Website Migration SEO Checklist: The Essential Steps You Need to Know

13 September 2023

Posted in: SEO

Here’s a question for you: how long does it take to plan a house move? Or, let’s take it a step further; how long to plan a move abroad?

In either case, there’s a whole heap of forms to fill, boxes to pack, and documents to sign before the big day, and that’s without factoring in the myriad logistical considerations. 

And whether you’re a Canadian goose, a wildebeest, or just another human with dreams of retiring in the South of France, you’re undoubtedly aware of just how stressful migrations can be. But does this hold true for the virtual realm, too? 

While moving your website to a new host or domain name won’t require a transit van and copious amounts of brown tape, it’s still advisable to have a plan in place. That’s because unlike a house move, you’ll need a good deal of technical proficiency to ensure a smooth transition — it’s the kind of situation where a little nerdy-knowhow really pays dividends.

Certainly, when it comes to the SEO factors involved in a website migration, there are many steps — and potential pitfalls — to navigate. In this no-nonsense guide, we highlight the essential steps involved while explaining some key terms. And for good measure, we’ve even peppered in a few pearls of wisdom from Beant Bajwa, our SEO Specialist and resident migration expert. Ready? Let’s get stuck in.

What is a website migration?

In the simplest terms, a website migration is the process of moving your website from one place to another. Most commonly, this is due to a desired change in domain name (often due to a rebrand), but there are plenty of other reasons why a website migration could be a sensible idea. Beant explains:

“Website migration can include adjustments to the URL structure, design enhancements, or even internalization — the latter of which is particularly relevant when you have multiple websites catering to various countries and you’re looking to consolidate them into a single platform. Migration might also involve transitioning from HTTP to HTTPS, or simply changing the domain name. In essence, website migration isn’t a single process, but rather an umbrella term for various types of transitions designed to enhance or restructure your online presence.”

— Beant Bajwa, SEO Specialist

In other words, website migrations can take several forms — each with varying complexities — and depending on the type of migration you’re performing, different elements of your website such as site performance, design and usability, internal links, and even search engine rankings could be affected.

With that in mind, where does one even begin when faced with such a mammoth set of tasks? Well, we’re glad you asked…

Pre-migration planning

Every journey starts with a single step, but before you grab your trusty pair of hiking boots, you’ll need to plot your course. Before migrating your website, you should prepare a comprehensive website migration checklist, encompassing factors including potential SEO impacts, site structure modifications, changes in the CMS, and alterations in domain or protocol.

Before you consider any of that, however, start by outlining why you’re considering a migration. Are you rebranding, enhancing user experience, or optimizing for SEO? Having a clear and unambiguous objective will guide your decisions throughout the process, and enable you to stay on track even when obstacles inevitably arise. 

“The pre-migration phase is super important, so don’t skip it! There can be surprises and technical hitches in even the most straightforward of migrations, so always begin by creating a clear roadmap; this will safeguard your website’s functionality, user experience, and search engine rankings.”

— Beant Bajwa, SEO Specialist

Your pre-migration checklist:

  • Set your objectives. Why are you migrating your website? What type of migration are you planning (more on this below)? What do you hope to achieve by doing so? What’s your ideal outcome?
  • Establish a timeframe. How long will the migration take? How many hours will you allocate to each step of the process? What’s your deadline for the project? While it’s always good to provide a rough estimation of how long a migration may take, be conscious that this figure will change. It’s a little like taking your car in for a service — the mechanic will need a good look under the hood before they’re able to give an accurate idea of the kind of work required.
  • Define a budget with padding for the unexpected. Migrations often end up costing more than originally anticipated due to unforeseen technical issues or compatibility problems. Budget for developer time, design work and user testing if redesigning, SEO consulting, dedicated team time, and any specialty consultants. Typical extra costs come from extended developer time to fix core site issues, design scope creep, insufficient testing leading to post-launch updates, and underestimating SEO needs. Build in at least 20% padding into your original budget to cover these common overages. Having contingency funds allows your team to solve migration issues smoothly without cutting corners. A clear budget also helps set expectations, get buy-in across stakeholders, and plan the project phases realistically.
  • Assemble a project team. Does your in-house team have the knowledge required to nail each step of the migration? If not, it’s worth factoring in the price of hiring an experienced migration consultant or SEO agency to help you achieve your goals.
  • Inform the necessary stakeholders. Ensure that internal teams and external partners are informed about the migration process. Communicate timelines and highlight the potential impacts.
  • Prepare a staging site. A staging site is essentially a ‘copy’ of your website that enables you to safely make changes and test functionality without it affecting the live environment. Make sure the site can’t be crawled, and only remove this block once your migration is complete.
  • Make a URL map. List all current URLs and map them to their new locations to preserve SEO value and ensure smooth user navigation. This will support your future redirect map.
  • Collate your data. In order to measure the success of your migration, you’ll need a snapshot of your site in its current state. There are various tools that can help you achieve this, from SEMrush and GA4 to Screaming Frog.
  • Back everything up. Perform a full backup of your current site, encompassing its database and all of its existing files. This step is incredibly important.
  • Audit site content. Prepare a comprehensive list of all existing content and media that needs to be migrated to the new site.
  • Create a ‘downtime’ plan. Once you’ve got a concrete plan laid out, it’s worth thinking about how you’re going to manage your website’s downtime. Consider how you’ll communicate this with your customers, and how you’ll mitigate the potential for a temporary drop in sales. 

Different types of site migration

Let’s delve into why defining the type of website migration is an essential first step when discussing this intricate process with a client. For the sake of simplicity, we’ve outlined two broad categories, but keep in mind that every migration is different — some may center around the user experience and feel of the website, whilst others may be focused solely on how the site performs from an SEO standpoint.

Remember — what’s most important is that you’re able to define exactly what needs to be changed, why it needs to be changed, and how you’re going to do it. 

Site move migration

Think of this as changing your home’s address. Sometimes, websites need to relocate to a new URL for various reasons. It might be switching from HTTP to the more secure HTTPS protocol, rearranging subdomains or subfolders, or even getting a brand new domain name as part of a rebranding strategy. Picture it as your website getting a new postal code, and you need to make sure all your digital belongings reach the right place.

Some important additional steps specific to a site move migration include:

  • Check the history of the domain. Make sure Google hasn’t previously taken any actions against the new domain — this could harm your site’s authority and SERP ranking going forward.
  • Update internal links and resources. Manually update internal links within the website’s content to point to the new domain. Update any scripts, stylesheets, or other resources that reference the old domain.
  • Marketing. Update social media profiles and marketing materials to reflect the new domain.

Design migration

Now, imagine your website as a house that needs a complete makeover. Design migration is akin to renovating that house and giving it a fresh look. The most common reason for a site redesign is company rebranding or improving the user experience and conversion rates.

You might need to implement new functionality to your website, such as an updated checkout process, or perhaps you’re looking to improve any integrations you have with your current systems. Just like remodeling a house can completely transform its appearance, a design migration can significantly alter the feel of your website — aesthetically and functionally.

Some important additional steps specific to a design migration include:

  • Set timelines for wireframe signoff. Create a schedule for stakeholders to review and approve wireframes for each page/template. Factor in time for providing feedback and making revisions. Confirm final signoff dates to keep the design phase on schedule.
  • Rebuild critical website components. Rebuild or reconfigure website components and features on the new platform, such as forms, databases, e-commerce functionality, and custom code. You’ll need to test each feature thoroughly to verify it functions correctly in the new environment.
  • Ensure design is crawlable by Google. Test that CSS, JavaScript, images, and other assets can be crawled and indexed. Identify any blocking that would prevent Google from seeing the new design. Enable indexing of critical pages and templates through robots.txt and meta tags.
  • Set up and run User Acceptance Testing (UAT). Do users prefer the new and improved design? There’s only one way to find out! User acceptance testing is one of the final steps in a design migration, and aims to answer the question “does this website function in the way we want it to?”. 

Platform migration

A platform migration is almost like replacing the in-built appliances in a house — the parts that serve a function, rather than just provide an aesthetic appeal. And just as updating your plumbing or installing a new oven can improve your home, a platform migration can significantly impact your website’s operational capabilities.

There are a variety of factors that typically drive companies to migrate to a new CMS, ecommerce platform, or other site frameworks. Some of the most common reasons include:

  • The site has evolved and outgrown capabilities of the current platform. As new features are added, the existing CMS or ecommerce solution can’t efficiently support them.
  • A desire to reduce costs associated with licensing, development, or hosting of the existing platform. 
  • Availability of newer, more advanced platforms that better meet current needs. Taking advantage of new innovations, integrations, and flexibility.
  • SEO requirements like custom page optimisation, site speed or structured data that the current platform does not offer or hinders.
  • Enhanced user experience and conversion rate optimisation that a new platform can unlock through improved navigation, checkout flows, personalisation, etc.

The decision to migrate should factor in both technical limitations and strategic business goals that a new CMS, ecommerce platform, or site build could help achieve. Prioritising UX and performance needs is key, and should reflect the actions prior to migration:

  • Select and sign off the new CMS or platform. Carefully research and choose the new CMS or platform that aligns with your website’s goals and requirements. Consider factors like scalability, ease of use, security, and available plugins or extensions.
  • Plan training for teams on the new platform. Ensure all content creators and editors are trained on how to use the new CMS platform. Schedule comprehensive training sessions and provide user manuals/guides. Make sure staff are fully comfortable with publishing and updating content before launch.
  • Create process documents and SOPs for publishing. Document detailed standard operating procedures for publishing different types of content, making edits, uploading media, and using platform features. Create process flows and checklists that new hires can reference for content creation. Streamline workflows based on platform capabilities and internal needs.

The Seeker-approved website migration launch checklist

The big day has arrived — you’ve formulated your plan, collected your data, your website is safely backed up, and your staging area is primed and ready, so what comes next? Well, it’s time to take the plunge.

Below, we’ll cover some of the key factors to consider during the migration itself — think of this as a rough roadmap, rather than strict directions. It’s not an exhaustive list, but rest assured that the tips will serve as a solid foundation for the typical website migration. 

  • Make your final preparations. Start by gathering your new hosting credentials: usernames, passwords, and FTP details — have everything set out in front of you and ready to go. You’ll also need to disable any caching mechanisms, firewalls, and redirects on your existing site. This prevents potential conflicts during the transfer process. If your website URLs are changing, you’ll also need to compile a comprehensive list of URLs so you can implement redirections from the old URLs to their new, post-migration addresses.
  • Migrate site files and database. Copy all your website files, including images, stylesheets, databases and scripts — everything —  to the new server. 
  • Point your domain name to the new host. Performing a domain migration? If your visitors want to view your website’s new home, they’ll need to head to the right address! Update your domain’s DNS settings to point to your new host’s IP address. 
  • Test the SSL certificate. If your website uses SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) for encryption, make sure to test the SSL certificate on the new server to ensure secure connections. This might sound complicated, but it’s actually surprisingly simple —  just head to a free online SSL certificate checker and type in your website’s new address. 
  • Check technical compatibility. Test all the integrations and custom features — make sure that they aren’t clashing with each other. This step is particularly important if you’re performing a CMS migration. 
  • Test functionality (including backend). Thoroughly test both the frontend and backend of your website on the new server. Check for broken links, missing images, and ensure that everything works as expected. How long you spend on this part of the migration will depend entirely on the size of your site, but you must be meticulous. Even just one broken link can have a significant impact on your site’s user experience and put a dent in your site’s SEO, too.
  • Run a speed test. Use a free online speed testing tool to assess your website’s loading time on the new server. This is particularly crucial because a faster website doesn’t just prevent your visitors from becoming frustrated; load times are a confirmed ranking factor too. 
  • Check indexability. Confirm that search engines can access and index your new website. Adjust robots.txt and sitemap files if needed — you can think of these as the directions that a search engine’s web crawlers rely on to find your website.
  • Close your old hosting account. Once you’ve verified the migration has been successful you’re free to close your old hosting account (unless you have other domains or email accounts registered with the provider).
  • Set up (and test) 301 redirects. Implement 301 redirects to ensure that visitors who land on old URLs are automatically redirected to the corresponding new URLs. 
  • Crawl your site to check for issues. Use website crawling tools (we like Screaming Frog) to scan your entire site for broken links, missing pages, and other issues. This final check ensures your website is in top-notch shape post-migration.
  • Ongoing monitoring. Once you’ve completed your migration it’s crucial that you keep a close eye on the site’s performance — the goal of any migration is net improvement after all! 

“Ensuring you monitor your website’s performance after completing the migration is a crucial but often neglected step. Whether you’re handling the migration internally or with the assistance of an external agency, tracking your site’s progress once it’s live is essential”

— Beant Bajwa, SEO Specialist

Troubleshooting SEO issues during a migration

Whether it involves a fairly straightforward domain name alteration or an overhaul of the entire site structure, a website migration can significantly impact search engine rankings if not handled with care. Below, we’ve outlined some of the most common SEO obstacles that you may face during (and indeed post) migration:

  • Loss of traffic. A dip in organic traffic may occur if search engines don’t recognize the new URLs. Ensure you implement 301 redirects from old URLs to new, informing search engines that the pages have permanently moved and transferring link equity to the new page.
  • Broken links. Changing URLs may result in internal or external broken links. Using a tool such as Screaming Frog or Ahrefs, you can check for broken links and then either update or redirect them.
  • Lost backlinks. Backlinks add vital authority to a website, but if pages are removed or not properly redirected, you can lose these valuable referrals. Identify your most valuable backlinks using Ahrefs, and ensure these specific URLs are redirected. 
  • Speed and performance issues. The new site may have different server configurations — making it more resource-intensive, for example — which can affect loading times. Regularly monitor performance using a tool such as Google PageSpeed Insights, and ensure you optimise images, leverage browser caching, and implement a content delivery network (CDNs) if necessary.
  • Duplicate content. Without the right redirects or canonical tags, search engines might index both the old and the new content, viewing them as duplicates. To avoid this, implement 301 redirects and use the canonical tag to indicate to search engines which version of the content is the primary one.
  • Design element crawl-ability. If you’ve given the site a whole new look using coding elements (specifically CSS and Javascript), there’s a chance that Google may find it tricky to crawl this new content. This is particularly important for features such as product descriptions, where the text is SEO-focused. 
  • Sitemap and robots.txt issues. New site structures can mean that your sitemap is no longer accurate, or your robots.txt file might inadvertently block crucial pages. To combat this issue, generate a new XML sitemap and submit it to Google Search Console, while ensuring the robots.txt file isn’t blocking important parts of your site.
  • Loss of domain authority. If you’re switching domains, the new domain might not carry the same authority as the old one. While 301 redirects can transfer much of the link equity, you should also consider running a new link building campaign to bolster the new domain’s authority.

Of course, handling an SEO migration in-house is an option if you possess the necessary experience and expertise, but if that’s not the case, an SEO agency such as Seeker can offer expert support during the planning, execution, and post-migration phases, troubleshooting issues and navigating obstacles so you don’t have to. 

We’ve handled a number of major SEO migrations — supporting businesses such as Furniturebox and Christie & Co —  with our astute, expert guidance minimising migration-related disruption and mitigating any potential negative impacts on traffic and rankings.

Planning a website migration? See how Seeker can give you one less headache to worry about, and migrate your website with relative ease.

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