Your Migration Checklist: Part 1 – SEO Migration

A website migration is no small feat. In fact, it can be a massive job with a number of potential risks to your traffic and search engine rankings, among other complications. So, how can you make sure you come out the other side unscathed?

Kira Hawker

There are many reasons why a business might need to relocate their website to a new server – maybe you’ve switched hosting, or you’re rebranding and want a fresh domain for your new look? Whatever reason you choose to migrate, you need to know you’ve got everything covered.

In this blog, we’ll be looking at what SEO professionals consider to be a migration and the pros and cons of making substantial changes to your website.

What is SEO Migration?

SEO professionals consider migration as a wide-ranging term referring to any significant changes made to a website’s structure, platform or domain location. This means there may be actions that can be taken to bring about better visibility and an increase in traffic without necessarily moving the entire site. However, developers consider migration in more defined terms; the movement of a website in its entirety from one server or platform to another.

The main changes that would constitute SEO migration include:

  • Changes to content
    Making big changes to your content, adding new pages or introducing new languages, or merging existing content
  • Changes to website structure
    Adapting your navigation, changing internal linking, altering the user journey, or changing site hierarchy
  • Changes to design or device optimisation
    UX-based changes across devices, techniques to improve performance, or imagery and design changes

So, for example, if your business has just opened a new store in Paris and you want to deliver a specific site to your French customers, you would be changing your domain from a gTLD (general top-level domain) to a ccTLD (country code top-level domain).

Going from www.awesomebusiness.net to www.awesomebusiness.fr, for example, can help you identify better with your customers across the Channel. Or, maybe you want to do the complete opposite and bring all your domain addresses under one top-level-domain (www.awesomebusiness.net/fr). Long-term, this type of change could lead to an increase in traffic and higher rankings.

What Are the Benefits of SEO Migration?

Any changes made to a website are intended to bring about better search engine visibility, and migration in SEO terms is always aimed at these elements. Development-based migration (moving platforms, for example) on its own does not have any real SEO benefit, unless its moving from HTTP to HTTPS.

However, the changes you make to the structure of your website will likely have a marked effect on its success. It will change the way Google reads and interprets your website, including internal and external links and your ranked keywords.

One of our clients, AE Publications, approached us to facilitate a migration after deciding to update their URL structure with new pages and a streamlined site design. With a detailed migration plan and ongoing support, they were able to enjoy an increase in traffic, new users and page sessions. Then, with some excellent SEO wizardry, they increased session duration, decreased bounce rate and saw a 66% increase in page views.

What Happens if it’s Not Done Right?

The reason anyone chooses to migrate is obviously to increase the performance of their website to encourage more traffic and conversions. Unfortunately, there are many risks to migrating your website, both in terms of development and SEO. Poor planning and lack of communication between key parties will inevitably lead to migration fail.

Some of the most common errors that crop up during a migration are:

  • Broken links and redirects
    When you migrate all or part of your website, you must check the effectiveness or your links before you go live. Broken links and redirects can have negative repercussions
  • Duplicated content
    If you are moving content across domains, one of the most important things to consider is duplicated content, which can be avoided with a proper index of all your site’s content
  • 404 errors
    A large proportion of website users will simply leave a website if they encounter a 404 error, so ensuring you minimise the chances of this happening is key to keeping traffic levels

There are a number of other elements that could go wrong, but these will all go away with proper planning from the get-go.

So, where do you start?

Where to Start with SEO Migration

Before migrating, you need to be prepared for the journey. The planning you do early on makes all the difference when it comes to migration day.

Start by creating a sitemap of your new site, with a list of all pages presented hierarchically. You’ll need to have a totally complete list of URLs, including any that your PPC campaigns are pointing to. Then, create another list of the URLs you intend to use for your new site and map each one from the old site to the new site, all of which will utilise 301 redirects.

Once you have completed the URL mapping for your new site and created an XML sitemap, it’s time to test all your redirects. You should use meta=”noindex” and password protect the new domain from being indexed during the testing phase. If you don’t, you might find yourself penalised by Google for duplicate content because it will index both websites.

Your last step here should be benchmarking. Without logging your existing performance, you’ll never really know how effective your migration will be.

AE Publication homepage on screen

Publishing Your Content to Your New Site

Once you’ve published all your content to your new domain, you need to quickly work through these next steps in order to have the best chance of maintaining your rankings.

Step 1: Check all your pages exist and are showing all the correct info and that all your internal links are active and going to the right place. They need to be pointing to the new site, rather than the old one. You might think it’s just easier to let the redirect do the work with internal links, but it’ll slow down your site which effects PageRank.

Step 2: Self-canonicalise your new pages. This means standardising your URLs so Google knows your page is a master copy. This stops duplicate content issues.

Step 3: Make sure all pages that are being removed are free of links and are removed from the old site as well (let them redirect for a 404). If you have a replacement page on your new site, set up a redirect, if not then 404.

Step 4: Turn off the password protect

Step 5: Set up your 301 redirects from the old to the new domain

Step 6: Get rid of the disallow rule from the robots.txt file. This will give Google the chance to start crawling your new website.

If you don’t manage to get these steps done quickly, Google will be redirected to a blocked site which will hurt rankings. Once these steps are done, you can tell Google about your new domain and submit your new sitemap within Google Search Console.

What Else Do You Need to Know?

There are a couple of things you need to remember during the migration process:

  • Make sure Google Analytics is installed on the new domain so you don’t lose out on any data while you’re transitioning
  • Don’t give up control of your old domain just because it’s not being indexed anymore. Although Google might point your old site to your new one without redirects in place, don’t put all your eggs in that basket
  • Keep a good timeline of key migration events in GA just in case anything goes wrong, that way you’ll be able to ascertain when it happened
  • Make sure you’ve got Google Search Console set up properly. You’ll need to set up a change of address and request Google to crawl your brand-new sitemap.
  • Don’t forget your link juice! You can try to contact the websites from which your most prominent backlinks come from – if they change the link to your new URL, it’ll help Google recognise the migration.

What Happens After Migration?

So, the migration went off without a hitch? Well done! After it’s all been completed, you need to conduct daily checks of Google Search Engine to see if you’ve had any crawl errors. Alongside this, you should crawl all your old URLs to check all your 301s are working.

Then, finally, you can check the benchmark rankings and begin monitoring organic traffic and behaviour.

What About the Technical Side?

As we mentioned, this is part 1 of 2 pieces looking into migration. The next piece will look at the development side of migration and what you need to know from a technical perspective in order to have a successful migration.

Watch this space for part 2!