SEO migrations / Guide

How to execute a successful website migration by levelling up - game plan in 5 stages (and 17 missions)


Website migration guided walkthrough


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Unlike in video games, you don’t get unlimited chances to perform an SEO-friendly website migration. So how do you avoid an SEO disaster?

Unlike in video games, you don’t get unlimited chances to perform an SEO-friendly website migration. You only get one. And if you are not prepared, there is a high chance of it going wrong and the results can be devastating for your SEO.

From being generally active in the SEO community, we’ve sadly seen many examples of website migrations that have gone wrong, witnessed the stress and desperation of those involved and the devastating impact on their businesses. We’ve also been told stories about drops in organic traffic and declining rankings that have not only paralysed businesses by cutting off online sales or leads that their sales team rely on but that they continued to last for years, despite constant efforts to fix what went wrong.

So prevention is better than a cure, which is why we have written this article. It’s a lot easier and cheaper to prevent a website migration from going wrong in the first place than to recover from a failed one. But before you read any more, we want you to know that any type of migration is risky, and it is a challenging and complex process.

We also want you to know that this guide is not full of hacks or a bandage solution to easily migrate from A to B. It’s also not designed to make the migration happen as quickly as possible. It’s designed so that you migrate properly and permanently, minimising traffic fluctuations and putting you in the best possible position to continue to grow and thrive in the search results.

If you want to migrate your website without problems or difficulties, you need to complete every stage or level, just like a game.

Imagine getting glowing traffic and ranking reports after a smooth transition as the reward for defeating the final boss in the game. To get there, you’ll need to prepare, level up and win a lot of battles to reach the end.

Think of this as a walkthrough. Here, we’ll explain exactly how to successfully migrate your website.

What is a site migration?

There are many types of site migrations which we’ve outlined here and separated into changing domains and staying on the existing domain:

Site move

If you’re planning to change your domain, this will change each and every page of your site. Common reasons for a site migration like this may be because of a name change as part of a rebrand or shifting from a country level domain to a .com or .net that has a broader appeal. If little else is changing, these kinds of site migrations can be the easiest to implement but can still have a huge effect on your visibility.

Rebranding your company or product may mean changing your domain name to something completely different.

ccTLD is the country code Top Level Domain for your website. This may change if you’re branching out to become an international business and wish to lose the location specificity. For example, if you originate as a UK-based business, you may already have a .co.uk or .uk domain, but if you want to expand into the US (or anywhere else), you may be planning to switch to an extension that has a broader appeal like .com or .net.

Changing from HTTP to the more secure HTTPS may only seem like a tiny change but it will change the start of all your URLs. By adding HTTPS protocols to a website, it provides a secure connection and shows users that their data is being encrypted. Google rewards secure websites that have HTTPS encryption, which means if you don’t, you may suffer lower rankings. The website will also be flagged to Chrome users as not secure - making this move better for SEO and also the user experience.

Acquiring new businesses usually results in consolidating the two (or multiple) websites into your existing one. You may also want to switch from a multi-domain or subdomain strategy to a single one, making it necessary to merge them into one.

Sometimes you may want to set up various domains or subdomains for specific departments, brands that have outgrown the portfolio, individual products or projects, especially when they appeal to totally different audiences.


Existing domain migrations

An existing domain migration is where your root domain remains the same. This type of migration can be less confusing to search engines but again, this can still be dangerous if not done right with many risks. Reasons for this include redesigns, CMS updates and the reorganisation of content.

Migrating from one Content Management System (CMS) provider to another may be necessary if you’re unsatisfied with the current capabilities, slow website speeds, poor customer support, high costs or lack of flexibility when it comes to editing and managing your website. You may wish to move from one CMS for enhanced functionality or better security, in which case changing how search engines crawl your pages. This can often be a pretty difficult migration compared to others, especially if you don't take time to research and fully understand the new CMS, while other times it has no negative impact whatsoever.

It’s usually useful to merge all similar or duplicate content into a single, useful piece of content (a strong asset) rather than have weaker pages cannibalising each other which your site may be suffering from. Making this change and deleting content without the correct redirects or a solid plan can cause a decline in rankings.

A complete redesign has the ability to not only change the look and feel of your entire website but also how search engines crawl the website, understand the content, and the level of importance of pages and entire sections.

With rebrands and redesigns, the layout, hierarchy and structure of your website may change, as will the way your content is displayed. This can change the way search engines crawl and understand your website. The overall site structure can dictate the importance of pages and content as well as provide search engines with context.

There are all kinds of reasons you might want to change a URL, especially for websites with vast amounts of blog posts and products. This includes fixing wrong URLs, improving the readability and removing the publishing year to create evergreen content.

If you find yourself unsatisfied with your current hosting provider either due to your website’s performance or the provider’s service, you may want to switch. This will mean your website will be hosted on new servers which will change the location that search engines use to find your website. Thankfully in this case, many leading web hosts have support teams that can help mitigate risks of losing traffic or experiencing downtime.


Who this guide is for?

If SEO is an important driver of traffic, leads and sales for your organisation, then a poor executed migration could cause serious problems. This guide is for anyone who is working on or owns a website that is about to go through change. Change is a perfectly natural, healthy part of business, as companies grow and strategies evolve. You may need to merge with a new acquisition, move to a more secure CMS or simply want to reorganise your site architecture like you would the layout of a shop as your product range grows.

If you’ve been given the responsibility for SEO on the project and haven’t been through this process before (or even if you have), you are probably worried about the implications and likely feeling overwhelmed and confused about what to do and where to start. Designed to take the confusion out of the equation and help you protect your website’s SEO to avoid losing traffic and revenue, this guide is your strategy guide for this game called The Migration. Let’s get started.

How does this guide work?

This is your ultimate checklist for creating an SEO website migration strategy. We’ve designed this article in stages like a video game.

Why?

Website migrations can be really tricky. If you are making significant changes to your website’s domain, platform, structure, content or design it’s crucial to have a solid plan to help search engines understand what’s going on and avoid confusing them.

Just like a video game, this guide is divided into stages. Each stage will have objectives for you to accomplish including optional objectives. Not all parts will apply to your type of migration and may not be relevant. We’ve labelled the sections that only apply to specific types of migrations.

In addition, there will be actionable tips, objectives, or steps. Consider these as your mini objectives.

You will also find a Pitfall Warning in each section of the article. These are common mistakes that most people make during each stage. These are hidden by default to reduce clutter, but to read these, just click on them to expand.

Lastly, we warn you, this guide is long. You may not finish it one go and that’s okay. Don’t feel like you need to read everything right now, all at once. Read as much as you can today and come back to it later when you have more time or as and when you need to refer to it.


Stage One: The Twilight Zone

Level 1

Objectives

  1. Figure out your vulnerabilities
  2. Understand that migrations can go wrong
  3. Set expectations with stakeholders
  4. Be the champion for time and resources on SEO
  5. Advocate not making too many changes at once
  6. Take action on your current website (Optional until the end of stage 3)

The goal of this stage is to help you stop worrying and take control.

1) Figure out your vulnerabilities

Identifying your weak spots is the best way to get ahead of any potential issues and allow you to take action before it’s even happened. The first thing to consider is whether or not your team collectively has the knowledge and resources for each particular part of the project. If not, you’ll need extra time to research and read up about the area or hire the help of external experts.

Alternatively, if you are moving to a new CMS, chances are there will be loads of new features and functionality. In this case, you may not know what you don’t know. The solution is to make time to go through any demos, YouTube videos, documentation and research on how others are using it. Also, if you are moving domains or changing site structure and it’s a large site, you’ll need to dedicate plenty of time to plan out all the redirects since you’ll have to match up all of the individual URLs, any internal linking and structured data that uses URLs to the new setup.

2) Understand that migrations can go wrong

Before you get started on any migration, you need to understand the risks of what could happen. As with most SEO activities, you’re always at the mercy of Google and whether or not the migration goes to plan might not even be in your hands. Unfortunately, you could end up on the long road to organic traffic recovery following a migration – up to six to twelve months if it’s a domain migration.

You also need to be aware of what is truly at stake. Scope out the website migration and start detailing what’s going to change and what and who are impacted as a result. This will differ whether you’re just moving some content, which is less risky or conducting a full redesign which will require many more resources. Highlight all the risks and what you expect to happen to your organisation so everyone is aware and recognises the importance of SEO during the relaunch – often this lack of awareness can be a migration’s downfall.

3) Set expectations with stakeholders

Since migrations don’t always go to plan, it’s important to manage expectations from the very beginning, rather than only when issues appear. You’ll need to allocate enough resources to the project which will likely involve the whole team and other stakeholders. Explain the risks to them. The biggest danger is to your rankings, and although fluctuations in rankings and traffic are normal, it will likely take longer to recover if your site’s domain name, URL structures and protocols change. It’s also worth everyone being aware that there’s no guarantee your rankings will ever return to what it once was.

It’s not all doom and gloom – a clear plan that everyone is aware of and working towards may result in a positive change to your rankings. The more confused the final configuration (and your people), the more likely you are to experience that fall in rankings. Remember, it’s not as simple as to add up your collective previous traffic and expect the same from your new site, which you need to make your stakeholders fully aware of.

4) Be the champion for time and resources on SEO

A migration can need a lot of resources to be successful and safe for your business, especially if SEO is essential to your business.

Planning in advance is recommended so you can make sure all your resources are aligned. If you find there’s not enough time at the moment or the key members of your team aren’t available, you should wait until they are. Timing and dedication are crucial, and it’s important not to rush this process. Start with an SEO consultation and go from there.

If this is your first migration you know anyone who has done it before, get their help. Hopefully you can learn a few tips on how to avoid errors or struggles they may have encountered.

Pitfalls early on

If your entire business relies on website sales and leads to function and you’ve been given the responsibility of the SEO for a website migration, you are bound to worry carrying all of that on your shoulders. A task like this can be overwhelming and can make it hard for you to think logically.

Instead, you can end up relying on your instincts and considering many different possibilities, making it a chaotic, often unorganised approach.

The goal of this guide is to help you stop worrying and take control.

It can feel incredibly tempting to just dive into the migration and get it done as soon as possible, but as we just mentioned: don’t rush! Seriously. Start small and test the waters first, focusing on a multi-stage process that changes bit by bit, rather than all at once. Mixing multiple migration strategies will make your project more difficult. Imagine launching a new domain, a new design and publishing a whole new SEO strategy. If it sounds overwhelming, that’s because it is, especially to your SEO.

Google’s trend analyst, John Mueller, has explained how making significant changes to a website can confuse the search algorithms and trigger negative effects on your rankings. Instead, John is an advocate for making and testing individual changes step by step before moving onto the next. In an example used in a Webmaster Hangout, a combined change to domain name, framework, platform and content confused the algorithm which couldn’t identify the new stable state, causing delays to the migration.

If you are planning to make many significant changes regardless because you think the end state is important, you will definitely see fluctuations along the way. Mueller explains how practically speaking, the step-by-step approach may not be possible for some businesses and you may have to to bite the bullet and switch from the old set up to the new set up making sure that you have all of those details from the migration nailed down in advance.

Don’t put all your focus on a site that isn’t yet published and circle back to what actually does exist: your original website. During a migration, both versions of the website are important and need resources dedicated if you want to continue to grow.

We’ve seen many examples where companies have turned all their marketing efforts to building a new website to then cancel the project a year or so later down the line. Don't neglect your existing site.

This is the same for the technical SEO of your existing website – make sure it’s continuously growing in better shape so each time Google crawls, the quality improves.



Stage Two: The Stormy Ascent AKA Planning

Tough challenge

Objectives

  1. Plan everything out
    a) Assign a project manager
    b) Time it carefully
  2. Prepare for common mistakes
    a) Share all knowledge
    b) Don’t be afraid to change your mind
  3. Clean your domain
  1. Conduct an inventory of your website
    a) Gather data
    b) Crawl your website
    c) Identify your top pages
    d) Check your links
    e) Sort through your 404 pages
  2. Prepare a 301 redirect file


1. Plan everything out

Planning is essential to a successful website migration and the best migrations are executed with military precision to mitigate any potential risks. It’s important to migrate as efficiently as possible.

As with any project, you’ll need to create a detailed project plan, prioritise tasks and set milestones. Each task should have a description, status, owner, deadline and any supporting documents. With all these tasks, you can then build them into a timeline and map out which stage each task belongs to. By creating a list of everything that needs to be done, you can get all the right people involved early and prepared.

A) Assign a project manager

One person should have responsibility and authority when it comes to the migration, as project management is an important part of success in SEO. The relaunch process can be very complex with many different teams, departments and external experts involved, which is why having a single person to communicate between teams is essential.

B) Time it carefully

Timing your migration launch date and process strategically is absolutely essential, right down to the day of the week. The number of tasks can tend to stack up and, without having all the people and resources in the right places at the right time can overwhelm even the best of teams. You’ll want to leave enough time budgeted before your launch date to account for any glitches or unexpected delays.

The ideal launch date is always during a quieter, calm period, whenever that may be for your business. If you launch the new website in the middle of a seasonal peak, holiday or particularly busy time of year, any problems that occur can create a much bigger loss of traffic than the calmer periods. If you don’t know your peak times, you can use your analytics (like Google Analytics) to find out.

2. Prepare for common mistakes

A) Share all knowledge

Many undergoing a big migration don’t verify all their goals and desired outcomes with all of the stakeholders. Lack of information is never a good thing during a migration, especially when you need to rely on others for resources, time and effort required when planning ahead. All teams involved (and probably even those who aren’t) should be aware of the scope to coordinate their own efforts. Migrations may take time, particularly if you’re doing the multiple-step method and you need to account for delays and any unforeseen blockers that may arise. 

We recommend you keep documents on the important information like deadlines and feedback turnarounds in a universally accessible location such as a shared folder or project management tool. 

B) Don’t be afraid to change your mind

Migrations aren’t always what’s best for your business or website and often aren’t necessary. Until launch day, it’s never too late to change your mind, even if it may feel like it’s already in progress, so it’s important to regularly consider whether it’s the best choice for you, rather than rushing in headfirst. Always ask the question “is this migration really worth it”? No is a perfectly acceptable answer.

3. Clean your domain

If you’re moving to a new domain that you’ve recently purchased, you need to do your research on its history. Before you, someone else may have owned it and been using it in all kinds of ways, some not always good.

The first thing to look out for is any manual actions that Google issues against a site if its pages aren’t compliant with Google’s webmaster quality guidelines or considered spam. These may cause penalties like demotions or exclusions from the search results which will carry over to your website after the migration is complete. To check this, use the Google Search Console, address any problems it flags and file a reconsideration request.

You should also keep an eye out for unnatural links. Tackling this pre-migration will prevent them from becoming more complex and further impacting your website.

4. Conduct an inventory of your website

A) Gather data

The data of your old site is crucial to preparing for the new. Store any data you can, particularly details around the current site structure, before you retire the previous site. You never know when you may need to refer back to something. This also involves defining your SEO requirements using the previous site for reference, rather than starting from scratch. 

Here’s a checklist of essential data to store:

  • URL structure
  • Meta information (titles & descriptions)
  • Body content
  • Headings
  • Hreflang tags
  • XML sitemaps
  • Structured data 
  • Load times
B) Crawl your website

Migrations can impact your existing content in different ways, so you’ll want to make an inventory or audit of that content. Make a list of everything you have, crawl your site and use every tool you can to paint a full overview of all your website’s content. It’s important to protect your pages because not all URLs are considered by the team in a migration, particularly older pages. You don’t want to find somewhere down the line that some of your best resources are gone. Every page matters. Any content that currently drives traffic should be made available on your new, post-migration website.

Tools like Screaming Frog and Sitebulb allows you to get a comprehensive list of all crawlable URLs. You may discover some you may not even know you had.

Don’t forget about other content types like PDFs and images as often these can be driving good traffic to your current website and should be migrated. Your web analytics tool may not highlight them, so they can be easy to miss, but it’s important to make these high-traffic PDFs, files and images available on the new site. Ideally, while relaunching, consider switching your PDF content to HTML pages with the same content as they’ll be easier to navigate to, will show on your web analytics tools and be more mobile-friendly.

C) Identify your top pages

While all pages matter, not all are created equal. Your top-performing pages should be a priority when creating the new site. Start by pulling up the analytics and KPIs for your pages to find which generate the most revenue, conversions and traffic. You’ll also want to check for any pages that have promising search rankings and potential. These should become your priority pages and be monitored throughout the migration process.

Google Search Console is your friend here. If you find you have pages with high organic search impressions, yet few clicks, this may be a page worth optimising in the future. These kinds of pages are often missed, but while ignoring pages with these kinds of potential won’t immediately hurt your business, it is advantageous to have these in the pipeline for future SEO improvements. BuzzSumo is also a great tool to use here as it allows you to export a list of all your most shared and engaging content.

D) Check your links

How you handle tricky internal and external links can be the most destructive part of a migration to your SEO. Your internal links help search engines understand which parts of your website are the most important based on your linking structure, so you’ll want to make sure that the new linking structure matches the old, or, ideally, improves upon it. Your external links bring traffic in from elsewhere, so you need to capture all of these pointing to pages of your old site.

Backlinks, or external links, are crucially important to ranking as Google considers them a vote of confidence, validating the quality of your website and, as a result, usually ranks you higher for quality backlinks. All inbound links should point to genuinely useful and relevant content, and definitely not error pages or out-of-date content. There are plenty of tools available to export your external links including Moz’s Link Explorer, Majestic, Ahrefs and Google Search Console. Using a combination of these you can cover all your bases as each tool collects this backlink data in different ways. Once you’ve found the URLs that have been linked to other websites, you’ll want to set up redirects. In the case that an existing inbound link points to a piece of content you no longer wish to have, you should create new content to direct that link to.

Don’t forget your PPC campaigns. Export a list of any URLs that are used for those, as they could later result in broken links and, as a result, a poor ad reputation and negative impact on your quality score.

E) Sort through your 404 pages

404 pages are errors that occur where a page is not found because it has expired. You’ll need to take an inventory of any 404 pages you have and decide whether to redirect them if they have value. Link monitoring tools like Ahrefs and Majestic give you insight into which 404 pages should be redirected to an appropriate page. Typically, any 404 pages without any inbound links can be deleted without a redirect. 

5. Prepare a 301 redirect file

Changing your website’s URL means losing your existing ranking signals and relying on your redirects to help search engines reassociate their signals with the new URLs. This is why you should only change your domain if you absolutely have to.

A 301 redirect is the permanent moving of a web page from one URL to another, making it a crucial part of any migration. Imagine you move house and don’t tell anyone your new address. How will you get your post? In this case, you risk losing all the link equity you’ve built and your profitable keyword rankings. You’ll need to create a thorough 301 redirect mapping document that will tell search crawlers where an old link now should be on the new site along with which pages to lose, migrate, promote to the navigation and which need to be strengthened to indicate higher importance. Plus, when mapping, you shouldn’t forget broken or irrelevant redirects and loops. You can even use this opportunity to fix any redirect chains (where a redirect redirects to another redirect).

If you are thinking about changing URLs ever-so-slightly because someone on the internet told you that shorter URLs are better, it’s not worth it. In fact, in most cases, you should try to keep your old URLs the same. Changing a URL erases all of its histories and you only transfer part of it with a redirect which is why tiny tweaks like taking out “/blog” from your URL probably won’t be the improvement you expect it to be. If you have to use a redirect, don’t just send it to the homepage – that’s not helpful. Instead, always redirect to the most relevant page.

When you’re done mapping, test your redirects. They should all be 301 redirects, rather than any other, and, of course, ensure they’re directed to the right places. Carefully tweak the .htaccess file, a similar config file or directly in your CMS to manage your redirects based on conditions, rather than setting up each individually, saving you time.

Having a shaky migration checklist – or worse – no checklist at all is a common issue during many migrations that leads to the horror stories of failed migrations.

Friday afternoon migrations are 100% not a good way to end a week. When issues happen after 4 pm on a Friday, who will be there to sort them out? Likely, no one, and then you’ve lost traffic, sales and reputation with your customers for the whole weekend. Instead, plan for a Tuesday or Wednesday morning, giving you and your team (especially the IT and SEO people) the rest of the day and week to troubleshoot and iron out any high-impact issues that need to be fixed.

Avoid desperately searching for, evaulating and disavowing unnatural links post-migration.



Stage Three: Trials of Perseverance

Objectives

  1. Conduct a pre-mortem
  2. Set up rank tracking
  3. Create your staging environment
    a) Make it invisible
    b) Establish a testing checklist
    c) Refer back when necessary

4. Check for content consistency
5. Get Google Search Console ready
6. Recreate an XML sitemap

1. Conduct a pre-mortem

Get ready for the heavy lifting. This preparation stage is where the bulk of your migration work will be done. Both pre-migration testing and a pre-mortem are essential to making sure you’re ready to hit the launch button when the day comes. A pre-mortem is where you and your team imagine the project, or in this case, the migration, has failed and work backwards to determine what could cause it. Doing this will help you identify concerns and define your goals, but you should also ask everyone involved what their concerns and definitions of success are. This information will be useful in measuring the success of the migration.

2. Set up rank tracking

Setting up rank tracking should be a priority for your SEO at all times of the migration: before, during and after. This is an important time to update whatever rank-tracking tool you use so all your bases are covered and all queries are being fully tracked, especially your site’s most valuable keywords. Plus, categorise your keywords to be even more effective in monitoring patterns and behaviours. You may even want to build a migration dashboard that compares rankings, backlinks, indexed pages and organic search traffic with your old domain.

For benchmarking purposes, you’ll want to gather your analytics and metrics before the migration, so you can monitor rankings throughout the process and measure them against the previous results. This will make it far easier to access the effectiveness of the new changes you’ve made, whether that be the CMS or web design.

3. Create your staging environment

For those of you redesigning your website or migrating to a new platform, you absolutely need a staging environment set up. This will help you ensure your new website is designed in a way that is user friendly and maximises SEO performance by testing it all visibly. 

A) Make it invisible

Your staging environment shouldn’t be visible to the public for obvious reasons. HTTP authentication can be used to disallow access – this means setting up a password. It’s also important to block search engines from crawling and indexing the staging environment as it’s an exact duplicate of your live site post-migration and will conflict with it if detected by the search engines – that’s something you definitely don’t want. To block crawling, use the robots.txt file and for indexing, add noindex and nofollow meta tags into the header of each page.

A common mistake is this being pulled across into the live site, which can lead to a loss of organic traffic.

B) Establish a testing checklist

Before you’re ready to go live, you should test if everything is functioning the way it should, plus you can perform a crawl on the staging environment. 

There are plenty of things to test, including:

  • Are all redirects working (including domain redirects)?
  • Is there a user-friendly URL structure? 
  • Is there an accurate sitemap?
  • Does every page have accurate title, description and canonical tags?
  • Is the website optimised for mobile or responsive?
  • Is there accurate Schema markup?
  • Are all the pages that should be indexed technically indexable?
  • Have important pages lost or broken any internal links?*
  • Have important pages haven’t been demoted in the navigational hierarchy?
  • Is there any duplicate content (only one URL per content)?
  • Have the internal link anchor texts containing important keywords been updated?
  • Is the load speed faster than the old website?
  • Is the website better than the old version?

*Fixing internal links is essential as often during a relaunch, pages that usually drive organic traffic can lose those links, especially if they’re removed from the main navigation. This will result in a loss of visibility and traffic. We recommend Screaming Frog and Deepcrawl as useful tools for identifying broken links. Then, they simply need to be redirected. 

C) Refer back when necessary

Technically this stage is at the end of the migration when you’re looking back, but it’s worth highlighting that staging environments are useful post-launch as you can always refer back to how things were done on the old site. If you need to, it’s possible to roll back the launch by changing the DNS records.

4. Check for content consistency

Content, particularly the high quality, traffic-driving kind, should remain consistent across both sites. Take some time to compare the content across both the new and old pages and identify any differences in the usability and wording. Changes like these may affect the relevancy of your targeted keywords and impact your rankings, regardless of whether you have all the right URLs. Any content changes should always be improvements. This also applies to page titles, H1s, meta descriptions and robots meta tags.

5. Get Google Search Console ready

Google Search Console is an essential tool when migrating a site as it communicates with Google, encouraging the search engine to crawl the new, post-migration website and quickly flag errors for you to fix. You won’t need it until the site is live, but your development team will need to be prepared to add the required mark-up to the site so the suite can be verified. Verifying this tool is critical for the website to be indexed properly.

6. Recreate an XML sitemap

Your new domain will need a fully tested XML sitemap before you submit it to Google. For this, all URLs from the old website should have 301 redirects to new pages. You’ll need to submit both your old XML sitemap (which should also be thoroughly tested) and your new one to Google Search Console. To create an XML sitemap, we recommend http://xml-sitemaps.com, although if you’re using a CMS like WordPress they often have built-in features to help. We recommend you keep the XML sitemaps containing old URLs online for at least a month.

It can’t be stressed enough: set up your 301 redirects correctly! It’s such a common mistake.


Stage Four: The Migration

Objectives

  1. Lower your TTL
  2. Act quickly
  3. Make it visible
  4. Keep calm
  5. Prepare for the worst
  6. Crawl
  1. Final technical tests
  2. Update externally
    a) Update your tools
    b) Update your ads
    c) Update all owned assets
    d) Reach out to fix backlinks

It’s time

The fateful day has arrived and you can’t decide if you’re excited or utterly terrified, but fear not, you’ve prepared for this. As long as you’ve tested everything and fixed any major errors that popped up, you’re ready. Just make sure you have your SEO and development teams ready in the coming days or even weeks to monitor the situation. 

1. Lower your ttl

TTL (time-to-live) is how long DNS servers will hold onto your domain’s DNS records before requesting. Just before the migration, you want this as low as possible – ideally around 300 seconds – so it’ll be frequently requesting, making it much easier to roll back the migration in a worst case scenario. A few days after a successful migration, you’re safe to increase the TTL to anywhere between a few hours and a few days depending on if you use a CDN (content delivery network).

2. Act quickly

There’s nothing worse than a slow launch, especially when you’ve been hyping yourself and everyone else around you up for a shiny, brand new website. Based on previous experience, the ideal way to launch a new site is to flip the switch quickly and power through the migration in a day, maybe two. The longer you take, the more confused the search engines get with the number of URLs that they’re indexing across the two websites. 

3. Make it visible

When a new website goes live, the search engines will most likely increase their crawling frequency for a while as they detect new changes, that’s why you need to have your key landing pages indexable. Right before launch, you’ll want to make sure you remove anything hiding your website. Start by crawling the entire new website before and after the launch to identify anywhere important pages aren’t being indexed. Look out for those “noindex” and “nofollow” meta tags and any password protected areas and remove them. You’ll also need to update your DNS records to point to the new environment.

Your robots.txt file can sometimes be the source of problems if not checked just after launch. This is because it can prevent pages from being indexed and contain harmful directives. Your new robots.txt file should provide access to the right crawlers, while if you’ve changed domain name, your old robots.txt should provide search engines access to follow the redirects.

4. Keep calm

Of course, the words “act quickly” will only make you panic, and during a migration, it can be incredibly easy to get caught up in that anxiety if you haven’t experienced it before. As we’ve said several times earlier, expect fluctuations in your rankings and traffic and don’t freak out when they most likely happen. Double-check that all your analytics tools are working and that the right Google Analytics code is added to the new site, but if they are, it’s nothing to worry about. When updating your Google Analytics account, it might be worth simply changing the name of your existing account rather than starting again, this way you can compare it with previous results. Without updating GA, removing the staging IDs or activating it, you can’t effectively track your website and could lose out on valuable data.

5. Prepare for the worst

Let everything settle, and access whether or not the launch went well. If you decide the launch is a disaster, get ready to roll the site back to what it once was. Ideally, you’ll have set conditions in advance to determine its success or failure to avoid any heat of the moment decisions. Think about this carefully: have you given it enough time? Or on the other hand, are you avoiding rolling back because of all the time and work you’ve already put in – you’re never too far in to turn back. If it’s severely affecting revenue, that’s your sign to roll back and avoid a worsening nightmare.

6. Crawl 

Once the new site is live and migrated, you should do an extra thorough crawl of your old and new URLs yet again to check your redirects are all functioning correctly. Go back and check that both your old and new XML sitemaps are correct, discoverable and only contain indexable pages to give crawlers full, easy access to your links. Any pages with status codes or broken links should be fixed by this stage, but if not, definitely focus on that. If your website is available in more than one language using hreflang, check that it has implemented properly as it’s important for the interpretation of your website structure. Any pagination or Schema markup on your site should also be working correctly. Crawling should also identify any canonical tag errors to ensure they’ve been updated to new versions and removed from the old ones. 

Watch out for crawler traps. These are a structural issue where a near-infinite amount of URLs are generated and can seriously hurt your SEO. If your technical foundation is strong, you should be fine. 

7. Final technical tests

Congratulations, you should have tested and crawled through pretty much everything already, especially your links. Additionally, now your new site is live, you should run a mobile-friendly test, especially if you haven’t previously. You can also now run page speed tests to see how your website is performing, and, for slower pages, you can set up segments to easily track them. Tools including WebPageTest, Pingdom, GTMetrix and Google PageSpeed Insights are all good options.

8. Update externally

It’s not just your own website that needs to be migrated or updated, there are plenty of changes on external sites that need to be done in tandem once you’ve launched. Only move onto this stage, however, if you’re happy with the migration and are not considering a roll-back – no sooner.

A) Update your tools

One of the first things you should quickly do is update Google’s Search Console – submit your XML sitemap if you haven’t already. If you aren’t simply moving from HTTP to HTTPS you should also submit a change of address to the Search Console. 

B) Update your ads

Any paid campaigns you currently have live will need to be adjusted so the destination URLs are pointing to the new website, plus any new ones you launch soon after the migration. It may even be worth mentioning the new brand in the ad itself or starting a whole new PPC campaign dedicated to the rebranding. This might not just be for Google, you may have Facebook ads, LinkedIn ads, Twitter ads etc.

C) Update all owned assets

Make sure everything that has your branding or information about your website has the new URL. This primarily includes all your social media accounts, your emails (and remind everyone to update their email signatures), newsletters, online resources and Google’s My Business listing. If you send out any offline print media like brochures, those may need to be reprinted too. Be sure to remind the marketing team to switch all their future content to the new domain. 

D) Reach out to fix backlinks

Your backlinks will probably be the most difficult things to update as it relies on people external to your company. With your most valuable websites and publications that currently link to you, usually, to have a URL updated from your old website to your new one you’ll have to reach out to them directly to manually change it. Be polite and respectful and hopefully they’ll help you out. 


Stage Five: Loose Ends

Landing on the moon level

Objectives

  1. Breathe a sigh of relief
  2. Monitor The Migratory Window
  3. Renew your old domain
  4. Monitor your KPIs 
  5. Monitor your pages
  6. Evaluate

1. Breathe a sigh of relief

Congratulations on the launch of your newly updated website! With the hard part now behind you, it’s time to recognise your successes (and failures) and celebrate your victory – migrations aren’t always easy. You’re not done yet though, as it’s time for the important post-migration review.  

2. Monitor the migratory window

The Migratory Window is between seven to 28 days after a migration, which is the time when your site’s search engine rankings should be back to normal, or at least, the new normal. During this time, you should be tracking all the URLs daily. There are several different things you may see from your rankings including no changes at all, improvements – potentially due to conflicts being resolved during the migration – or there could be random drops in rankings instead. You’ll also be able to see the changeover, so don’t worry if there’s any co-existence as the domains migrate, it’ll likely be brief. 

3. Renew your old domain

Even after migration, being in control of your previous domain is important as you don’t want it to expire anytime soon. You may want to maintain the old server or hosting and redirects, renewing the security certificate, or instead forward the domain and maintain the redirects on your current site. If you’ve left your old domain with a 302 status to tell people about your new website, you need a valid security certificate. You can also make your old environment available through a subdomain as you’ll only be using it as a reference, and remove the old staging environment.

4. Monitor your KPIs

There’s more to a successful migration than just search rankings and SEO, although you should definitely zoom in on those KPIs. Traffic, conversions and revenue will have likely been massively impacted, so it’s important to monitor those specifically. Agree on a reporting frequency – potentially more often until the dust settles (even daily) – so you can get a full, clear picture of your website and any changes. Ideally, daily ranking reports would be prepared from day 1 onwards to assess any patterns. 

If you have lower conversion rates:

It can be hard to tell whether it’s caused by the platform or the design. Everything from the colour of your forms to the number of steps in your buying process may have changed, so it really could be anything. Thankfully, tools like Hotjar can help you understand how users engage with your website (if you use them before and after the migration). 

If you have indexation problems:

Indexation complications usually arise because of content duplication or your old domain still being indexed by the search engines. With a limited crawl budget, you want all the search engine’s focus spent on your key landing pages, so fixing these problems are key to boosting the effectiveness of each crawl. 

5. Monitor your pages

For what may seem like the millionth time, you’ll be monitoring your pages again using Google Search Console. As you probably know by now, reviewing the health and performance of your site is crucial. To help make your page tracking easier, use your XML Sitemaps to separate the indexing process by individual website section. Run a complete list of all indexed URLs through a HTTP response checker and keep an eye out for any errors starting with 4 (e.g: 404 & 410) using either Google Search Console or Content King. Note: these tools may not always monitor every one of these, so check your server logs. Fix any issues you find using redirects or by updating links.

You should also update your Google Analytics and confirm the migration in Google Web Toolkit (GWT).

6. Evaluate

Remember all that planning you did at the beginning? Now it’s time to evaluate whether it worked, if the migration was successful and of course, what you learnt. This is something everyone involved should participate in, especially after sharing their own goals and concerns originally. 

Questions to discuss:

  1. Were all your goals met? 
  2. Were all your concerns dealt with?
  3. What important things (or unimportant) did you learn?
  4. Where could you improve?

For KPIs to evaluate your success against, go back to the traffic and rankings data you recorded before the migration for benchmarking and assess the impact the migration has had on your overall visibility. 


Stage Six: The Bonus Level

Objectives

The migration is in the past. Now it’s time to think about the next steps. The fundamentals of a good SEO strategy are link building and content – those should be your priority areas going forward after this change.

Link building

Building new links to your site is important as you’ll need to be replacing any link equity you lost during the migration through 301 redirects. These new links will create more paths for search engines to discover you. The best way to go about this is to create quality, relevant content and find websites and publications willing to publish it (guest blogging) or share it, linking back to you.

CONTENT

Continue to evaluate all your existing content and monitor its traffic and engagement. You may wish to use a content matrix, which will help you group content together and enable you to plan your next steps. From that point on, you should always be publishing high-quality content and continuously optimising your existing content.

That’s it. A massive well done for getting through all of this and more importantly, good luck!

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