Key takeaways in this article:
- Pull pre-migration data and reports of your website so you can use it as a benchmark moving forward to track progress.
- Create a sandbox or staging website to test out redirects and other functionality issues before launching the new website.
- Conduct a deadweight audit of your website using the All Site Content report in Google Analytics capturing 6 months to a year’s worth of data. Manually inspect which pages should be removed (example – it’s a service or product you’re no longer offering), which pages can be repurposed, and which pages to keep.
- Implement 301 redirects for the pages you’re removing as soon as the website launches.
- Recover lost backlink value by reaching out directly to the source to recover the link juice.
- Continue to run audits post-migration every 3-6 months.
- Remember, it’s normal and inevitable to experience a decline in traffic for the first several months following a migration.
A site migration is a huge change your business can make to its brand or website as a whole. When done improperly, it can have a huge impact on a variety of important factors including your organic search traffic. Keep in mind that website migrations typically result in temporary loss of traffic.
It’s important to give search engines, such as Google, time to process the changes and update their indices. However, you can minimize the interruption to organic traffic by carefully planning out your migration strategy, and possibly get Google to recognize the new site as even better than the original version.
On its own, a website migration won’t improve your SEO results, but if not done properly, it can hurt your SEO performance. Because of this, it’s crucial to use your migration as an opportunity to make the necessary improvements for SEO and ensure that you don’t lose too much traffic upon the relaunch (some traffic drops are normal during the first few months following a redesign or migration). This website migration checklist provides guidance for the preparation, implementation and follow-up stages of your move to a new URL. Let’s get started!
Getting Ready for the Website Migration: Preparation Checklist
It goes without saying — but we’ll say it anyway — make sure you use a sandbox on a test server prior to going live with any changes. If possible, choose a slow time to plan and execute the migration. And make sure that the sandbox URLs cannot be indexed, you don’t want people or search engines to access those until the new design is fully implemented on the live website. Now, let’s get into the details with a preparation website migration checklist.
1. Crawl the Site
There are a variety of tools out there to help you crawl your website. Screaming Frog is one of them that can crawl your site and help you prepare for the migration. Use the data you collect to retrieve all your URLs and document critical information, such as which URLs are used for internal links. You can compare this information for cleanup and make any needed modification after the migration. For example, if you lose organic traffic following the move, you can go back to your crawl report. By doing this, you may discover that it may be a problem with a missing URL. You can then go in and fix the issue.
2. Remap to New URLs
Updating URLs is a critical step to avoid problems after the migration. Documenting existing URLs is important as well as outlining where they will fit into the sitemap of your new website. Be careful to avoid duplicate content as this will hurt your SEO. Ideally, it’s best to keep the URL structure from the original website moving into your new migration because it can help avoid unnecessary 404 errors and redirects. However, if the original URL structure is poorly designed and you can enhance the SEO strategy and user experience (UX) of the URLs during the migration, take that route instead. Remember to test out and implement any redirects that are necessary upon the website launch. Also, use analytics data to map new top pages and clear navigation paths for the user.
3. Identify Pages to Remove
With any site migration, it’s important to go back and clean up ancient content or useless information. A great way to identify what is no longer serving your website is to do a deadweight audit. Export an analytics All Site Content report from the past full year to see which pages have generated traffic and value for your website and which have not. You must manually inspect each page because there may be an opportunity to repurpose content to restore value rather than removing it entirely.
For pages that you want to remove, remember to implement a 301 redirect to maintain a good user experience and transfer the link juice value of a potential backlink that may have been associated with the page that was removed.
4. Identify New Pages
Building a new website gives you a lot of flexibility for content creation. Create new pages as needed to support SEO-friendly content. This step can help maintain or improve rankings on the site you’re migrating. When creating new content or pages, be sure to avoid duplicate content. Refer back to your deadweight audit in the previous step to see if there is a piece that already covers the topic you were wanting to write about. In addition to that, having an organized layout of your pages can really help your strategy take steps forward instead of moving backwards.
5. Benchmark Current Metrics
It’s important to set a level before the migration. Include metrics on rankings, index, organic conversions, organic traffic, organic revenue and other metrics that will help you evaluate the performance of the new site. You can use free or paid tools to perform this task. Consider Google Analytics, SEMrush or Omniture, among other tools that will do the job. Setting a level before the migration sets a standard moving on and it’s helpful to have a record of historic data to refer back to when necessary.
6. Create a Custom 404 Page
The 404 page can help keep people on the site even if they land on a page you have removed. Therefore, it helps you take advantage of any outdated links to your site. While it’s important to implement the appropriate redirect for a broken page, it’s a best practice to have a designated 404 error page on the chance that you missed a broken link. In that case, a designated and well-optimized 404 page can provide people with useful links and information keeping them on your website for longer and reducing both the bounce rate and exit rate.
7. Update Google Search Console
Set up the new domain in Google Search Console. Check that you’re using the proper version and include the HTTP, HTTPS, www, and non-www formats. Submit the new sitemap with the existing sitemap to make sure the old site directs visitors to the new URLs. Keeping Google Search Console up to date on your site is very important for future purposes.
Implementing the Website Migration Checklist
To ensure that Google Analytics recognizes the new site, be sure to test redirects and update your internal links and sitemap. Here’s a detailed checklist to help ensure you don’t miss anything critical with implementation:
- Ensure Google Analytics is working: It’s important to make sure all your new URLs and redirects have the Google Analytics tracking code registering properly for them. Doing this will help you track their performance and gather data accurately. To continue accessing historical data, you can use your existing account. Annotating the launch in Google Analytics allows you to benchmark for future reference.
- Test your redirects: It’s important to make sure each URL is going to the new site. You can use a site lookup (site:www.yoursite.com) to test, fix and retest each URL. And don’t forget about image URLs – they are subject to change and it’s essential that you redirect them as well to avoid broken image links which can hurt your image searches.
- Update internal links: If you are using 301 redirects, they will pass old pages to the new website. However, not updating the internal link directly on a page can cause redirect chains and loops that negatively impact the user experience and page speed. Point all internal links to the proper and newly assigned location using SEO-friendly anchor text.
- Update the sitemap: XML sitemaps serve as a blue print of your website and communicate information about the structure and content to Google so its spiders can better understand it when crawling your website. When you create a new XML sitemap, Google finds the migrated content on your new site more easily. Don’t forget to organize the most important and valuable pages at the top of the sitemap and submit it for indexing in Google Search Console. Adding your sitemap link to your robots.txt file is also a best practice.
- Update other platforms: When you move, you have to notify the post office so that they can forward your mail. When going through a website migration, it’s important to update your social media, bios, and other platforms that link back to your website address to ensure all of your online assets point to the new site. This is essential to maintain and generate new organic traffic.
- Transfer over the meta titles and descriptions: As you’re implementing the website migration, remember to transfer over the meta titles and descriptions assigned to each page, but especially for your most valuable pages. The meta title holds value with keyword rankings. Not having one assigned can hurt your keyword positioning.
- Assign image alt text: Similar to the previous point, image alt text can influence your keyword positioning if a keyword can fit in the alt text description. More importantly, it’s necessary to abide by ADA compliance guidelines. When writing your image alt text, you must describe what the image is rather than keyword stuffing. If you can fit a keyword naturally into the alt text without compromising the description, that’s added value!
Post-Launch Website Migration Checklist
Even with our checklist, you’re bound to run into some errors along the way. It’s important to monitor errors after the migrated website goes live. One way you can do so is through Google Search Console error reports. Pay particular attention to 500 level errors, 404 notifications and issues with your crawl rate. The error reports indicate duplicate content, gnarly title tags, and meta descriptions that can negatively impact your SEO.
You could also use Google Analytics to differentiate between referral versus organic traffic and your conversion rate. Compare this and other information to the benchmarks taken before your website migration.
Here are a few other things to check following the migration.
- Check how many indexed pages you have: You may notice a temporary drop, but if you’re using 301 redirects, the number should return to normal levels. If you don’t see your index pages increasing, check your robots.txt file first to make sure you’re not accidentally blocking important pages. Then, review your redirects list to ensure you didn’t miss anything that would cause a page to not show up on the new website.
- Audit your architecture: This is a great time to check the rest of your site navigation, such as title tags, H1s, meta descriptions and noindex/nofollow disallows. Your audit should also review your user experience and site speed performance. Make improvements that would enhance both including compressing large image files, adding breadcrumbs to pages, and creating structured data that can help search engines better understand the page it’s crawling and indexing.
- Request updates to backlinks: Contact websites that were once backlinking to a page on your website that may have been removed and request that they reinstate that backlink in their content once again. This is also a good way to alert websites of your recent improvements and website changes, which can persuade them into adding a backlink to your website if it can add value to their own initiatives or further enhance their user experience.
- Recrawl the site as a final check: Recrawling your site by running another post-launch audit can help identify items that slipped through the cracks or weren’t properly optimized during the migration process. It’s also a good practice to continue recrawling your website occasionally to keep up with maintenance and identify new opportunities to enhance your SEO strategy. We like to do an audit of our website every 3-6 months.
Website Migration Overview
You may wonder whether you should migrate your site at all. Site migrations aren’t always for everyone, but it’s important to always consider the possibility of it. If you feel your business is ready for that next step, here are a few goals you can keep in mind to best accomplish with a new site:
- Complete a rebranding campaign
- Generate press and backlinks.
- Move to a secure HTTPS to help improve your SEO.
At Boostability, we are industry leaders in small business SEO services. Our in-depth guides help digital marketing professionals and small businesses improve their organic traffic goals. Contact us today for more information on our SEO services and how we can help you!