- Site migration can ruin SEO performance if not done correctly. Having a website migration checklist can help prevent errors that can happen before, during, and after migration.
- Just like any other major updates on a website, expect some dips in your traffic and other data. Give search engines some time to recognize your new website before making more major changes.
- Based on our experience as an SEO service provider, there’s no such thing as perfect when it comes to migrating a website. It’s best to be prepared for some of the issues, especially in indexing, internal linking, and website traffic.
Website migration could be the best business decision you can make to improve your company’s website. However, it’s not a simple feat, especially when it comes to your SEO. It’s a process that requires a lot of research, planning, and help from a bunch of experts to be done correctly.
In this article, we’ll show you what site migration is and how it affects your SEO. We also provided a complete site migration checklist to help you get started. As a bonus, we threw in our personal agency experience in migrating a website for one of our own clients.
What is a site migration?
A site migration is the process of migrating a website from one domain to another. There are a lot of reasons why a brand or company would choose to migrate its old website instead of redesigning it. Some of the most common reasons include:
- The company is under new management
- The company changed its name
- The company is changing its website’s CMS platform
- The company website is so outdated that making a new website makes more sense
- The company is moving from one server to another
Does site migration affect SEO?
There are some risks to migrating your website to a new domain. One of them includes impacting SEO. If a site migration isn’t done correctly, you could lose a huge amount of organic traffic and data. Keep in mind that every time you make drastic changes to your website, your SEO will almost always be affected.
Site migration affects SEO because some of your pages may have already gathered a lot of traffic and link authority. So, once you’ve migrated, expect that you’ll momentarily lose some of your traffic.
However, in most cases when site migrations are done right, you can increase your organic traffic and rankings when you migrate your website. All you have to do is follow a few steps to migrate your website without losing most of your SEO performance.
Site Migration SEO Checklist
Just so we’re crystal clear, website migration will affect your SEO performance. Then again, so will other major updates you perform on your website. This SEO migration checklist will help you minimize the blow so that you can keep most of your organic search traffic and rankings.
3 Weeks Before Migration
Before you actually move to your new website, there are certain steps you need to take. This checklist doesn’t have to be done in order, but all of these steps are essential to make your migration run smoothly.
Buy the new domain
Buying the domain name before doing anything else is a good move if you’re one hundred percent set on the domain that you want. Think of it as your way of “reserving” a seat for your friend just in case someone takes it.
One way to check if a domain is available is to type it into the address bar of your browser and see if it’s for sale. Sometimes, a web hosting company will show you that the domain name is for sale. Other times, you’ll get a prompt from your browser that the website doesn’t exist.
You can visit a web hosting provider to see if the domain you want is available. You can also visit domcomp.com to check domain availability and compare prices from different providers.
Remember, if you’re going to buy a domain that is brand new and has never been used before, it will adversely affect your SEO. If the benefits of having the domain, like it being easy to remember, more aligned with your company, or incorporating your brand name, then this change can be justified.
Make a website transition plan
Not planning is one of the most common mistakes website owners make when migrating to a new domain. Website migration involves multiple projects and multiple people, which means there are also a ton of ways it can go south. Planning ahead will help you organize your timeline, teams, and the entire process.
One of the most essential things you need to include in your plan is to create a sitemap or diagram of how your new site will look. You can make a simple flow chart with the homepage at the top, then branch out to the different drawers or sections you want to be on your site. Here’s an example of what we did for an events website we’re currently working on:
Aside from planning the actual website, make sure to discuss timelines with the people who will be working on your migration. This will help set expectations for deadlines and payments, as well as help you decide on a realistic launch date.
Evaluate the complexity of each task and prioritize accordingly
This is especially important if you have a large website. Different pages can have unique issues when it comes to migration. For example, moving a lot of pages at once, moving to a new CMS, using a different URL structure, changing the structure of your website content, and many more things can cause potential issues.
To reduce the possibility of mayhem, prioritize your process based on the bulk and complexity of each stage or task. Keep it simple and try not to handle multiple changes at once, even if you’re not the one doing it.
Realistically, if you’re a business owner, you probably won’t be too hands-on when it comes to transitioning to a new domain. However, if you’re at least aware of the bulk of the job, you can set your expectations properly so that you know when to ask for an update or when things are running too slow.
Backup current website
Creating a backup of your current website will act as your contingency plan if everything doesn’t go the way you want. This way, you can easily revert to your old website if you eventually decide not to push through with the migration.
Talk to your web development team or service provider about backing up your old website. They should be able to walk you through the process, or do it for you.
From our SEO team’s perspective, we’d rather not remove the old site until the new website is ready for launch. More often than not, you won’t need to retire the old site if you’re just migrating to change domains.
Benchmark your old website
Your analytics data can get erased when you migrate to a new domain. This means losing all historical data that can be valuable to your marketing team. Take time to export your old data, including reports about your “money pages” or the pages that drive the most traffic to your website. Moreover, this can also help you decide which pages to keep for your new website.
Later, we’ll discuss Google Analytics and its place in the migration process. Notating the date of the migration in Google Analytics Universal will help assist you in evaluating performance benchmarks.
Create a sheet and map out all your old URLs and metadata
This is a very important element because this will serve as your guide to your new website. Creating a sheet for all your metadata (meta titles and descriptions) will reduce the work hours you need to spend and prevent you from having to write everything from scratch again.
Additionally, if you’re making a lot of changes to the URLs of your new site, this sheet will serve as your guide and checklist for all your redirections. You wouldn’t want your old customers to get a 404 error when they revisit your site through cached data.
From an SEO perspective, we recommend including the backlinks of the respective pages so that you can easily contact each domain for a link update. This will prevent losing all the authority you built up.
Use a staging site
A staging site is a copy or clone of a website that allows you to test changes and other features without affecting your actual website. Staging sites are used by web developers when they test major changes and find and fix bugs before they deploy a website.
Make sure the new domain is not crawlable
Your domain shouldn’t be crawlable by search engines because your unfinished changes will appear on search results and affect your analytics data. From the perspective of the user, you wouldn’t want to see an incomplete website, right? Although, we’re positive that those incomplete pages won’t even rank high on SERPs.
There are a lot of ways to block search engines from crawling your website. You can talk to your developer about each of these and ask them which one would be easier for them to implement:
- Robots.txt – also called the robots exclusion standard or robots exclusion protocol is used by websites to tell web crawlers and other robots how they can access your pages. Webmasters create this text file to exclude or include specific pages or drawers into a crawl.
- Noindex tag – this meta tag is an HTML script that tells search engines not to include a specific page in the index of their search results.
- Passwords – most developers would include password protection to staging sites to block access to a website that is still under development.
Receive marketing tips like these directly in your inbox
Aside from keeping track of the different people, teams, or agencies working on your migration, there are some things you need to pay special attention to during the migration process.
Update new internal links
If your Content Team is copy-pasting old content to your new site, you have to be cautious about the links that they copy with it because all of those will have to be updated. Since you already have a sheet of your old links versus new links, have them update the internal links to their respective pages.
Even if you can technically use 301 redirects for internal links, it’s best practice to avoid using internal redirects. Google rewards websites that make it easy for web crawlers to identify their website. Using too many redirects can send bots to multiple pages when they could just be looking for one if you update your internal links. Additionally, too many redirects can cause your page load time to slow down, which is one of the many ranking factors for Google.
Map out all redirects and watch out for redirect chains
Since we’re on the subject of redirects, you also have to create a file or sheet that maps out all your existing redirects to avoid redirect chains.
A redirect chain happens when there is more than one redirect in an initial URL to the destination page. For example, if you were already redirecting Page A to Page B in your old site and you use a redirect for Page B to Page C in your new site, this will create a redirect chain from A to B to C.
Redirect chains can significantly slow down your website and affect user experience, which can eventually lead to affecting your rankings.
Update Google properties
Some developers can forget about this and actually won’t warn you to update your Google properties because they tend to copy/paste some of the code from your old site, especially if you aren’t redesigning it. This isn’t inherently wrong, but you either need to tell them to replace the Google tracking IDs on your old website or you need to update your website URL from your end in your Google accounts.
Our SEO team will typically create a new Google property for Google Tag Manager, Google Search Console, and Google Analytics to avoid confusion between old and new data. To prevent gaps in data and reporting, make sure your Google tracking IDs are in place before the new website launches. For Google Analytics 4, however, you can simply add a new stream for the new site so that you have some level of continuity. You can create custom dimensions to track which website traffic is going to and this allows for easy benchmarking.
Update sitemap, schema, and robots.txt
Updates in your sitemap and schema can be done automatically using plugins. However, if you don’t use tools or plugins, be sure to implement the correct schema markup in all of your pages and tell your developers to update the sitemap as you publish new pages. Make sure that there are no broken links in your sitemap and then submit it to Google Search Console for review.
Additionally, have your developer update the robots.txt file in your new website and disallow any page that you don’t want to be crawled.
Tell Google about your migration
In Google Search Console, you have the option to help Google index your new URLs and minimize ranking loss by submitting a change of address. Just go to the Settings tab and select Change of Address.
After successfully migrating your website, there are still a few things you need to do or check before you can fully settle in.
Expect dips in your data
Any major change you make to your website will cause dips in your traffic data because Google needs some time to determine if your page has the best answer for a search query. So, after migration, expect that there will be some dips in your metrics, including clicks, impressions, and, sometimes, rankings.
If you restructured your content or completely updated all of the content, then you should expect major changes in your rankings and impressions. This is regardless of whether you just updated a website or migrated to a new one. Have an Organic SEO Services provider run an audit to see what you can improve on your website to get your rankings back.
Audit your new website
Running an audit is the easiest and fastest way to find what’s going on, what went wrong, and how to fix something on your website. To make sure that your new site is running smoothly, have your SEO team run a full website audit and ask for recommendations on how to improve.
Tools like SEMRush and Ahrefs offer some of the best SEO reports, but you can also rely on free services from Google like the Lighthouse report. It will give you an overview of your website, including performance, accessibility, best practices, SEO, and PWA audit reports.
Check Google for indexing issues
Sometimes, however, no matter how careful you are, you may still encounter some errors. One of the most common errors after the migration is indexing issues. Usually, an SEO audit should show this in tools like SEMRush and Ahrefs. However, you can check Google yourself and see how many pages on your new website are indexed.
One way to check for indexing issues is to use the URL Inspection Tool on Google Search Console. It will explicitly tell you if a page is not indexed and some of the possible reasons why. GSC also provides a report for page indexing which shows you an overview of how many pages are indexed and why some of them aren’t.
Another way is to go to Google Search and type “site:” or “info:”, followed by your URL, and Google will show you how many pages have been indexed.
Check your rankings
There are a lot of ways to monitor rankings. One of the easiest ways is to use a paid tool like Moz, Ahrefs, SEMRush, or any other tool that has a rank tracking feature. Another way would be to manually search for keywords or queries that you want to rank for and have your site show up for inSERPs.
You can download Moz’s free tool to help you see ranking numbers and use “CTRL + F” to look for your website.
Contact backlink publishers and update your backlinks
Similar to internal links, your backlinks or external links should also link directly to your website. Again, you don’t want to cause redirect chains, especially for the pages that you want to have authority on. If you have thousands of pages, you can just focus on the pages that have high value and contact the backlink publishers of the links that go to your pages.
Don’t discontinue your old domain immediately
Abdicating your ownership to your old domain will immediately set it up for grabs for other people (or worse, your competitors). Additionally, you have to give Google time to index and rank your new website, otherwise, your 301 redirects would be useless. Just give search engines some time to recognize that your website is still you before discarding your old site.
Our agency's experience in website migration
We provide a variety of Organic SEO Services, which means migrating a website is just one of the things that we do for our clients. In fact, we just recently successfully transitioned one of our clients to a new domain.
Our client, Wheelchair Getaways, needed to migrate to a new domain because it changed its brand name: from Accessible Vans of America (accessiblevans.com) to Wheelchair Getaways (wheelchairgetaways.com). Below is a screenshot of their Google Analytics Organic Search traffic one month before migration (August 12, 2022, to September 12, 2022), with Organic Search between 4,000-5,000 Users:
To maintain rankings and website traffic, and to prevent our client from losing customers during migration, we chose to continue updating the old site with the same updated content that we published on the new website while it was still in staging.
Once our client was satisfied with the new website and its features, we made sure that all redirects and all the other items we discussed above on our checklist were good to go. At the time of writing, we’re still in the process of watching out for errors. Another month after the migration (September 13, 2022), the new website maintained most of its organic search traffic:
As expected, there was a slight dip. However, for the total monthly Organic Search since our migration, our client’s new website has maintained most of its performance, considering that Google had another core algorithm update this September 2022.
Need assistance in migrating your website?
The team at Win at Ecommerce would love the opportunity to talk with you. We can give you a free evaluation of your technology and help your business win.