, there are a number of scenarios when website migration is your best bet. Here are some of the most common reasons.

Changing Your Site Structure/Design/Navigation

Many types of site migration are triggered by changes to the site’s design, structure, and navigation.

Structural changes are typically caused by taxonomy changes that affect the site’s navigation and internal linking.

Changes in the design can vary greatly from one site to the other. Design changes can affect the look and feel of a site or they can be a major revamp that comes with significant code, media, and copy changes.

Because design changes can influence search visibility, you will need to know how to keep SEO rankings during a site redesign. To preserve your rankings, you can either prune low-performing pages or utilize 301 redirects.

Adding a Mobile Version

In today’s mobile-first world, marketers know that you need to optimize for mobile in order to create sites that work across all platforms and ensure a seamless purchasing experience for modern-day users.

Before you embark on a site migration journey, though, analyze the preferences of your ideal audience and weigh the costs and benefits of creating a mobile version to find a good balance.

Moving to a New Server

Switching to a new host is a common reason for migration. Before you jump into it, take your time to find the right server that meets both your needs and performance expectations.

Moving From HTTP to HTTPS

If your site isn’t automatically built with secure certificates, moving to an HTTPS protocol will become increasingly important. As most browsers display a warning for unsecured pages, not having a secure certificate can impact the user experience and, by extension, your conversions and ROI.

Changing the Domain Name

Domain name changes typically occur when a business is looking to rebrand itself and has to move from one domain to another.

Step-by-Step Guide to Website Migration

Making big changes to your website can rightfully feel intimidating. Following a step-by-step plan, however, can make the process of migrating your site smoother and help you avoid negative SEO impacts.

Let’s walk through the basic steps for planning and troubleshooting site migration.

Step 1: Planning

SEO website migrations can be highly complex, and before you get started, you need to know what is changing, what you need for it to happen, and assemble all the people who will be involved.

Here’s where to start.

Define the Project Scope and Objectives

Setting clear objectives and goals is an important step that plays a tremendous role in setting and managing expectations.

For your project to be successful, you’ll need to identify what you want to accomplish, assess the potential risks, and take the necessary precautions. Together with key stakeholders, agreeing on this early on will also help keep the project within scope.

Specify Metrics and Benchmarks

In the planning stage, you should have a good overview of how your site is currently performing. Think about SEO metrics such as organic rank and traffic, indexable URLs, site speed, and site structure.

You can use these metrics as a comparison benchmark for your new site.

Set a Deadline

Before you get started with website migration, remember to also set a realistic deadline/launch date.

Note: be sure to launch the new site during a time when traffic is low to avoid greater loss due to unexpected consequences. This often means that you should try and have the migration executed as quickly as possible.

Step 2: Development

Generally speaking, the development stage includes activities that need to be carried out while the new site is still under development.

Audit Your Website’s URLs and Backlinks

Site migration often changes the entire site’s structure, so you need to keep tabs on your site’s URLs and backlink profile. This will help avoid external sources linking to non-existent URLs and potential visitors following links to 404 errors.

Update Canonicals

Another possible side effect of migration is ending up with multiple versions of the same page, making it difficult for search engines to decide which one to rank.

To make sure that engines show only the pages you actually intend to show, you’ll want to update your canonicals.

Check Web Accessibility

If you plan on making big UX or design changes, be sure to check the site’s accessibility. Doing so will help you have your content easily accessible to all users.

Step 3: Pre-Launch Testing

While some technical components such as redirects and canonical tags need to be fully implemented to be tested, others (like content inconsistencies and user journey issues) don’t.

To address issues cost-effectively and avoid significant delays, start your pre-launch testing as early as you can.

Preparing Technical SEO Specifications

In the pre-launching phase, you’ll want to make sure that all essential SEO features are in place and well-optimized. Some technical attributes to keep tabs on include hreflang tags and AMP tags.

Identify Priority Pages

The quality of the pages that have been migrated is absolutely crucial for successful post-migration. Make sure you identify and focus on your most valuable pages.

Commonly, priority pages include, among others, the pages that have been driving traffic to the old site and the pages that convert well overall.

Benchmarking

Before you launch your new website, you should benchmark the performance of your old (legacy) site. Benchmarking enables you to quickly identify areas that are underperforming on your new site and address them right away.

Step 4: Launch Testing

As you replace your old site with your new one, it’s likely for your live site to be down. Keep the downtime to a minimum, and serve a 503 server response to notify search engine crawlers that your site is temporarily down for maintenance.

Technical Spot Checks

Take a look at the top pages’ redirects, canonical tags, and server responses, as well as the robots.txt file and (unintentional) no-follow directives. This should be carried out across both desktop and mobile.

Search Console Actions

Make a note to test and upload the XML sitemap, set up URL parameters to tackle potential duplicate content issues, and (if switching domains) use the Change of Address tool within Google Search Console.

Step 5: Monitoring and Reporting

Like most things in SEO, managing your website migration should be an ongoing process.

Once the new site has gone live, you will need to assess its short-term and long-term impact.

Update the robots.txt File

Because the robots.txt file tells search engines crawlers which part of your site you want them to access, you need to revisit it right after the migration.

Test and Submit Your XML Sitemap

Your XML sitemap helps search engines discover, scan, and index your pages. If your site’s URL structure has changed noticeably during the migration, test whether the sitemap still makes sense and lists your pages correctly.

Report on the Benchmark Metrics

The final step of the website migration is to go back to everything you’ve collected during the planning stage, analyze the web analytics data from the new site and see how it compares.

Going forward, you can also use an SEO dashboard to track KPIs and ROI.

Website Migration Risks

Search engines crawl and index content to get to know a website and build up a picture of the site’s relevance to certain keywords. As you go through migration, the structure of the site can change, so that picture gets blurred and it’s up to the search engines to clarify it.

Although every site migration is different, there are a few common risks you need to know about in order to take action promptly and allow search engines to properly crawl your new site.

Lose Organic Traffic

After making such a huge change, seeing fluctuations in your organic traffic is to be expected. While it’s common to lose some traffic right after migrating your site, you don’t want it to last for too long.

Oftentimes, your new domain is not as strong as the older one because of backlinks and where they’re leading to.

There are a few things you can do to minimize the risk of losing traffic. You can create a URL mapping document that outlines details such as which new pages match the old ones, which pages to 301 redirects, and which URLs are more important.

Broken Internal Links

A broken internal link is often caused by historic pages that have not been redirected and internal links that are still leading to the old version of a URL. This can lead to a bad user experience and is generally not a great SEO practice.

Overall, you have two options: look for and manage URLs and links in the pre-migration stages of the plan, or use a tool to identify broken links and redirect them to the correct URLs.

To make sure you don’t lose any rankings during the migration aftermath, consider future-proofing your business by implementing white hat link-building strategies that attract quality backlinks.

Unnatural Links

Simply put: unnatural links are spammy links that typically come from low-authority websites.

Even though Google devalues any links that don’t meet their guidelines, if your site has too many bad links, it can still get penalized accordingly by devaluing all links (whether good or bad).

To battle this, have an SEO professional look at your backlink report to uncover any spammy links that you don’t want to migrate over. They may further disavow these spammy links and submit this to Google to avoid any manual actions later on in your Google Search Console.

Indexation Issues

It’s sensible to know that your URLs indexation count may differ on your new website.

With that in mind, if you see that your new site is not indexed, or there is a dramatic difference in the count, you need to take action. Your indexing status can be found in Google Search Console.

If you discover that you have indexation issues, start by analyzing whether there’s duplicate content causing more URLs to be indexed or whether your old site is still being indexed.

Depending on your situation, the next steps can include de-indexing the old domain and checking if the robots.txt is blocking crawlers’ access.

What Does a Successful Migration Look Like?

The success of site migration is determined by comparing data from your new domain against your objectives and KPIs.

While there is no cut and dry answer, in most cases, a successful migration should show minimal visibility loss during the first few weeks and/or show visibility growth in the long run.

Whether your site migration would show similar or better performance (compared to your previous domain), will also rely on you:

  • Having a crystal-clear plan
  • Crafting a rollback plan and backing up your site data (in case something goes wrong)
  • Prioritizing the process and ensuring that everyone on the team is on the same page

Building a Strong SEO Foundation for Your Website

When it comes to building a strong website that ranks well, you need to understand the basic concept of what Google’s algorithm wants to see, both off-page and on-page.

As your website grows in size and complexity an outdated presence won’t cut it, and website migration may become your best, or even only, option.

Site migration can be a lengthy, complex process, but with the right preparation, you can achieve a migration that’s not only successful but also blends in with your existing SEO efforts.

Ready to optimize your new website for search engines? Check out our on-page SEO checklist.