September 25th, 2019

For companies looking to revitalise their brand, a new website has many benefits. However, relaunching or ‘migrating’ a website will always have some form of impact on search engine rankings. In this article, we will advise on site migration best practice. This will hopefully help organisations create a foolproof website migration SEO checklist.

What is a website migration?

The term ‘website migration’ encompasses any large-scale changes that may influence SEO performance. Examples include:

  • Changes to design, site structure, and navigation
  • Moving over to a new Content Management System (CMS)
  • Switching the domain from HTTP to HTTPs for secure browsing

We’ve briefly mentioned how website migration can affect SEO. This begs the question: does migrating a website improve SEO? The answer to this question is – yes and no.

On the one hand, redesigning a website provides the opportunity to improve usability. This could entail fixing issues in load speed or enhancing on-site navigation. A superior user experience is sure to reflect positively in search engine rankings. However, if a website migration isn’t handled correctly it can be detrimental long-term.

Why can website migration be risky for SEO?

Any agency worth its salt will tell you that a quality, results-driven SEO campaign takes time. Whether we’re writing content or soliciting links from websites, the work we do centres around building authority. Over time, Google will consider a website a trusted arbiter of information, goods, or services. This will then reflect in the website’s organic rankings. However, the consequence of a mishandled migration is that Google will misconstrue the website as entirely new. This would result in a loss of authority, the result of considerable time and resources. Any website migrations must be carefully considered, strategically planned and thoughtfully implemented.

How do you prepare for a website migration?

We all know the 5 P’s of planning, and they definitely apply to a website migration. The end result needs to justify the work that goes into the relaunch. So start by asking yourself, what exactly are you hoping to achieve? Did you see audience growth at the beginning but have now noticed it’s becoming somewhat sluggish? Are you experiencing problems with customer retention?

Some companies fall foul of a ‘spaghetti against the wall’ approach, alternatively the proverbial faecal matter. They’ll throw new pages or design elements into the mix and hope they stick. You should first identify problem areas on your website, so they can be prioritised in your site migration. Design can be a very subjective area so use data to help make better decisions. Every change you propose to the website needs to make a tangible contribution to your end goal.

Like we previously mentioned, you must ensure Google doesn’t look at your new website as if it is an entirely new site. Important elements should remain the same where possible. If there are going to be large-scale changes, they must be reviewed to see how they could influence SEO performance:

  • If there are new pages, do you know what keywords you want them to rank for on the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs)? This will help guide any updates to body copy, page structure, metadata or heading tags
  • Are any URLs going to change? If so, you’ll need to make sure that the new website’s internal linking structure still works and that old URLs redirected to new URLs
  • Are you including any new elements that could affect SEO? For instance, you may think users will ooh and ahh at flashy multi-media content, but they won’t if it drags down the average loading time. 
  • Do you anticipate any bugs or problems? There will always be scenarios you haven’t exactly planned for, but you’ll want to avoid being blindsided where possible.

Now we get on to the actual migration itself. You should have a clear idea of how long it will take, and what resources you require. There will always be a period of downtime (taking your website offline). It is critical that you at least have a ballpark estimate of how long this downtime period will be. This will help you plan a relaunch date that is in line with your overall business strategy. Does your website have seasonal peaks in traffic and engagement? If so, you should avoid migrating the website around these times.

We’ve mentioned why companies must have clear goals for their site migration. So how exactly do we measure the success of a site migration? You must create the right performance benchmarks. To do this, you must first carry out a thorough ‘crawl’ of the website. This involves gathering data for every landing page, what keywords they rank for and how much traffic they generate. You should also have a comprehensive list of all the backlinks pointing to your website.

Crawling a website can be a time-consuming process, but it’s certainly worth it. It helps you identify and prioritise the top-performing pages. Also, if there are any issues post-migration, you can attribute them to specific pages. This means you can go about fixing any problems in the most efficient manner possible.

Website migration SEO checklist: the essential elements

Knowing what’s going to change and what will stay the same

All changes to the website must have been finalised. Are you set on a date to migrate the website but have fallen behind schedule? The temptation is always there to just launch the website and deal with any problems after the fact. However, it is always more difficult to fix website issues retrospectively. Moreover, any updates you make post-launch will affect the website’s performance. This will make your previous benchmark data unclear.

To make it clear exactly what is going to change, you should create either a wireframe (a mock-up that shows the ‘skeleton’ of a new website) or a sitemap. Are important pages are being removed or new pages are being added? In either scenario, you must begin ‘remapping’ the URLs.

Remapping the old URLs to the new URLs

‘Remapping’ is the process in which URLs set to be removed are redirected to an appropriate page on the new website. In the SEO world, links are the vessel through which perceived value (or ‘link juice’) is transmitted between pages.

The transmission of value between pages (be they on-site or referrals), all contribute towards a website’s Google ranking. If these pages are no longer going to exist, redirects must be put in place so the value transfers to the new website. These redirects should have a 301 status code, meaning that they are permanent. This enables Google to pass on the value from the old page to the new page.

A common mistake in site migrations is to use a 302 or ‘temporary’ redirect. These are only appropriate when a website is temporarily down for maintenance. Using the wrong redirects could confuse Google when crawling the new website. This is certainly not the basis for a successful site migration. Other redirect pitfalls to avoid include:

  • 404s or ‘broken’ links – 404 errors occur when a URL has been removed without being redirected to a suitable equivalent. Think of an internal website structure as a chain. Any weak links in the chain will affect not only SEO but also user experience. 
  • Soft 404s – rather than seeking out the most relevant equivalent to an old page, a soft 404 is when the link is redirected to the new homepage. This puts the onus on the user to sift through the new website to find the page they were originally looking for. 
  • Redirect chains – it is likely that there are already redirects on your current website. Again, a quick fix would be to ‘redirect the redirects’ as it were. However, this may dilute the authority being passed by the original link. Instead, you should go to the original source, and set up a permanent redirect to the new website.

If your current website is a WordPress website, you may have used a plug-in to handle redirects. Migrating a WordPress website can uninstall plug-ins. You must ensure that any existing redirects are not overwritten during the migration.

Making sure there are no gaps in Google Analytics tracking

Google Analytics is the industry standard for evaluating website performance. The Google Analytics ‘tag’ in the header of your website is what tracks traffic and engagement. You should also have ‘event trackers’ for key points of customer engagement. These could be contact forms, or ‘request a callback’ buttons.

When you’re migrating your website, make sure that these tags and trackers are still present. Again, you must be particularly wary of this if you have a WordPress website. Google Analytics tracking codes are often installed on WordPress via plugins. These codes can be stripped out in the migration process.

Google Analytics also offers ‘destination URL tracking’. This enables you to see how many users are landing on important pages such as ‘Contact Us’ pages. If the URL structure of your website is changing, check to see if any of these pages use destination URL tracking.

Your website migration checklist – recapped

Are you ready to launch? Remember, you only get one chance to relaunch your website. If you don’t get it right the first time, the fallout could be both costly and time-consuming. If you can’t check off all of the following, you are not ready to migrate the website:

  • All changes to the website have been finalised
  • You’ve considered the impact of large scale changes on SEO
  • The old website has been crawled with performance data assembled
  • You have a new sitemap to help Google crawl the new website
  • A plan is in place to remap the URLs and update all existing redirects

While we’ve covered status codes in some detail, another useful tip is to prepare a 503 ‘server unavailable’ status code for when the website is down. This tells Google that the website is undergoing temporary maintenance and that you’ll be back online as soon as the migration is finished!

I’ve migrated my website – now what?

Even if your website migration has gone off without a hitch, you should expect at least a momentary dip in performance. Don’t panic – it just means Google needs time to recalibrate every ranking factor that went into the old page. That being said, you should remain vigilant for any substantial drops in traffic or rankings.

Want an insider tip? If you use Google Search Console for your website, you should see a spike in the rate at which it crawls pages. This is because Google tends to accelerate the crawling process when it detects fresh content on a website. 

As well as keeping a watchful eye on performance once the migration is complete, you need to check that several factors relevant to SEO are still functioning as they should be:

  • Crawl the website to ensure all redirects have been carried out successfully.
  • Use Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool to check your schema markup is still working
  • Check the load speed of your website, especially if there have been large scale changes
  • If you’ve migrated to an entirely new domain, update your Google My Business listings.

You don’t have to travel far for expert website migration

We hope that this article has provided you with a comprehensive overview of how to carry out a site migration whilst keeping your SEO intact. We understand that this is a lot to take in, especially if migrating a website is an uncharted territory for your organisation.

If you’re planning on relaunching your website, the team at Yellowball are on hand to provide expert advice. Based in Central London, our SEO agency works with companies across all sectors, with a diverse range of skills we’re sure could be used to your benefit. Get in touch with our team of specialists by calling 0203 176 7662, or email us to request further information.

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