Companies and individuals decide to migrate websites for a number of reasons, but it is usually a daunting proposition. Site owners are concerned about the impact of potential traffic loss, or even revenue loss.
On a more immediate level, they risk losing a lot of the accumulated SEO traction they have worked so hard to put in place and could see their top ranking search engine results pages (SERPs) disappear. However, there are certain best practice processes you can use to avoid common pitfalls and make your website migration a success story.
A thorough website migration plan and comprehensive SEO strategy is the key to reducing the negative impact on your organic SERP presence. In fact, you can use website migration to improve your rankings and give your website an overhaul at every level. With some strategic planning, you’ll not only recover any lost traffic but also see your ranking improve over time.
Types of Website Migration
There are a number of reasons about why you would change your website or move to a new domain. They include:
- Merging two domains owned by the same brand
- Changing domain name
- Merging multiple domains
- Moving to a new TLD (top-level domain)
- A redesign
Merging two domains (e.g. two of your companies, incorporating a smaller offshoot into a bigger brand, migrating a company blog to the main website, etc) can lead to a long-term increase in rankings and traffic.
People visiting your site will be able to access the content they’re looking for in a central location. Likewise, migrating a website for the other reasons outlined above can also make your website easier to find. Note that each migration scenario varies in requirements and complexity.
In the case of a brand buying a competitor, website migration can lead to increased authority, ranking and traffic.
Sometimes, however, you might decide against merging the two sites, especially if the new website is the stronger domain.
Before migration, you need to consider three main things: authority, branding and content.
To find the most authoritative site out of the ones you want to merge, compare the domains to juxtapose the number of pages, linking root domains and ranking keywords. Keep the stronger domain and redirect the weaker one as it will cause very little disruption, and is more likely to improve rankings. Analytics data will help you determine the strongest in terms of conversions and organic traffic.
Branding is an important consideration when it comes to redirects: do you want new websites to adopt your website’s branding? Some companies choose to put a grace period in place so that visitors are notified about the acquisition until a redirect is implemented.
Content is vital to your website, so you need to decide if you’re going to migrate what you already have. Maybe do some “housekeeping” and eliminate out-of-date or weaker pieces of content. Is the content compatible with the new website? For example, is your written content going to fit in with the stronger website’s Vlog style? Will you need to rework some pieces and create new pages?
Establish Objectives and a Migration Plan
Before you start your migration you need to establish your objectives and how they can be achieved within your time constraints and available resources.
The objectives can be anything from minimising traffic loss to maintaining your SERP ranking, or even a combination of many compatible objectives. This phase is the foundation for your entire website migration so it is essential to spend time and effort on it to avoid setting yourself up for problems further along. If a website isn’t handled correctly, the damage can be almost irreparable.
The plan should be documented, agreed upon by the strategy, SEO and development team and signed off before the site migration begins
Once you have a plan in place, follow these website migration checklists, which are divided into pre-migration, during-migration, post-migration sections.
Pre-migration SEO Checklist
1. Crawl the sites
Use crawler software like Screaming Frog to identify a number of SEO factors including existing URLs, title tags, meta data (length and current optimisation), existing page errors and site crawl issues.
Save this data to compare to the site after the migration and identify any discrepancies (e.g. missing URLs, etc).
2. Map new URLs
The URL mapping process is the most important stage – avoiding it or implementing it incorrectly is the most common cause of falls in visibility and performance after a migration.
Authoritative pages on the legacy site will pass their established power and authority through to the new pages, but only where the old URLs have been mapped to the new URLs and the 301 redirects are correctly implemented. Failing to set up redirects on these URLs will result in broken links and wreck your quality score.
Oversee the redirection of all unique, useful or authoritative pages to similar pages on the new platform and identify pages to be created if you have content with no matching URL. Create a detailed mapping document.
3. Benchmark data
The current website’s rankings should be bench-marked to measure progress throughout the migration. Include a variety of important metrics from pages indexed to organic conversions.
Use more than several hundred keywords as a minimum and plan the migration during a historically slower period.
4. Make a custom 404 page
The 404 page should have a link to an existing target page (not the home page) to keep people on the site. 404 pages should be exported and redirected since they often have quality links pointing to them, but figuring out where to redirect pages can be tricky. Sometimes, this can be guessed by looking for keywords in the URL.
5. Register Google Search Console
Don’t forget to register and configure the new domain in Google Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools) include both Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) and HTTP versions.
6. Set up a new robots.txt file
The new robots.txt file should include areas Googlebot can and cannot crawl once the migration takes place, but it can be replaced when the site is launched. If secure authentication is used instead and the robots.txt is correct on staging, this can be migrated straight to the live environment.
During Migration Checklist
1. Add tracking codes to the migration plan
Install Google Analytics and other tracking software on all URLs and redirected URLs to collect and keep data to measure in the future.
2. Annotate launch within reporting platform
This provides context for benchmarking in analytics programs.
3. Update internal links
Redirect all users and bots that visit your old content location to the new content location using 301 redirects or canonicals. Connect the locations by making sure that each old URL points to the new URL that hosts similar content.
4. Test URL redirects
Make sure each URL connects to the new URL based on the map you created and index all of the redirects. Perform a site lookup (site:www.yoursite.com) to ensure the redirects are properly indexed.
5. Check and your XML sitemaps
Sometimes sitemap syntax will not find any errors when checked by a third party website, but when you test the sitemap in Google Search Console the sitemap shows an error. This is especially true for speciality maps like Google News sitemaps, so don’t make any assumptions, and test before submitting them.
Remove the old sitemaps left over from the old site and submit a sitemap that contains all old URLs (name it /sitemap-old.xml). Follow that up by submitting another sitemap that contains a list of new URLs (located at the standard /sitemap.xml).
Finish by going to Fetch as Googlebot and submit your site to be indexed. It will prompt Google to crawl the entire website to see whether Googlebot can access a page on your site, how it renders the page and whether any page resources are blocked to Googlebot.
6. Submit your new address
Submit a change of address for the migrated website within Google Search Console. It notifies Google about the new URLs for your existing content, so that it can update its index to reflect the new domain for your pages.
Use the change of address option under ‘site configuration’ in Google Webmaster Tools, but you do not need to do this for a domain that isn’t moving.
7. Choose the best time to launch the website
Ideally, you would select a slow seasonal period for your website to go live. Perhaps, at a weekend if you are a Monday to Friday type of business, but arrange for your developers and digital marketing team to be available to help with any issues you may encounter.
Post-Launch Migration Checklist
1. Monitor errors
The first thing you should do after your new website launch is crawl the website to check for any errors that need fixing that may have slipped through, such as broken links. Identify any issues that need resolving and opportunities for improvement.
Re-audit the website by checking Google Search Console every day for the first few weeks that the website is live.
2. Check your rankings and indexed pages
After website migration, many sites experience drops in traffic, particularly if important tasks such as implementing 301 redirects have been missed. Google Analytics can check the volume of traffic.
If you followed the previous steps in this guide, you will have already checked and benchmarked your rankings, so it’s now time to see if there have been any ranking fluctuations since the site went live.
Similarly, check your indexed pages; if the number of indexed pages doesn’t increase, there could be an issue with the 301 redirects.
3. Perform an audit on the setup of your new website
Check the architecture of the website in addition to the links and rankings. This includes:
- Title tags, meta descriptions, and H1s – make sure they aren’t missing or duplicated
- Any noindex/nofollow and robots.txt disallow directives are still in place
- All content is easily navigated, indexed and original
- Structured markup (schema.org) is implemented
- The site is fast and mobile-friendly
4. Ensure all inbound links are updated
To ensure that the authority of the migrated domain will continue in its new location, contact external blogs and other linking resources to inform them of the new link location.
Prioritise the pages that you have identified as most important for SEO and ask for any links to be updated.
5. Disavow any bad links
At this stage after migration, any links (both good and bad) have also migrated. Request that harmful links be removed or set to no-follow, and any that you are unable to remove or set to no-follow should be disavowed.
If you have recently submitted a disavow file to Google Search Console, check that you have combined the two files together to avoid losing any previous data. With disavow files, the most recent one will overwrite the older version.
Start Well and End Well
As with all things, starting with a solid foundation is essential to avoid future pitfalls. If you follow the pre-migration checklist, you will find the whole process more manageable.
Prepare to lose some traffic and rankings, but if you have implemented the checklist at all three stages, then you are likely to see improvements within the first month or two of your new website going live.
A website migration can be extremely risky and complicated for those not well versed in SEO. If your website is highly dependent on organic traffic and you’re not sure how to handle the migration, we advise getting help from an SEO professional. They will help you plan the whole process, anticipate any problems and avoid potential errors.
If you’d like help with website migration from a team of experts, please contact Relevance for more information.