SEO guide for website migration

Web Design and Development

Website migration is the process of changing a website in ways that affect its search engine visibility.

There are many types of website migration, like changing:

  • Location
  • Structure
  • Design
  • Technology stacks
  • UX (user experience)

It’s a challenging process that you shouldn’t go into lightly.

 

Is website migration the right choice?

Website migration can go horribly wrong without careful planning. 

Don’t underestimate the size of a site migration project.

Do you have the time and the resources to complete a thorough site migration?

If not, maybe don’t risk it just yet. 

But if you do, you’ll need to consider the process from every angle and come up with a solid strategy.

Consider why you want to migrate your site. Good reasons for site migration include:

  • Rebranding
  • Generating press and links
  • Moving from HTTP to HTTPS
  • Merging multiple businesses/sites

Site migration risks temporary loss of traffic. It’ll take time for Google to process the new site and update its index.

However, it’s an excellent opportunity to make SEO improvements like streamlining the structure and fixing broken links.

Working with an SEO expert is crucial for a smooth site migration. They’ll identify opportunities to improve your rankings and reduce loss of traffic. 

How to plan and execute a site migration

When committing to site migration, identify everyone who needs to be involved and make sure they’re all informed of the plan at every step.

Read through our checklist of website migration best practices below to make sure it’s done right.

Crawl your site

Crawling your site helps with building an accurate new sitemap and working necessary link fixes into your migration plan.

You’ll need a complete list of URLs from your old website so nothing gets lost in the transition.

Use a crawl tool like Screaming Frog to identify all the existing pages on your website.

The crawl should also identify broken links and redirect errors you’ll need to fix.

Linking to orphan pages and removing links to 404 pages is best practice.

If there are orphaned pages that aren’t linked from others, the crawl might not pick them up. 

Double-check your databases and Google Analytics for all page data. 

A page explorer like Ahrefs can also find these pages.

Take benchmarks

Current traffic, domain authority, and other KPIs (key performance indicators) will help you figure out the impact of migration.

Use analytics software to set benchmarks based on your site’s current performance.

This could include:

  • Page speed
  • Clicks and impressions
  • Organic positions
  • Keyword rankings

It’s normal for rankings to fluctuate and temporarily decline after website migration.

Having benchmarks from before the migration is invaluable. 

Copying analytics data beforehand makes it easier to run comparisons with the analytics from the new site.

Following site migration, monitor these benchmarks to highlight any concerning declines and address them quickly.

Create a new XML sitemap

Your new site structure should match the old one as much as possible. 

If you change too much, Google won’t recognise them as the same site.

You’ll be starting from scratch in building SEO authority.

Keeping similar site architecture also makes it easier to set up redirects.

When working on sitemaps, you need:

  • An sitemap of expired URLs to access removed links and crawl redirects
  • A sitemap of new URLs to access and crawl the new URL hierarchy

These are often known as legacy site maps and dev site maps. Both are required to test redirects properly.

If your website is especially large, it might be worth creating multiple XML maps for different categories of pages.

Search engines use your XML sitemap to identify the new pages, so it must be accurate.

All URLs should be clean with a 200 (OK) response, and optional tags should be correct.

If they’re not, this will slow down indexing or even let search engines index the wrong URLs.

When it’s ready, submit your XML sitemap to Google and Bing so the new site gets indexed.

Conduct an audit

Preparing for a site migration means carrying out a full technical audit of your current site.

Your new site needs to have faster loading speeds and none of the errors your old site might have.

In addition to checking technical aspects, do a content audit.

This is the perfect time to review all your content and make a note of:

  • What you have
  • What you need
  • What you can delete
  • What you can change

Site migration offers the opportunity to categorise content better and improve user journeys.

Getting rid of old irrelevant content and revamping existing content for new pages can improve rankings.

Don’t go overboard, though. 

Mass-deleting pages containing important keywords could damage your rankings instead.

Delete duplicate content

A content audit should identify any duplicate content on your site.

Now’s the time to either get rid of it or rewrite it.

However, your high-ranking pages need to remain as similar as possible.

Do optimise content when the chance presents itself, but calculated migration is more about limiting damage.

Duplicate content damages your traffic and rankings if you don’t take care of it.

It’s possible that multiple versions of a URL could be published during site migration, resulting in duplicate content.

Appropriate URL redirects and self-canonicalisation will avoid this and make sure only one version is accessible.

Update internal links

You don’t want links on your new site pointing to pages on the old site that no longer exist.

Pages with a 404 error are a surefire way to frustrate visitors and make them leave.

Relying on redirects for internal links will only increase the server load, slowing down performance and ruining your rankings.

Instead, rewrite links with a search and replace operation to update text containing internal URLs.

If any links are broken, either replace them or remove them completely.

Disavow bad links and build new ones, internally linking to any new pages.

Set up redirects

Redirects are critical for site migration.

Link equity must pass to the new site, and bots must understand the redirects to do a deep crawl.

All URLs from your legacy site need redirecting to the new locations.

Use your sitemaps to make sure every URL is appropriately redirected with a 301 (Moved Permanently) redirect.

Make sure they don’t default to 302 (Found) redirects. Search engines won’t update their results if this happens.

Don’t take shortcuts here.

Make sure links redirect to equivalent pages or a suitable parent page – including content pages like blog posts.

Don’t just link to the homepage and hope for the best.

Of course, before you go live, you’ll have to test redirects for 404 errors.

It’s worth creating a custom 404 page in case of future errors. 

If the content boosts your brand image and offers alternative direction, visitors should stay on your site.

Add canonical tags

Canonical tags tell Google which are the main pages it should be indexing. 

Don’t risk your new website not being indexed because the canonical tag stayed on the old website.

Add canonical tags to all the new pages manually, updating with full URLs if applicable. 

If you find any faulty canonical tags on the old site, this is your opportunity to fix them for the new site.

Verify the canonicalisation to confirm the tags don’t still show the old versions.

Otherwise, multiple URLs for the same things could prevent pages from showing up in search results.

Update marketing channels

When auditing your website, it should include analysing your offsite assets.

Owned assets include things like Google Business pages and social media accounts. 

If your business has a Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, then update them with direct links to the new website.

Make sure your marketing campaigns involve the new website and not the old one. 

This includes ads, emails, affiliate links, and PPC.

When removing pages as part of site migration, remove any links to them in campaign materials as well.

There’ll also be third-party assets, where you’ll need to ask site owners to update their links to your site. 

Obviously this would take too long for every link, so prioritise the ones with the most authority.

Any profiles or listings in online business directories need updating too.

Don’t move everything at once

Site crawls should reveal the top-performing pages, from visitor volume to money making. 

These are the pages you should focus on moving first.

Then work on improving the pages that don’t perform as well so the new site will be better.

A good site migration strategy should involve working bit by bit until the final step is complete and you’re ready to launch.

Some websites might have such a large amount of content that migrating it all in time for the planned launch date might not be possible.

Temporarily using 302 redirects can help if you do go live before migrating all the content, but it’s best to complete migration before going live. 

Don’t rush to get everything done at once so you can go live faster. And don’t launch as soon as possible just because the site is ready.

Your strategy should include the best time to complete migration.

For example, it’s always a bad idea to migrate a site around major holidays.

Launching the new site during a peak period will result in bigger losses of traffic and revenue.

It’s best to complete a measured site migration when business is slower.

For example, if your business operates Monday to Friday, go live on a weekend.

Whenever you work on migrating your site, make sure the developers and SEO consultants are on hand to help with any problems.

Check for errors

Testing and retesting is essential to catch any mistakes and fix them quickly.

Crawl your staging site to see if any issues pop up. Once your new site goes live, crawl it again to double-check.

Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools should flag errors too.

Common problems that might show up include:

  • Random 500 errors
  • Soft 404s
  • Misconfigured canonical tags
  • XML sitemap issues
  • Redirect loops
  • Pagination problems

Everyone involved should check they’re meeting the requirements for their part of the migration.

Each team will have individual key responsibilities and should be available for fixes.

Keep control of your old domain

If you’re moving from an old domain to a new one, you don’t want someone else buying it.

Keep the domain and make sure everything links from old pages to the new pages.

If you lose redirects from the old domain, you’ll also lose the inbound links the old site earned.

You might think you can give up your old domain as soon as search engines stop indexing it.

However, you can’t 100% guarantee that links to the old site will point to the new one.

There’s also the risk of brand damage if someone else takes over the old domain. 

Frauds could pose as your business, or someone could post content you don’t approve of which will be associated with your name.

If the old domain is very different from the new one, there’s the option of selling it after enough time passes to reduce the risk of traffic loss.

Add your new site to Google Search Console

Your analytics tools need to be ready to track the new site.

Update your goals and implement the tracking codes on the new site.

Then let Google know about your new website by updating Google Search Console.

This involves verifying a property for the new site, adding XML sitemaps, and submitting a new address for any new domains.

It encourages Google to crawl the new site for indexing and flag up any errors. 

Bing Webmaster Tools is also useful for highlighting post-migration issues.

Only do all this once the new site is live, but prepare the development team to update the site markup as necessary.

There’s no going back once you set up Google Search Console, so make sure your site is in the best possible shape by testing beforehand.

Monitor new site traffic and rankings

It’s important to keep checking traffic every day for the first week or so after migration.

If you see initial drops in traffic, it could be because you missed something in the process. 

It shouldn’t take more than a month for Google to finish indexing every page on the new site. 

You’ll know something’s wrong if you don’t have as many indexed pages as before.

Comparing post-migration data to the benchmarks from earlier will help to identify any problematic pages. 

Inspect them carefully for link issues and fix errors right away.

Staying on top of site performance helps to track the success of your site migration and address problems before they do too much damage to your rankings.

Enjoy successful website migration

Site migration is often a long and rocky journey.

But experiencing the hard-earned success of your strategy and collaborative efforts is worth it.

Growing your business as a result of website migration can be extremely rewarding.

You just have to gather a well-prepared team and take the leap.

If you’re still unsure, speak to an SEO professional today to discuss website migration.

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