Our SEO Manager, Faye Watt, specialises in technical SEO—so she’s overseen more than a few killer website migrations in her time. Here, she takes us through some practical tips to make your website migration a success.
Want to know the ins and outs of web migration? Great!
In this post, we’ll share:
- How to define a web migration
- Different types of migrations
- How to easily redirect a domain
- How to plan a migration (including a downloadable migration plan template)
- How to set up a local server
- What to include on your final migration checklist
So, what is web migration?
A website migration is “a process to describe significant changes to your website’s domain, platform, structure, content or design”.
As it’s a fairly broad definition, there are many different types of migration. You might be looking at any (or a combination) of the following:
|Type of migration||Example||Complexity|
|Changing your domain name||seekerdigital.com > seeker.digital||Low|
|Migrating from HTTP to HTTPS||Brands often decide to encrypt their site to make it more secure.||Low|
|New website design||This may include improved site taxonomy and landing pages.||Moderate|
|Merging multiple domains into one new domain||domain1.com, domain 2.com and domain3.com all merged to become domain4.com||Moderate > High|
|CMS migration||WordPress > Drupal||High|
Each of these migrations has different levels of complexity. For example, redirecting a domain is often much easier than migrating to a new CMS—and the latter requires more planning and resources. This isn’t always the case though!
How to redirect a domain
Before we get into the details of a larger-scale migration, let’s look at how simple it can be to migrate a domain.
To redirect a domain, you need Domain Name System (DNS) records set up for the root domain, and any subdomains that you also want to redirect including ‘www’. We recommend using CloudFlare because it provides free secure authentication (SSL) which allows the HTTPS version to redirect, too. If you don’t have SSL set up on your domain, the HTTPS version will not redirect.
How a CloudFlare redirect works:
- Set up a DNS record for the root domain (and any subdomains) which can all point to a dummy IP address.
- Create rules around how you would like specific URL paths to redirect.
- When writing the rules, you can place an asterisk at the start of the domain if you want all versions redirected, including HTTP, HTTPS, www.
- You can also place an asterisk at the end if you want to redirect all the URL paths.
Here’s where it gets complicated…
While a migration can be as simple as setting up URL forwarding with your DNS provider—it isn’t always that’s simple. You might want to:
- Change the URL structure (which requires more rules)
- Move large sections of your site
- Perform a CMS migration.
As these are more complicated processes, they take considerable thought and time.
When migration goes wrong
Of course, migrations don’t always go to plan. Here are some common mistakes to watch out for:
- A lack of planning or strategy e.g. underestimating the size of the project, or not alerting everyone who needs to be involved.
- Skipping out an SEO consultation—this is where important elements are often missed.
- Lack of time or resources—can’t start a thorough migration now? Wait till you can!
- The migration goes wrong, and you’re slow post-migration to fix the issues.
- Launching during a peak traffic period—this can cause a much bigger loss in traffic and revenue.
Top tip: If you’re an ecommerce website, don’t choose Q4 to launch your new website. I once had a client launch the Wednesday before Black Friday—not pretty.
I know what you migrated last summer
So, what are the consequences of a migration going wrong—does it matter?
Last summer, I took a month off work to volunteer with the Orangutan Foundation in the Borneo jungle. During this time, I had no access to running water or electricity—never mind any WiFi or phone signal—so, I was completely off-grid.
I got back to the office to find that one of my clients had re-platformed and redesigned their website whilst I was away. I’ve worked on multiple migrations with them before, so I thought, ‘okay, maybe they’ve followed the process from other migrations we’ve done…’
But you already know that didn’t happen! Here’s what did:
- High traffic and high revenue pages were removed.
- A completely new URL structure was implemented.
- And—the cherry on top—the previous URLs weren’t redirecting.
This meant we were left with:
- Hundreds of 404 pages
- 30% loss in search visibility
- A significant loss in traffic
- A higher bounce rate
- 77% drop in conversion rate
- A huge loss in links (because the old URLs weren’t redirected).
But it doesn’t end there. There was also an increase in page load time from an okay 3 seconds to a shockingly bad 57 seconds! I’ve never worked on a website with a score this low—it was honestly kind of impressive.
The six stages of successful migration
So, how can you avoid this kind of migration disaster?
In my experience, a successful migration usually involves these six stages:
The first thing to remember during the planning stage: don’t rush.
You’ll need plenty of time to plan all of the different components that go into a migration and organise all of the different teams that need to be involved:
- Identify the type of migration you are taking part in—see the table at the start of this post).
- Create a list of all of the tasks that will be required—a domain migration won’t need all of the same checks as a CMS migration, and vice versa.
- Give each task a description, completion status, task owner, tool to use, completion date and any supporting documents.
- Build your tasks out into a timeline—you could use Asana, Jira, Google Sheets, or whichever project management tool you prefer. You can also use this example as a template.
The timeline here lists all of the different tasks, the start and end date, the task owner and their progress.
Important tips to help your planning stage run smoothly:
- Pick a launch date during a quiet period.
- Allocate time for testing during the pre-launch period (on the staging environment).
- Allow time to fix any issues found pre-migration.
- Remember to prepare for any issues that might be found in the days after launch. You should have a dedicated SEO and developer on hand to test the site and fix any high-priority issues.
The second part of the planning stage is deciding which pages and content will be kept during the migration process and moved over to the new website.
To do this effectively, you need to create a list of all the URLs on your website, including crawlable and orphan URLs. You’ll need a range of tools to do this:
First, you can use ScreamingFrog to produce a list of all crawlable URLs. However, there might be some URLs that aren’t internally linked to on your website but still provide value, so we need to find those as well. Which brings us to…
Ahrefs will help you find URLs that have been linked to by other websites—make sure to redirect or keep these URLs to maintain any link value!
Next, use the Google Search Console Index Coverage report to export a list of URLs that have been discovered by Google.
Finally, export a list of URLs that have received traffic using Google Analytics.
Got your list of URLs? Performing a content audit will help to identify the high traffic and high-value pages that you should keep, and any low traffic pages that you can remove.
Your content audit should include metrics such as:
- Number of sessions
- Page views
- Conversion data
- Inbound links
- Number of keywords.
Top tip: You can quickly download all of this data using the ScreamingFrog Google Analytics and Ahrefs APIs.
All of the data can then be exported into a spreadsheet to begin your content audit.
After analysing the data, you should create a list of all the URLs that you want to keep or transfer to the new website. Once you have your list of URLs, you can start planning the URL structure of the website and decide how to set up your sub-folders.
Now you have the URLs you want to keep, and the URL structure mapped out, it’s time to map out all of the redirects (you can do this in a spreadsheet).
2: Data collection
During this stage, you want to collect as much data as possible.
Start by crawling your website with ScreamingFrog and exporting all of the internal data, which will include your page titles, meta descriptions, canonicals etc.
With ScreamingFrog, you can also use the Bulk Exports and Reports to save a copy of your website’s internal linking, structured data, and site architecture, too. You should also save a copy of your website’s sitemap.
The second part of the data collection stage is benchmarking current performance, so you have a historical record of how well the website was performing before the migration happened.
This benchmark should include:
- An exported copy of how the site is indexed by Google in the search results (use the Index Coverage report in Google Search Console).
- Your site’s performance and page load time.
- Any site audit issues and crawl errors—can these be fixed during the migration process? And is there an increase in issues once the website goes live?
- Keyword rankings—have these been impacted by the migration?
- An exported copy of historical data from Google Analytics—also add an annotation in Google Analytics to mark the day the migration is completed.
- An exported a copy of your backlink profile (to keep track of any links that are lost during the migration process).
3: Staging environment
If you’re redesigning your website or migration to a new platform, you’ll need a staging environment setup.
Make sure HTTP authentication is in place—this is to stop search engines from crawling your website, and the general public from accessing it.
Ready to go live? First, perform a crawl on the staging environment—this will compare your data to the old website and check for anything missing, incorrect or broken.
You might also want to ensure that all of these elements are the same, such as page titles, images and canonicals.
Common staging environment issues to look out for:
- Missing content.
- Missing pages.
- Keeping the same pages? Check that the number of URLs on the staging environment matches the number of URLs on the old one.
- Changed the domain or URL structure? Make sure all internal links are updated and pointing to a valid URL.
- Check that the canonicals have been updated to the new URL, too.
- Ensure there’s a custom 404 page, and that any broken URLs return a 404.
Once you’re happy that all of the pages are on the staging site, create a new sitemap to include all of the valid URLs.
Next, audit your website from a technical SEO perspective and identify any issues that can be fixed before launch.
If you can, check that the old URLs 301 redirect to the new URL, and avoid redirect chains e.g. URL A should go directly to URL C, not A > B > C.
And don’t forget about your legacy redirects—these are the redirects that were in place on your old domain. So, if you’re changing to a new domain, make sure that your redirects to the old domain still redirect to the new domain!
Remember: any change you make to the staging site should be continually monitored and retested. Because, no matter how small the change, it still has the potential to break something.
Then, the day before you launch your site, do one final crawl and website back-up to ensure you have the most up-to-date information.
Finally, remember to keep control of the old domain. Don’t let it expire, because you’ll lose all of those redirects and their SEO value.
4: Launch day
After all that hard work, the launch day has arrived!
Remember to go through this final checklist:
- Is your Google Search Console set up correctly? If you’ve changed your domain, you can let Google know by using the Change of Address tool.
- Is Google Analytics set up? Ensure sessions are recording properly, and the correct goals are in place. Don’t forget to check your other analytics tools, like Facebook Pixel, LinkedIn Insights tag and Google Tag Manager
- Can your site be crawled by search engines? Remember to double-check your robots.txt file.
- Can your site be indexed? Use ScreamingFrog to quickly check for any ‘noindex’ directives on pages that you want to be included in the search results.
- Are your redirects working properly? Quickly upload a list of all of the old URLs into ScreamingFrog to see if they redirect or return a 2xx/4xx/5xxstatus code.
- Crawl the new site and compare this to the old website, looking for any missing, broken or incorrect data.
- Check for any missing content on the website.
- Perform a page speed test across your most important pages. If they’re slower than the old site, implement fixes to increase the page load time.
- Add or update your sitemap in Google Search Console.
The post-launch stage includes the weeks after the migration has taken place.
If you’ve changed domain, now’s the time to reach out to your most valuable links and ask if they will consider updating the link to the new domain.
You should also perform a full technical SEO audit on the new site to identify any SEO issues that need fixing.
6: Monitor and review
Finally, you’ll want to monitor and review your migration:
- Monitor the number of pages indexed to spot any issues with indexing the new site.
- Check that the old URLs are being replaced with the new URLs.
- Review your backlink profile and identify any lost links.
- Monitor your organic traffic and keyword rankings over the next few months. There will likely be a temporary drop in organic traffic, but this should recover quickly if everything is done correctly.
- Check your crawl stats in Google Search Console and make sure your new site is being crawled by Google.
- Fix any crawl errors, such as 404s found in Google Search Console.
Once again, remember to keep control of your old domains! And don’t forget about SSL— if you don’t still have SSL set up on your old domains, the HTTPS version will not redirect, and you could lose out on its SEO value.
Successful web migration recap
To recap, these are the six stages that will help you complete a successful web migration:
- Data collection
- Staging environment
- Launch day
- Monitor and review
By completing the stages above, you’ll help prevent any migration horror stories. And, with any luck, you’ll finish with a successful web migration and happy customers.
Raring to go?
Faye’s migration timeline template is a great place to kick-start your migration and get your plans up-and-running.
Still got burning web migration questions? You can message Faye on Twitter—she loves a natter about all things SEO. Or find out how our team of specialists can help boost your migration capabilities.