Having been involved with numerous large-scale website migrations, I can confirm that they are one of the more nerve wracking of SEO tasks. The successful migrations that I’ve been involved in have resulted from good planning and teamwork.
Unfortunately, I also know of businesses where things have not gone so well. We have been contacted on several occasions by businesses that have suffered significant traffic loss following an unsuccessful migration to a new website. At least one of these companies is no longer trading as a result.
So how do you avoid SEO disaster? Follow this 20-point migration checklist and you will be well-equipped to successfully handle this project.
1) Get a team
The first step is to get a project team together and outline what needs to be carried out. A typical team could consist of a web developer, SEO expert and content writer. Other people may also need to be involved depending on your company structure.
The important point is that information is shared between departments. Making everyone aware of the potential risks involved and the steps that need to be taken, will help things run smoothly.
2) Should you go ahead?
A question that is all too rarely asked. It’s often the case that the ‘higher ups’ have the idea of a new website platform or brand name, without understanding the potential risks. From an SEO point of view, a job well done is that there’s ‘no change’ in organic traffic. Considering all the risks involved, does it make sense to proceed?
3) Carry out a site audit
You should initially list all the pages on your website and find out if there are any issues. A crawling tool like Screaming Frog is ideal for this. As well as pages, it will also find URLs such as categories, tags, archives etc.
You’ll want to go through this list and address any issues that you find such as 404 errors (broken links). By doing this before the migration, you’ll know these errors haven’t been caused by the development work.
4) Benchmark analytics and ranking data
Using Google Analytics and Google Search Console, find out the level of traffic coming to the website through organic channels (non-paid search engines). You should also use a tool such as Ahrefs to analyse the pages with most incoming links and what search terms are bringing the most traffic to the site.
5) Highlight the main pages
Make a note of the most important pages based on the above factors, as these are the pages you’ll need to focus most attention on during the migration. You’ll likely find that the 80-20 rule applies here; 20% of the pages will be responsible for 80% of the traffic and links.
6) Create a redirection sheet
This is probably THE most important document in the migration. Don’t underestimate it. However, it does not need to be complicated.
Most businesses will just use a simple spreadsheet. In the first column note down every URL on the old website. In the second column note what is happening to that URL; options could be ‘URL staying the same’, ‘redirect URL’ or ‘ delete URL’. In the third column, you note down all the URL’s on the new website that you will be redirecting to.
From an SEO point of view, it’s important to ensure that these redirections are set up as 301 redirections and not 302 redirections. The latter are seen by Google as a ‘temporary’ redirects and do not pass on any SEO benefits. If you don’t want to get bogged down in all the technical details, just know that you’re heading for an SEO car crash if you set everything up as 302 redirects.
Start Development Work
7) Work on a Development server
It should go without saying, but here goes – you must work on a development server, not the live site (also called a test server.) This allows you to work out any issues before they go live on the site. Visitors will also receive a better user experience, as all the changes will be put live at the same time.
8) Discourage search engines from crawling your development site
You should ensure that your development site cannot be accessed by search engines. You don’t want any of your development pages being indexed in the search engines, as this could cause issues when the new site is actually put live.
If you’re using WordPress, there’s a setting to ‘discourage search engines’. Other CMS’s have a similar setting. Alternatively, you could update the robots.txt file manually and set a meta robots tag on each page.
It’s also a good idea to password protect the development site. This is a further way to stop Googlebot from crawling your site.
9) Set up Redirects on the development site
Now is the time to take the Redirection sheet and upload the 301 redirects. If you have a competent and confident web developer, this can be done through htaccess. However, there are also other ways to achieve this. If you’re using WordPress, the excellent ‘Redirection’ plugin can be used. Alternatively, the ‘Yoast’ plugin also has 301 capabilities.
Don’t forget about internal links. You should especially look for hard-coded links, using a search and replace function if necessary.
10) Set up your XML sitemap
Ensure that there is an XML sitemap on the new website. This is going to be the way that you tell Google about all the new URL’s on your site, so it’s a crucial step.
You can create your sitemap using Screaming Frog. If you’re using WordPress, the Yoast plugin has a convenient way to create one.
11) Create a Custom 404 page
Despite your best efforts, there may be some visitors that hit a deadlink. Don’t just leave them dangling with a standard 404 ‘page not found’ error message.
Create a custom error page that has links to the most popular content. It would also be a good idea to put a site search box on this page, so people can quickly find what they’re seeking.
12) Time to press the button
The time has finally come to launch the new site. Try to do this at a time when there is less traffic on the site. If you’re an Ecommerce store, don’t plan your big launch during the Christmas rush.
This can also apply to the time of day – I’ve worked with developers that have come into work especially early to get the site launched when traffic is light at 4am. Once completed, it’s bacon butties all round for breakfast!
You should also plan the launch date when people are available to jump on any unforeseen issues that arise. It surprises me how many project managers want to launch big projects like this on a Friday or just before a Bank Holiday. If you know that your development and SEO teams are going to be off over the weekend, a better call would be to choose a Tuesday or Wednesday.
13) Allow indexing of the new site
Remember that we blocked the search engines from crawling the development site? Now we must revisit the robots.txt file and meta robots tags (if present), to ensure that they are set to Allow indexing by search engines.
This is one of the easiest things to forget during the chaos of a new website launch. It can cause an SEO catastrophe, as you’re essentially telling Google not to index the new website. Exactly what we don’t want to happen.
14) Scan the new site for SEO errors
Once the new site is live you can scan it for errors. Screaming Frog or ahrefs can be used for this purpose. You should be looking for the following:
a. 404 errors
b. Any internal links that are still pointing to the old website
c. Duplicate content
d. Checking www. and http resolve issues
The final point above is worth explaining in more detail. There are 4 possible versions of the site: which include the secure version or not and have www. or not. They should all resolve (redirect) to one version. They are:
You can use a tool such as redirect-checker.org to check this. It will also detail if a 301 or 302 redirect is being used.
15) Google Search Console (GSC)
Next update the Google Search Console account. If you’re using the same domain and just the URL structure is changing, you can use your existing website property in GSC. Go ahead and submit a new sitemap containing the new URL’s, to let Google know about the pages.
If you have a completely new domain name, you’ll need to start a new website property in GSC. Once you’ve validated that you’re a legitimate owner, you’ll be able to upload the sitemap.
While you’re in GSC, look for any issues. Check for errors under the ‘Coverage’ tab. Also check the number of clicks, impressions and click through rate under the ‘Performance’ tab.
16) Update PPC campaigns
If you’re running Google Ads, Bing Ads or Facebook Ads now is the time to ensure that they are updated to the new URLs. Don’t rely on your redirects taking care of this, as it may interfere with the tracking in Google Analytics.
17) Outreach to prominent links
It’s good practice to outreach to the most important incoming links that your URL has changed. Although your redirects should ensure that visitors don’t hit a dead link, it is another signal to Google that the URL has changed.
18) Update links you control
If you’ve changed your domain name, remember to update links that you have control over such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Medium etc
19) Be patient
It takes Google some time to index the new site. Even if you’ve done everything correctly, there can be a transition period where you’ll see both the old site URL’s and new site being indexed in Google.
Eventually the old URL’s will drop out of the index and this could take a few days to a few weeks.
20) Keep monitoring
In the days and weeks after the launch, you should be closely monitoring performance of the new site. In particularly you need to track organic traffic in Google Analytics and be alert to any errors in Google Search Console.
Want to discuss your website migration with experienced experts? Give us a call on 01865 595260 or use the contact form here.