Website migration can be a complex and challenging process, and getting it wrong can have serious consequences for your business. Likewise, ignoring the need to evolve and update your site can relegate your business to the back of the pack while your competition leaves you in the dust.
Yes, migrating your website is a big project. Still, with the proper planning and reliable strategic partners, it can be done well — setting up your business to thrive in a competitive marketplace.
To help you get started, I’ve outlined a step-by-step checklist that will take you through the whole site migration process, from planning to implementation and maintenance.
But first, let me clarify what I mean by “website migration.”
What is Website Migration?
Site migration is a broad term that applies to any event when site owners make significant changes to a website’s structure, design, or how it’s delivered that could impact search engine visibility.
Migrating a website is an exercise in careful project management and problem-solving skills. If not handled with rigorous attention to the outcome of each change, a site migration could pose a risk to the authority, search ranking, and quality content you’ve spent years putting into place.
Types of Site Migrations
Although the term “site migration” refers to a broad set of changes, these updates can be organized into seven basic categories:
1. Design Changes or Site Redesigns
Site design changes might include everything from an updated look to a complete structural overhaul — including significant changes to code, copy, and media.
2. Content Changes or Content Migrations
Again, this category covers a wide range of updates. Content changes might include rewrites or consolidations, pruning old content, or relocating subdomains or subdirectories. Depending on the scale of the changes, these updates could affect site navigation and internal linking structures, impacting search rank if not done carefully. Be wary of content changes that impact existing URLs — there could be a significant and immediate impact to SERPs.
3. Moving To a New Host
There might be performance-related issues that send you looking for a new server to host your website. Done correctly and with thorough research, a move like this should have little to no impact on organic search.
4. Changes to Your Site Structure
Changes to your website architecture typically impact your site’s internal linking and URL structure.
Learn more about how to create an SEO-friendly site structure and whether subdomains or subdirectories are better for SEO.
5. Moving to a New CMS or Platform
When moving a website from one content management system to another, technical limitations often require website design, architecture, and/or URL structure changes.
6. Changing Your Domain Name
There’s a lot to consider here regarding rebuilding brand recognition and site authority, but sometimes it’s necessary to change the domain name you use for your business. In addition to the technical aspects involved in a change like this, you’ll likely need to create an entire marketing campaign to signal the change and preserve some continuity in brand loyalty.
7. Moving from HTTP to HTTPS
Google takes site security very seriously. If your business isn’t using a secure protocol (HTTPS), it’s negatively affecting your visibility in search results. With the correct planning in place, this type of migration will likely have a substantial and positive impact on your organic traffic and revenue.
Common Pitfalls of Website Migration Plans
No two migration projects are alike, but when I hear about website migrations that go sideways, I can usually trace the problem back to a few common areas:
1. Poorly Defined Strategy
The first point of failure for some website migrations is a lack of clear and realistic objectives. Without a measurable goal to define the desired impact of the project, there’s no organizing principle to keep all of the participants focused on the desired outcome and unify metrics of success. At the most basic level, the primary objective of a site migration strategy should be to retain existing organic traffic and the site’s ability to generate revenue. Two important things to remember about your site migration goals:
- Keep them realistic.
- Broadcast them widely and often to every stakeholder in the project.
2. Lack of Planning
A good website migration plan covers every step of the process in minute detail. The Victorious migration plan contains dozens of checkpoints from beginning to end. Start your planning process early and leave space to add more tasks as you discover previous unknowns along the way.
I’ve led dozens of site migrations, and there’s always something unexpected that crops up.
Make sure your plan leaves ample room for delays.
Schedule the work on your website migration to avoid seasonal peaks so you don’t end up with your back against the wall during your highest revenue months.
Once you’ve iterated a thorough plan, seek feedback from stakeholders and their teams to confirm that everyone is on the same page and is aware of the project’s impact on their areas of concern.
3. Limited Resources
No business can function without a budget, but the amount of money dedicated to your site migration needs to be realistic. Be clear about the resources you’ll need to complete the work, and don’t proceed with the project if there’s any doubt you’ll have the funds to complete it successfully.
If you need to make a case for a bigger budget, include detailed metrics on the expected ROI of the website migration.
A general rule of thumb is to include a 20% buffer in your site migration budget. If everything goes perfectly, you’ll come in under budget. If there are unforeseen difficulties, you’ll have the bandwidth to address them without delay.
For instance, if you’re working with a developer who didn’t account for SEO implementation within their scope of work, a built-in budget buffer can save your project from SEO disaster.
4. No SEO Expertise
Large-scale changes to your website need to balance user experience objectives and search engine optimization requirements. If moving or pruning large amounts of content make for an improved user experience, be sure to consult with an SEO agency about how those updates might impact your search results. Without an in-depth understanding of search engine optimization, your team could make changes that render your site invisible to search engines and set your business back for years to come.
5. Waiting Too Long to Seek Help
From start to finish, a site migration can take months to plan, implement and test. If you don’t bring on SEO help from the beginning, there may have been decisions made at the onset that need to be changed based on impacts to organic search. Without proper guidance from the start, you might waste precious time and resources on a strategy that won’t help (and could hinder) business outcomes.
6. Inadequate Testing
You’ve heard the saying, “measure twice, cut once.” The same goes for website migrations: test twice, implement once. If any critical issues arise from your migration project, it’s best to find them in testing rather than implementing them along with the launch.
You’ll want both your UX and SEO experts to thoroughly test your migrated files on a staging server and work out any trouble spots before you take it live. At this stage, it’s essential to communicate clearly with your developers about the impact of their work on overall business health so you can provide context for the rigorous implementation you need from them.
7. No Plan for Bug Fixes
Even with the most diligently planned website migration, some bugs will inevitably make it past your QA efforts and launch right along with your new website. Before you publish your updated site, have a plan to prioritize and address anything that comes up, so there’s no delay in fixing those issues.
Website Migration Examples
I’d understand if you have some trepidation about making such significant changes to your website for fear that there could be bottom-line repercussions for your business if it doesn’t go well. While you may have heard horror stories about site migrations gone wrong, they all share the common pitfalls I outlined above. The horror stories could have just as easily been success stories if those responsible for the projects had taken steps to avoid some basic mistakes.
Examples of Site Migration Failures
Customer A launched a brand new website and came to us for SEO audit services on their staged changes. They launched their new site before implementing the majority of our recommendations and saw a steep decline in their ranking organic keywords.
Site Migration Successes
The Victorious Website
We conducted our own website migration at the beginning of 2019. We based our new design on extensive keyword research, created high-quality SEO content, and doubled down on internal linking to build multiple pathways to related information.
Website Migration Checklist
Because I’ve seen time and time again how successful website migrations follow a clearly defined plan, I’m going to share the Victorious migration checklist with you. I hope it helps you start out on the right foot, so your migration goes smoothly.
The very first step in planning a successful site migration is to set expectations and do your research.
What to Expect
If you choose to migrate to a new domain, it’s important to understand that, on average, it takes Google 2-3 months to recrawl and reindex a website fully. In some cases, it may go faster, but expect a lag of a few months after the site launch.
Identify Priority Pages
Look at traffic sources in Google Analytics to identify the pages that receive the most traffic and conversions. These pages should receive the most attention during the migration. The more changes you make to your top organic pages, the more your rankings will fluctuate post-migration.
Strategize a URL Structure
Create an intentional URL structure before you start your site migration. Allocate time during the planning stage to make sure URLs either stay the same (preferred) or change with purpose. This is a much more efficient use of your project resources than trying to fix something that accidentally breaks after you publish your new site.
Benchmark Current Metrics
Do a site search in Google and make a note of how many of your pages are being indexed compared to how many are included in your sitemaps.
Review the Staging Site
Review the staging site to make sure it is not being indexed. You can add a disallow to all user agents in your staging robots.txt file.
Testing on the Staging Site
Test, test, and retest your newly structured website on the staging server before taking it live.
Check the URL Structure
Check if the URL structure has changed. You can get a high-level view of this by crawling the old and new sites using an SEO spider, like Screaming Frog, or navigating the pages on the new website from the front end.
If the URLs for the pages are different, you can change them back to the original. Beware that changes in URL structure will heavily impact organic presence.
If the URL structure is changing and can’t be changed back to the original, you’ll want to map all of the old pages to their respective new pages and implement 301 redirects.
Confirm that there are no 302 (temporary) redirects present. These do not pass on authority to the new page and confuse Google’s efforts to index your site.
Note: Address the URL structure of your new site during the planning stages to avoid unanticipated headaches that could hold up your launch date.
Check that every page has a rel=canonical. In most cases, the rel=canonical will be self-referential, meaning that it points to itself. Having a canonical tag is always a best practice so that search engines do not get confused.
However, if it’s a paginated page like “blog/tag/best-practices/page/2/”, it should not be self-referential and should point to the first page in the series instead.
If you have a WordPress website, you can easily configure canonicals with the Yoast SEO plug-in.
Check that all content has been migrated over to the staging site. If any pages aren’t migrated over to the new site, notate them for future reference. That way, you’ll know what you need to map 301 redirects for after your new site is published.
Check that the following on-page SEO items are correctly configured:
- H1 tags
- H2-H6 headers
- Images are right-sized and use alt text.
Content should be unique and over 800+ words per page. Optimize each page for a unique keyword theme and so they don’t compete with each other for the same keywords (cannibalization).
Make sure that metadata (pages titles, meta descriptions, headers, and image alt tags) for pages are either being carried over or expanded using best SEO practices.
You can also use variables within Yoast to have page titles, and meta descriptions automatically fill for pages.
Check your XML sitemap to confirm that it includes all the essential URLs to index for the new site. Make sure to exclude pages that have no organic value to site visitors or other pages that you don’t want indexed. Only include canonical pages.
Visitor-Facing HTML Sitemap
Internal linking is an essential part of search success for a redesigned website. A well-planned internal linking structure makes it easier for search engines to crawl your pages and accelerates the re-indexation of your newly migrated site. I recommend you include all of your most important pages in a visitor-facing HTML sitemap.
Manually Check Structured Data
Since most tools will be blocked through robots.txt, you’ll want to manually check the source code of your pages to confirm that any existing structured markup is also present on your staging site.
Check Mobile Version
Pull up the new website on your phone or tablet to review the user experience on different screen sizes. Make sure the new site is responsive and all elements of the site scale. Check that text is readable, navigation works, and all phone numbers are click-to-call. You’ll also want to check load speed on mobile devices.
After the Launch
You’ll want to have a post-launch plan to put the final pieces in place for quick traction in search results.
Implement 301 Redirects
This is the most important step in any redesign or site migration. If there are any changes in specific URLs or URL structure in general, you’ll want to implement 301 (permanent) redirects from the old pages to the new pages. There will be fluctuations in organic rankings, which is normal, but the magnitude of those fluctuations will be based on the degree of difference between your old and new websites.
Using 301 redirects will tell search engines the pages have been moved and transfer all page authority to the new destination. This step also redirects the backlinks you’ve worked so hard to earn to the right place.
Crawl the old URLs from your list to double-check that all of them are being redirected. Recheck all pages with external links pointing to them to confirm that they’re also being redirected.
Migration to New Domain
If you migrate to a new domain, you need to submit a Change of Address to Google Search Console to speed up the transfer of organic authority. Only users with owner access in Google Search Console can file this request.
Have you uploaded your XML sitemap to your robots.txt file? Have you allowed all parts of your site that you want crawled? Have you disallowed all parts of your site that you do not want crawled? Disallow all pages that have no value as organic landing pages, such as blog tag pages, author pages, and internal search results.
It’s common for designers and developers to forget to remove the disallow of all user agents from the robots.txt after the website migration is complete. As soon as the new site has been published, check that this disallow has been removed. Failure to remove it will render your new site entirely invisible to search engines.
Look for Duplicate Content
Check that all of your new site pages are only accessible via one URL to avoid duplicate content. If you can access pages through more than one protocol (i.e.,HTTP vs. HTTPS) you’ll want to implement a global redirect to point one URL to the other.
- www vs. non-www URL requests
- http vs. https URL requests
- lower case vs upper case URL requests
- Trailing slash vs non-trailing slash URL requests
- requests for any legacy mobile sites (for example: m.victoriousseo.com)
Review Google Search Console
Keep an eye on Google Search Console reports for crawl errors (400 and 500 errors). If you find pages not found, make sure to redirect them.
Check biweekly that your pages are being indexed. Confirm that the number of indexed pages is close to the number of pages in your XML sitemap.
If indexation is very slow, make sure all backlinks have been redirected, all old pages have been redirected, and that you have adequate internal linking between your homepage, core pages, and blog posts.
Track how you’re ranking for your top keywords. Keep in mind that fluctuations are to be expected, especially if you’re moving to a new domain or making a lot of changes to the website. You’ll want to see some recovery of any lost ground within two to three months of completing your migration.
SEO Migration Success is Within Reach
Although there are many details involved in pulling off a successful migration, it can be done! I hope this website migration checklist helps you stay on top of everything there is to do.
Remember to start planning early and leave room in your project timeline to adjust for unanticipated developments. Seek out professional partnerships and leverage a site migration SEO agency. Victorious can help you migrate your site safely and effectively with minimal impact on your search visibility.
Do you have questions about an SEO site migration? Reach out for a free website migration consultation.