Website migrations occur when a website is making significant changes to its URL structure. This is often accompanied by changes in hosting provider, site design, and CMS’s (content management systems).
While website moves are fairly common, they are often done incorrectly. Mistakes during the site migration process can do serious damage to your online business. Common consequences of poor site migration include losses in keyword rankings and traffic, decreases in paid Search Quality scores, and money wasted on sending potential customers to broken pages.
While Wpromote does offer site migration services, we want to provide readers with a guide to handling site migrations, with a particular emphasis on maintaining the SEO equity of your existing website. We’ve also included a handy site migration checklist at the end, which you can download for free.
Note: This guide is assuming your site migration involves major structural changes to your website. If you are only changing hosting provider or moving to a new CMS, this guide is not for you.
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Before we begin the migration process and relaunch your site, it is essential that you have completely mapped out the structure of the new website. Ensure that everyone involved in the project knows the new URL naming structure of pages on the site and where your existing content is going to live. We recommend creating a visual chart displaying the layout of the new website.
While in many cases you can just redirect all of your old webpages over to a corresponding page on the new site, in some cases it isn’t needed.
For example, if your old site has dozens of old blog posts that are of very low quality and don’t bring in any traffic, there’s no harm in just letting them return a 404 error. Indeed, some studies have shown that simply removing low quality pages from a website can improve your SEO. What’s most important is that you are redirecting old pages to a relevant destination on your new website. Do not just redirect everything to your homepage.
So, how do you identify which pages need to be moved over? Generally speaking if a page meets 1 of these 3 criteria, it should be redirected to the new site.
Once you have identified those pages, you can move onto the next step.
Creating a comprehensive 301 redirect map is critical to the success of your SEO site migration. If you’re unfamiliar with 301 redirects, check out our guide here. In short, a 301 redirect map is a list of all the URLs from your old website that you want to migrate over to the new website, and next to each of these URLs is the URL of the page where that old content will live on the new website.
Make sure that you share this redirect map with your entire digital marketing team. That way, your Paid Search, Social Media, and Email teams can change the URLs they are including in their ads/posts/emails. Otherwise, you could waste a lot of money sending people to non-existent landing pages, or landing pages that redirect the user (a big no-no).
If your site move only involves changing the domain name and/or switching to https, you don’t need to create a 301 redirect map. Instead you can just setup a sitewide redirect in an htaccess file, for example.
Now that you know exactly where all of your old content is going to exist on the new website, it’s time to move that content over. Depending on the size of your website and your CMS, this can be a very lengthy process.
If you have already been following SEO best practices and been optimizing your page titles, meta descriptions, headings, image alt text, etc. make sure that you don’t lose all of that work by forgetting to update the new website with that information.
One thing that is often forgotten is updating internal links within your content. For example, if your blog posts often link out to related posts or products on your website, you will need to update those links so that they don’t bring users to an error page.
You should also port over all relevant image, video, CSS, and JS files.
Most websites use a data analytics platform like Google Analytics to measure important metrics on the site, such as traffic and conversions. You’ll want to make sure your new site is ready from Day 1 to track these things so that there are no gaps in your data.
Relatedly, make sure you have also installed all needed tracking codes and pixels onto your website. This includes retargeting pixels, Facebook pixels, AdWords tracking, etc. At Wpromote, we recommend using Google Tag Manager to do this. Make sure all of this is done by launch. For more information on what your SEO campaign should be tracking, check out our blog post on important SEO KPI’s to track.
XML sitemaps give search engines a comprehensive list of URLs on your website, and makes it easier for them to crawl the site. To ensure that your new website is crawled and indexed as soon as possible, you’ll want to have your XML sitemap ready for submission.
It’s finally time to launch your new site! We recommend launching during non-peak hours, such as at nights or on the weekend. That way if something goes wrong with the launch, it won’t have too much of an impact on your business.
You can choose to launch the new website all at once, or in segments. For most websites we recommend launching all at once, but for very large websites launching in segments makes it easier to check for issues that may arise during the process.
Now that the site is live, you might think your work is done. Not the case! We still have a lot of essential work to do.
It’s finally time to put that 301 redirect map into action. Have your developer implement all of the 301 redirects once the site launches and is working properly. This is often a fairly simple process.
Canonical tags are tags that let search engines know what the default, or canonical version of a page is. Each page should have a canonical tag, even if it is just self-referential. For more information on canonical tags, check out our guide here.
The robots.txt files gives instructions to search engine bots as to how they should crawl the website. Make sure that nothing in the file is blocking the bots from crawling the new website. Also ensure there is a link to the new XML sitemap in the robots.txt file.
Oftentimes during the development of the new site, meta robots tags are added to pages giving robots explicit ‘no crawl’ instructions through the use of the ‘noindex’ tag. When the new site launches though, it’s time to remove these tags. This is a common mistake, so don’t do fall prey to it!
Setting up the new site in Search Console is important because not only is Search Console a great resource for any website, but you can use it to let Google know about your site migration.
If you have changed your site’s domain during the migration, use the change of address tool to inform them.
Submitting the XML sitemap for the new website, as mentioned, will help the search engines crawl and index the site faster. You might be wondering why we also are recommending re-submitting the old website’s sitemap though.
The reason we recommend this is that by re-submitting the old sitemap, the search engines re-crawl all of those old URLs and discover that most (if not all) are redirected to a new location. While this isn’t technically necessary, it should quicken the indexing process.
To further hasten the crawling process, you request via Search Console that Google crawl certain pages on your website. The URL inspection tool allows you to check specific URLs and provides detailed crawl, index and serving information directly from the Google index. The tool allows you to request indexing for a URL and view a rendered version of the page. You can also test a live page to determine whether or not it is able to be indexed. Put your ten top pages into the inspection tool. That should be enough to ensure Google can navigate to all of the key pages on your site.
While this won’t apply to most websites, if you have configured settings in Google Search Console like Geotargeting, URL parameters, and crawl rate, you’ll want to set those up again for the new website. Just make sure the URL parameters make sense given your new site structure.
In Google Search Console, you can disavow spammy backlinks. If you have done this in the past with the old website, resubmit the disavow file for the new website just to be safe. When you resubmit, look over the file to make sure you aren’t making any mistakes.
As discussed earlier, a failure to update these landing pages can cost you a lot of money. Make sure these teams are aware of the exact launch date so they can make the appropriate updates and keep everything humming along.
Follow this guide and your site will be in good shape during the site migration. If you need further help with your site migration, feel free to contact us here, or learn more about how we’ve helped other businesses with their migrations.