It’s critically important to get a website migration right. Errors can result in a loss of traffic and revenue that can take months to recover. Even when everything is done correctly, initial traffic loss is possible, as is growth.
Including all major stakeholders in the process (including the SEO department or SEO agency if applicable), planning ahead and thoroughly testing the website post-launch should help prevent any major issues when a website moves to a new domain, is redesigned, has a change in URL structure or transfers to a new Content Management System (CMS).
This migration guide will look at:
- Pre-migration checks and considerations
- Redirecting URLs (if they will be different on the new website)
- Important post-migration checks and considerations
Hopefully, you’ll discover some useful tools along the way.
Consider when the migration will take place. After high-season is usually lower risk. For an e-commerce store, for example, it isn’t wise to migrate 2 months before Christmas. A site migration shouldn’t be rushed or implemented if staff resources are lighter than usual.
If a website is being redesigned, an audit of the existing website can help identify issues to avoid and strengths to replicate on the new website.
Once the new design is complete, prioritise certain sections of the website. For example, do pages that receive the most traffic exist on the new website? If not, is there a good reason? If these pages don’t exist or there is an error in the migration, a significant chunk of search traffic could be lost.
Prioritising top organic traffic pages (e.g. in Google Analytics: Acquisition > Campaigns > Organic Keywords > Landing Page) makes sense as errors here could see a huge loss in search traffic.
If you track conversions (you should), also prioritise the best converting pages. If the migration is part of a redesign, will a redesigned website convert better than the old website? It’s wise to do usability and A/B testing before committing to the new website.
The highest authority web pages can be prioritised too. Checking the domain in Moz’s Link Explorer (account required), Page Authority shows which pages have the highest authority gained from backlinks. Other options are the Strongest Subpages report in Link Research Tools and Google Search Console’s Links reports.
As well as migrating the obvious text content and images, don’t forget the behind-the-scenes stuff like structured markup.
In summary, if you can’t afford to lose the amount of traffic or revenue a page generates, make sure it exists (or has been replaced) and works on the new website.
As well as the above you should:
- Ensure test websites and pages don’t appear in search engine indexes. The most secure protection for test websites is to password protect or only allow access to certain IP ranges.
- Check and keep a record of organic keyword rankings.
- Have a keyword strategy. Will title tags and other content be the same or similar on the new website? This is important if you want to keep existing keyword rankings intact.
- Crawl your old website and keep a record of the URLs. DeepCrawl is useful as it can show a summary of changes between a website pre and post-migration. Other recommended software: Screaming Frog SEO Spider (paid version if your website has over 500 URLs), Xenu’s Link Sleuth (free), or if you’re a subscriber – Moz’s crawl tool.
- Check the load speed of key pages (e.g. homepage, main category, subcategory, product page, blog post). I use GTmetrix PageSpeed Insights. Compare old pages to the equivalent new pages on the test website. If loading times have increased, why?
- Crawl the test version of your website (check for issues such as broken links, 500 Internal Server Errors and canonical tag implementation).
- Even with the most thorough preparations, there might be a few broken links, so prepare a useful 404 Not Found page for the new website.
- There are millions of parked domains, so if you’re moving domain, add a landing page on the new domain. This is advice from Google; it helps their crawler understand a new website quicker.
- Analytics: keep the same profile if you can. If you’re sticking to the same software there’s no reason to change. This makes pre and post-new-site comparisons easy.
Keep URLs the Same
Where possible, URLs should be the same as the previous website. This makes it easy for visitors to find the new pages (without you having to redirect them) and retains 100% of the authority that flows to a particular page – and all other things being equal – usually retains keyword rankings.
However, if your URLs are not user or search engine friendly, this is a good time to optimise them. For example:
is much friendlier than
301 Redirect URLs That Have Changed
A redirect transfers a user from one URL to another. “301 Moved Permanently” and “302 Found” are the two most well known redirects. The 301 redirect ensures authority is passed from the old to the new URL, which is why it is important to use 301 redirects. 302 redirects only signify a temporary change in URL (though Bing and Google have said if they follow a temporary redirect often enough they will assume a 301 is intended). Using the correct redirect prevents a large temporary dip in traffic as it ensures the website remains fully indexed in search engines.
If URLs have changed each (important) old page URL needs a 301 server-side redirect pointing to the new version of the URL.
If URLs aren’t redirected at all, search engines and visitors could enter your website at a broken page (e.g. via a bookmark, link or search engine), which in many cases will cause them to abandon a website completely.
301 redirect example:
X is a URL on old website: http://www.example.com?category=5462eg&product_id=1687&id=b4cn
Y is a URL on new website: http://www.example.com/category/short-product-description
X should be 301 permanently redirected to Y.
301 Redirect Pages That No Longer Exist
In many cases, if a page from the old website doesn’t exist on the new website, the old URL should be 301 redirected to the closest available match on the new website. For example, if you had an individual contacts page for a number of cities in the UK, but moved to regional pages, each of the city pages would need to 301 redirect to the new regional pages e.g.
Old website (these pages will not exist on the new website):
The new website has country pages, which are the closest match to the city pages that exist on the old website:
URLs A and B would redirect to Y.
URLs C and D would redirect to Z.
Think of the person browsing a website. If a page doesn’t exist any more, what is the best page on the new website for them to land on? Keep their frustration to a minimum! In some cases, it might be better for an old page to point to a 404 Not Found page if the 404 page is useful in offering possible solutions to a visitor. A message saying this page/product no longer exists is user-friendly.