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Website Migration SEO Checklist

There are three Certainties in Life: Death, Taxes and the fact that a poor Site SEO migration is the quickest way to kill your SEO and, potentially, your business. In this SEO Migration Guide, we provide a comprehensive guide and checklist to help lead you through (and avoid the most common pitfalls of) a website move.

So What are the Risks in a Site Migration?

There are lots of examples of sites whose traffic has been virtually wiped out by a bad SEO migration such as this leading UK retailer: –

Examples of Bad Site Migration to New ecommerce Platform UK Retailer

Examples of Bad Site Migration to New ecommerce Platform UK Retailer

(Image from Modestos Siotos, iCrossing UK , Courtesy of  Moz)

We, at Zelst, have just started working with a site where the migration was handled badly by their previous SEO Agency and whilst our client did not suffer as badly as the above example, Organic Traffic was still down by nearly 30% on the previous year and Revenues have been down by over 50% for the past three months, a massive amount of money.

Poor SEO Site Migration to New Platform UK Retailer

Poor SEO Site Migration to New Platform UK Retailer

Moving to a new site, however, needn’t mean suffering a fall in traffic or visibility and with the correct SEO Site Migration Strategy you should, at least, maintain your traffic and business levels and, hopefully, increase them. In Quarter 1 of this year, we have handled 5 migrations and, in all cases, after an initial short-term downturn, which we expected, we have been able to regain and expand visibility and traffic.

This Great British ecommerce site saw a dip in visibility and traffic in the first few days after the migration, however, this had been recovered within a week and by the end of the first month was seeing organic traffic growth of 20%, with SEO Traffic up by over 40% by the third month. Revenue has followed a similar trend, finishing last month with sales up by nearly 50% on the previous year.

Good SEO Site Migration to New Platform UK Retailer

Good SEO Site Migration to New Platform UK Retailer

From our experience of migrating websites of all shapes and sizes over a long period of time, we have put together this (fairly exhaustive) SEO Migration Guide Checklist which covers the main things to think about and which we will continue to update on a regular basis.

Reasons to Migrate Your Website

There are many reasons to migrate your site such as: –

  • Changing your site’s structure, navigation, or Design
  • Moving to a New Platform, Framework or CMS e.g. from Magento 1.9x to Magento 2 or from Drupal to WordPress
  • Adding a Mobile Version
  • Moving from HTTP to HTTPS
  • Changing Your Domain Name e.g. oldbrand.com to newbrand.com or yourbrand.co.uk to yourbrand.com
  • Subdomain or subfolder change e.g. from https://domain.com to https://www.domain.com or from blog.domain.com to www.domain.com/blog
  • Moving to a New Server or hosting company/environment

 Each of these migrations has its own challenges and a combination of any increases the complexity of the migration significantly. Our SEO Migration Guide Checklist mainly relates to moving to a new platform/CMS, which is the most typical migration project, at present, however many of the points occur across all migrations.

SEO Site Migration Guider Checklist

  1. Assign Responsibility and Take Ownership

A website migration is a hugely complex process involving lots of different people, stakeholders, agencies and functions. It is critical that everyone talks to one another, understands what each other is doing and its importance, the different timescales each is working to and that the person responsible for SEO is involved in the project right from the onset, involved in each key decision and not brought in at the eleventh hour (or later).

  1. Plan Everything and for Every Eventuality

Developing a new website is a massive undertaking but ensuring its success is even more important. Botching the migration is the easiest way of ensuring that the site launch is a failure. Make sure that you plan everything right from the start and set timelines and targets to ensure that the project remains on course. Remember Murphy’s Law, if it can go wrong it will and so make sure that you work out what to do if it goes wrong on paper, as it is a lot less costly and time-consuming that way.

  1. Allow for Delays

The longer a website designs and build takes, the more the world changes outside. Technology changes, peoples’ attitudes change, people themselves change and the more changes that are made to the design and development during the project, the longer it takes. Set timelines and targets but prepare for delays.

  1. Launch at a Quiet Time of Year, Three to Six Months Prior to the Next Peak

Although it is obvious that you shouldn’t launch your new website at a peak time of year, you also need to ensure that you have plenty of time for your team to get used to your new website and for you to iron out all the bugs, well before a busy time. It is inevitable that your new site will lose visibility in the short term and take a little time to regain its previous momentum so make sure you allow enough time and your peak sales period is not affected by a lack of visibility.

  1. Collect All Relevant Data

Use Google Analytics (GA), any other Analytics tools you might have and any server data you have to identify all of the pages that are driving traffic to your site and have driven traffic to your site over the past twelve months. Use GA, Google Search Console, Bing Webmaster Tools, Ahrefs, SEMRush, Moz, Majestic, SearchMetrics or whatever tools you have access to, to identify all of the pages on your site that are being linked to and from where. Use GSC, BWT and the Google SITE: operator to list all of your indexed pages. Use all of your available tools to understand what terms you are ranking for and where and which pages are ranking (and why). Take copies of all of your key ranking pages, i.e., the ones that are driving the most traffic or the most important traffic.

  1. Benchmark Your Data

Benchmark your data over time so that you get to know how the site is performing in terms of site visibility, traffic, source of traffic, user experience, usage by device, link profile, referral data etc., This will be key when it comes to planning and measuring how well the migration is going.

  1. Crawl, Crawl, Crawl

Use Screaming Frog SEO Spider to crawl your old/current site at regular intervals and keep copies of the crawls, so that you have all data on your old site and any pages that have been seasonally hidden are still picked up.

Crawl, Crawl, Crawl

Crawl, Crawl, Crawl

As soon as the new site is approaching readiness, start to crawl the development site to understand any issues that might be present (or nip them in the bud) and start to fully understand the structure and workings of the site.

  1. Map All URL Changes

Make a full list of all of the pages on your old/current site and a full list of all of the pages (and planned pages) on the new site. Map from old URL to equivalent new URL. If the equivalent page has been removed or is not there consider why not (deliberate or inadvertent) and decide what to do, i.e., map to closest alternative, create replacement page or remove page (strategically 404). This is particularly important for all of your key ranking pages, high traffic and high-quality traffic pages.

  1. Own Your Redirects

Nearly every change that you make to your website will involve changes to your URLs. If you move from Magento to Shopify or Drupal to WordPress, for instance, it will generally mean the structure of your URLs will change. If you change your domain name, sub-domain or switch from http to https then every URL will change. Search engines like Google see every URL as different and do not automatically change their indexed URLs just because you have. It is, therefore, essential to tell Google of every change you make to your URLs, which you can do via a redirect and preferably, in the case of a site move, a 301 Permanent redirect. A 301 redirect will pass most, though not all, of the value and authority of your old page to your new page and will mitigate the dramatic loss of traffic you will see if you change your URLs without using redirects. Many site migrations go wrong because the rewrites are not done at all, done late (after the website has launched) or just done badly. As a result, setting up your redirects is one of the most important tasks in any site migration and you need to treat it accordingly. Here are some key points: –

301 Redirect Your Important Traffic

A 301 Redirect Instructs a Browser or Search Engine to Follow a Diversion from a 404 (broken) or Irrelevant Page to a More Appropriate and Relevant Page and Ensures Your Traffic Doesn’t Encounter a Dead End

  • Allocate the right resources

Because redirects are so important it is essential that you get them right. You consequently need to allocate the level of resources that befits the importance of the task. Ensure you have the right people and the necessary amount of time if you are doing it internally or the budget if it is done externally. Once you have done that, give yourself a good contingency, as a rule of thumb give yourself a buffer of at least 20% more than what you think it will take.

  • Don’t delegate the job to the intern

Setting up redirects is extremely time consuming and not just a little laborious, however, it is not something that anyone can do. The person that is doing it needs to have a full understanding of the old and new website, the SEO strategy, a thorough understanding of your business, all of the factors outlined in the above point, and be experienced in SEO, setting up redirects, testing tools and redirect testing.

  • Create one-to-one redirects

As tempting as they are, do not rely on wildcards or automated processes or some clever rule that the developers have created. Think about every redirect on a case by case basis.

  • Watch out for Redirect Chains

Ideally, try to keep all redirects to one or two redirects but try to keep redirect chains to a maximum of 3. Google has said that they follow a maximum of 5 redirects.

  • Be Careful of Loops

A redirect loop from A to B to A or even A to A will cause an error in a browser or for it to crash. It will show a 500 server error status and will cause unnecessary load on the server.

  • 404 strategically

If you have pages that are no longer important to your site or business and you aren’t worried about losing any traffic or link value that page had, then allow them to 404. Similarly, you can also 404 pages affected by bad/toxic links but be careful with this.

  • Prioritize “SEO valuable” URLs

Every URL is important but some are more important than others. Prioritise your top ranking/traffic/value pages and revisit these redirects before going live to ensure that they are still the best match.

  • Test! Test! Test!

Once you have prepared all of your redirects, test that all redirect targets work correctly and fix any that don’t. Once you have uploaded all of your redirects, test that all your redirects work and then test again that all your redirect targets work correctly and fix any that don’t. Once the site is live test that all of the source URLs go to the correct targets and that there are no chains or loops. Then test that all of the targets work. Don’t forget that you often might find redirects set up elsewhere that you were unaware of but which your site was relying on for important ranks. Test again periodically because web sites are dynamic and pages come and go all of the time.

10. Update All Internal Links

Whilst a lot of internal links will be automatically updated, content or blog pages typically have a lot of hard links. Whilst some changes can be done at database level by doing a find and replace, typically it is best to manually review each link and decide where best to re-link it.

  1. Self-Canonicalization

Make sure each page has a self-referencing canonical tag to ensure it is clear to Google which page you want to have indexed, or what the URL should be when it is indexed.

  1. Review Duplicate and Thin Content

Written content is often one of the most overlooked aspects of a new site design, as people fixate over design and function (and frankly a lot of people think all of those words are just clutter that get in the way of good design). Consequently, it is absolutely essential to crawl the site and identify duplicate and thin content and fix accordingly. It’s also a pretty good idea to crawl/search/keep your eye out for lorem ipsum text…… you’d be surprised!

  1. Check for/Create Custom 404 Page

Make sure you have created a good custom 404 page with links to the search box, home page and sitemap.

  1. Test for Speed

The Website Developers will test and optimise for speed, however, it is always good to have an independent view and, as speed and performance is such a critical SEO factor, the SEO needs to take responsibility for this. Use Google PageSpeed Insights, now powered by Lighthouse as a benchmark but it is also good to use any other page speed testing tools that you might have access to. Once you have carried out your analysis, make recommendations to the developers on improvements to be made.

  1. Test for Mobile Friendliness

Mobile Friendliness and responsiveness will undoubtedly have been part of the website specification but again, as Mobile Friendliness is so key to SEO success in the Mobile First Search World, the SEO needs to take responsibility for ensuring that the site is fully mobile friendly. Use the Google Mobile Friendly Test and the mobile speed test and make any recommendations for improvement that are necessary.

  1. Manage and Submit Sitemaps

Ensure you have submitted sitemaps for all of the pages on your old site before site launch to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools. Make sure you have created new sitemaps for your new site. Manage these to ensure that you have all of the pages you want indexing included and any that you don’t want indexing are not included. Submit your new sitemap/s to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools and then re-submit the old sitemaps to give Google a heads up that the pages have changed and allow their bots to follow the redirects that you have put in place.

  1. Keep Google Analytics in place at all times.

Don’t remove analytics from your old site and make sure that you install analytics to the dev site to ensure it is still there on site launch.

  1. Use Google Analytics Annotations

Use Google Analytics Annotations to annotate all critical dates, even if you think you will never forget the date. “The faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory”.

Annotate - The faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory

Annotate – The faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory

  1. Monitor Everything

Monitor everything you can measure: – traffic, conversions, sales, time on site, bounce rate, ranks, visibility, page speed, link profile, everything that is important to your website or business and compare post-launch to pre-launch.

  1. Ensure Google Search Console Set Up Correctly

Make Sure that Google Search Console (and Bing Webmaster Tools) is set up Correctly. If you are changing anything to do with your domain, e.g. domain name, http/https, etc., you will generally need to create a new account, although Google is moving to allow you to see a whole domain in one view now.

  1. Check All Your Essential Plugins are Set Up Correctly

Check that any plugins that you rely on, e.g. Yoast SEO are installed and set up correctly.

  1. Manage Your PPC URLs

Review all of your PPC/Biddable Media accounts and ensure that you change ALL of your URLs, across all of your ads and different types of ads, your site links and other extensions. Although your ads may follow redirects and ensure the ads still work, they will work more slowly and redirects will override Gclid and other tracking parameters, meaning that you will not be properly able to attribute your traffic sources.

  1. Update your Google Merchant Centre

If you’ve changed your domain, you will need to change the url and reverify. You will also need to create, add and optimise new Shopping Feed/s

24. Update Your Local Business Pages

Remember to update all the website links across all of your pages on Google My Business, Bing Places for Business and any other local resources which are important for your business.

25. Update All Other Platforms

Update all of your other platforms, e.g. Social, Forums, Guest Posts, Directories, etc., even your email signatures. Don’t forget links in YouTube or other videos.

  1. Try to Change Your Incoming Links

Using all of your charm and persuasiveness, ask your best/most authoritative incoming links to change.

  1. Monitor All of Your Stats in Google Search Console

Monitor everything in Google Search Console especially indexed page count.

Check regularly for 404s (broken links), they will come out of the woodwork, and create additional redirects for these.

  1. Test All Conversions

Test all of your conversion actions, e.g. Contact Forms, Calls to Action, Email Subscriptions, Orders, Purchases, etc., and feedback any issues that you can see.

Prior to Go-Live

  1. Crawl the New Dev/Staging Site

Crawl your new (development or staging site) and check that every page has the correct:

  • Title Tag
  • Meta Description
  • H1, H2, H3, etc,
  • Images
  • Alt Text
  • Volume (and quality) of content

30. Review Your Key (Priority) Target Pages

Ensure that they are all correctly optimised an have a similar quality and quantity of content and features/assets on the page.

  1. Immediately Prior to Go Live Pause All of Your PPC/Biddable Media Activity

Whilst the site is being migrated you do not want any unnecessary traffic and its pointless spending money on traffic that will not get a good experience.

On Go Live

  1. Check Your Robots status

Check your robots.txt file and robot meta tags

    1. Crawl Your New Live Site

34. Crawl Your Old Pages to test the redirects

35. Test for Speed and Mobile Friendliness Again

The live hosting environment will be totally different from the development environment that the site was built on and, as such, is it is essential that you test the site both for speed and performance and for mobile friendliness, once it is live.

    1. Use the URL Inspection Tool in Google Search Console to test your “SEO valuable” URLs and request indexing
    1. Use the Bing Submit URL’s to request indexing of your “SEO valuable” URLs
  1. Test All Your Conversions Again

Test all of your conversions, e.g. Contact Forms, Calls to Action, Email Subscriptions, Orders, Purchases, etc., again to make sure they are working correctly on the live site.

  1. Resume Biddable Media/PPC

Once the Site is Fully Live, the DNS is propagated across the planet’s ISP’s and you are satisfied with the performance and functionality of the site and conversion processes then Resume Biddable Media/PPC

  1. Every Site is Unique

Every website and business is different and, as a consequence, every migration has its own unique challenges, from the very simple to the highly complex. Use all of the bench-marked data, monitoring and analysis to ensure that your site migration is on track and if you do spot anything which is not normal then you will need to investigate the specific issue, cause and remedy.

Summary

SEO Site Migrations are hugely absorbing, time-consuming and challenging undertakings. If you follow all of the above pointers, your site move will be a lot less nerve wracking and perilous, however the final point is the key one, that in nearly every site migration there will be one or more issue that you will encounter that will be totally unique to that organisation or website, one that you will probably never ever encounter again, but which will have the potential to totally derail the project.

A googd Site Migration is Like a Duck Smoothly, Serenely Gliding But Paddling Like Hell Underneath

A googd Site Migration is Like a Duck Smoothly, Serenely Gliding But Paddling Like Hell Underneath

The key takeaway from this Site SEO Migration Guide is that with the right team on-board, your site migration will be smooth and virtually painless, however there will be a huge amount of work involved in making it so. Think of a good site migration as being like a duck, smoothly and serenely gliding through the water, but under the waterline there’s a hell of a lot of paddling going on.