SEO Website Migration Guide
Site migrations are a huge undertaking, and anyone who doesn’t think so hasn’t been through one. Unfortunately, many businesses make major changes to their websites without considering the impact on the SEO and overall performance of their site.
To be fair, it’s usually not their fault; many don’t realize the risks involved. Something as seemingly harmless as a site redesign, for example, can hurt the performance of the website and the business. (Case in point: check out this client case study where we helped turn around a failed redesign.)
So I’ve created a handy reference guide for website migrations to ensure you are following best practices for SEO during this long journey.
In this article:
- What is a website migration?
- Why is SEO important in a website migration?
- Types of website migrations
- Phases of a website migration
What is a Website Migration?
Website migration is a term used to describe when a website undergoes major changes, such as URL updates, redesigns, or content management system or hosting provider changes. Google defines site moves as either those with a URL change and those without.
Why Is SEO Important in a Website Migration?
A website migration is a major change to a website that can impact rankings and traffic. It is important to have an SEO professional oversee the many details that go into a website migration so that there is as little impact to the performance of the site as possible, and so that the “new” site can outperform the old one.
Types of Website Migrations
Website migrations tend to fall into one of three categories: URL changes, design changes or platform changes.
Here are some scenarios that prompt a website migration:
- Moving a website from HTTP to HTTPS (for more on why this is important see: HTTPS for Users and Rankings)
- Renaming URLs (aka URL migration)
- Consolidating webpages and implementing 301 redirects and/or URL changes
- Changing domain names
- Merging with another website
- Rearranging the website structure / navigation (for more, see: SEO Siloing: What, Why, How)
- Redesigning the website and changing the code
- Switching to a new content management system
- Switching to a new hosting provider
SEO Checklist for a Website Migration
There are three phases to a website migration: pre-launch, launch and post-launch. Each phase should have a defined set of activities. Below are just some of the steps you don’t want to miss in each phase.
As you are planning your site migration, steps in the pre-launch phase should include the following.
Create a plan: Here, you are going to assemble all the people who will be involved in the site migration. Each person will have a list of things that need to be accomplished in each of the three phases — the pre-launch, launch and post-launch. Define goals for the website migration so that you can measure success. Pick a launch date, too — try to do it when website traffic levels are at their lowest. Having a tool to help manage all the tasks from a bird’s eye view will be helpful here.
Benchmark the website: Benchmark performance in different areas of the website. Then later, you can compare post-launch performance and quickly identify issues so you can address them right away. This includes running PageSpeed Insights and recording Core Web Vitals scores for your homepage and other important pages on your site.
I recommend you benchmark the following PageSpeed Insights scores:
- Speed Index (SI)
- Time to Interactive (TTI)
- Total Blocking Time (TBT)
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS)
- First Contentful Paint (FCP)
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP)
Crawl the website: Use an SEO crawler to find and document any current issues with the website that you want to address during the site migration process. A few tools I recommend include our SEOToolSetⓇ site crawler, DeepCrawl and Screaming Frog.
Review the content: Do a content review of the site using a tool that can help you understand which pages perform well and which don’t (something simple like an export from Google Analytics can work here). You will want to make sure you know which pages are the top performers so that you preserve any traffic and conversions they provide. And for those that aren’t performing, you can decide if they need a rewrite, need to be folded into another, larger piece of related content, and/or need to be 301 redirected. (Doing a content review is something I talk more about in an unrelated article, here.)
Do a link review: Before the launch is a good time to analyze your inbound link profile. Get rid of any links that may not serve your site well moving forward and identify new link opportunities for the site as well. For more, see our guide to monitoring backlinks and link pruning.
Map 301 redirects: Map out any pages that you will no longer need, and which pages they will redirect to. Make sure you test the redirects in the staging environment before you go live. For more, see: How to Do a 301 Redirect.
Review page speed issues: Page speed issues (like those surfaced in Google Analytics Site Speed reports) can be identified and addressed during the migration process.
Review mobile-friendliness: Make sure you review the mobile-friendliness of your website, including things like website configuration, user experience and content. For more, see: Page Experience Matters: The Mobile-Friendly Site.
Prepare for page experience: Google’s page experience ranking update comprises all sorts of signals that you can optimize for ahead of the launch. For more, see: Google’s Page Experience Update 2021 — A Complete Guide.
Review design changes: Website design can impact SEO in a number of ways, for example, the code used, the way the new webpages will be set up or the navigation. Make sure there is an SEO review of any design changes.
Back up the old site: As insurance, you’ll want to make a backup of your site. Download all the images and any other assets so you have them stored just in case, and make a backup of your database if applicable.
Set up a testing environment: Most web developers know to create a separate environment to make and test changes before they go live on the site. Make sure that is happening and that the search engines can’t access the staging site.
Prepare a new HTML sitemap: This will be for users and will help them navigate the site with ease as needed. For more, see: How to Create a Sitemap.
Change campaign URLs: Even if you do implement 301 redirects, you will want to review any marketing campaigns driving traffic to specific URLs on the site and make sure they will have the new URLs.
Check structured data: If you have structured data on your webpages, test and address issues ahead of the launch. You can use Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool.
Check page titles, meta descriptions and headers. Make sure each page has unique meta information and that page headers (H1, H2, H3, etc.) are set up properly on the webpages. For more, see our articles on meta tags and heading tags.
Analytics review: Make sure that analytics tracking is set up properly. Here, it can be really useful to hire analytics specialists if none exist on the team. That’s because you want to set up tracking in a way that will help you see that you are reaching the various goals you have set for the website and the business.
On launch day, here are some things you can and should do …
Crawl the website and address issues: Do another crawl of the website to surface any errors that may be coming up. As mentioned earlier, here are a few tools I recommend: SEOToolSet’s site crawler, DeepCrawl and/or Screaming Frog.
Run Search Console tests: As soon as the site is live, you can perform different test functions in Search Console. Upload your XML sitemaps, configure URL parameters, upload an updated disavow file (as needed), use the URL inspection tool and so on.
After the launch, here are some things to consider …
Do pre-launch checks again. Go through your pre-launch list and make sure that everything went off without a hitch.
Rerun all the benchmarks for improvements/declines: Rerun the benchmark reports to determine if there was improvement or decline on each of the metrics. Compare these with the pre-launch benchmark reports … How did you do?
Check crawl stats. In Search Console, check the crawl stats to make sure Google is crawling new web pages.
Use Search Console. Check out all the useful features in Search Console, and use them in the post-launch phase.
Measure performance: You can begin to track progress right away, but things may be shaky for a while. Depending on the size of the site and the complexity of the migration, you will need to decide when you can start measuring true performance — which could be several months out. Look at things like rankings, traffic, user experience metrics and conversions. (And, of course, all the goals and reports set up in Google Analytics in the pre-launch phase.)
Create your content strategy. There’s no doubt you will be adding in more content over time. Now is the time to get clear on how you will approach adding new pages to the website, making sure that the SEO professional/team is involved in all of the new content plans. This ensures you keep the site organized, optimized and driving traffic.
When done poorly, a website migration can cause a loss in traffic and revenue not just in the short term, but even in the long run. When done well, however, a website migration can set up your website for better performance for years to come, and ultimately set up your business for more success.
We’ve helped hundreds of clients successfully complete a website migration and keep them competitive in the search results. If you’d like help with your site move, please reach out to us.