Website migration guide: building an SEO checklist for moving your site

  • 3
  • December 17, 2015
Stephen Kenwright

Stephen Kenwright

Director of Search

Any change to a website’s structure can damage search visibility and cause a loss in traffic. Changing domains completely presents a problem – if done incorrectly search engines can fail to understand that the site has moved. A new website might not rank as well as the previous one, or in some cases it won’t rank at all.

Why change URLs?

Switching to https://

Google (Alphabet) wants to make the web safer. Websites using https:// have been given a boost in search visibility over those using the insecure http:// protocol since 2014. Switching to https:// is executed using 301 (permanent) redirects which will not pass 100% of the URL’s link equity or PageRank to its new destination.

The preference given to https:// can counteract this – and the long term benefits are significant – but bear in mind that you are changing every single URL on your website. Old redirects must be updated to point to the new https:// versions as the ultimate destination – the more redirects search engines have to interpret, the more link equity will be wasted and the greater the amount of time your website may be without search rankings.

Going international

A common domain change is from a country specific TLD (Top Level Domain) such as .co.uk to an internationally acceptable .com version.

There are additional considerations to make when changing domains to expand internationally – updating targeting, implementing hreflang tags and more. As well as changing every URL you may be duplicating each page of content for users in other countries also which makes it vital that it’s as easy as possible to present users with the correct version.

Combining a site migration with a change of protocol to https:// compounds the risk.

Rebranding

Changing website to reflect a change in name and message can present problems for search engines. In addition to the technical considerations, it is vital that users are greeted with the experience they expect – confused searchers bouncing back to search results can cause damage to your search visibility as well as your brand.

This is true also of businesses migrating websites into an existing domain following an acquisition or mothballing of a sub-brand. If a searcher clicks a result expecting a particular product or piece of information the new landing page must meet that intent or make it easy for users to click through to a page that will.

It’s widely reported that Google has a “brand bias” and it’s worth bearing in mind that it might not like your new brand as much as your old brand – people aren’t searching for it yet – and when you haven’t got that brand equity built into your domain Google doesn’t have an excuse to keep you at the top of its results.

Cool ski instructor site migration meme

Site migration SEO checklist

Below are the 30 easy steps required to maximise the chances that your change of website will be smooth.

Planning the migration

Some of the planning required for a site migration could already be done. You should already know which keywords you rank for, which keywords drive traffic and what assets are actually on your website.

Remember: you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.

  1. Create a sitemap of your new site, building a hierarchical list of all your site pages (including images, videos and other assets)
  2. Compile a full list of all the URLs on the current site. This can be done by either crawling the site, extracting from the CMS or exporting URLs receiving traffic from Analytics
    • Make sure you have a list of the URLs you’re using in PPC campaigns. Failing to set up redirects on these URLs will result in sending users to broken links and trash your Quality Score
  3. Compile a list of all the URLs planned for the new site
  4. Map each individual URL from the current site to new site URLs individually, to be implemented with 301 redirects
  5. Benchmark the current website’s rankings to measure progress throughout the migration. 20 or 30 keywords is not enough – use several hundred as a bare minimum
  6. Benchmark organic traffic levels (including visits, bounce rates, conversions) per page on the current website
  7. Prepare paid ads for keywords that the site ranks well organically for to put live if you run into issues after the site is launched
  8. Identify the most authoritative links in the site’s backlink profile to be switched to the new URLs once the new website is live
  9. Register and configure the new domain in Google Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools)
  10. Generate an XML Sitemap for the new domain

Implementing the migration

There’s more to “implementation” than waiting for the development team to go live – testing throughout the process is essential.

  1. Prepare and test the 301 redirects at page level for ALL URLs from the old to the new domain. This can be tested using crawlers, rather than done manually
    • Don’t forget subdomains!
  2. Password protect the new domain and block all crawlers in the robots.txt file to prevent the staging site from being indexed. Use meta=”noindex” tags as well if possible. Failure to do so can cause duplication issues as Google will be able to index the content on your staging site as well as live content. Worse, Google could read the content on your staging site before it can read the content in its new home. Nobody wants to rank below their own testing environment
  3. Publish the content to the new domain
  4. Check that all pages exist; show correct information; status codes and all internal links are directed to the correct pages
  5. Disable the authentication/password protection required to access the content on the new website
  6. Implement the 301 redirects at page level from the old to new domain
  7. Verify the redirects are working as expected (again, this can be achieved by crawling the lists of redirects using Screaming Frog SEO Spider)
  8. Remove the disallow rule in the robots.txt file to allow search engines to crawl the new website
    • Steps 5, 6, 7 and 8 need to be executed as quickly as possible to reduce the chances of a search engine being redirected to a blocked site and rankings dropping as a result. Once the redirects are in place the new domain needs to be available to crawl as quickly as possible
  9. Inform Google that the site has moved through the “change of address” option in the old domains account in Google Search Console
  10. In the Webmaster Tools account of the new domain, go to “Crawl” > ”Fetch as Google” and crawl the homepage and main category pages on the new site as Google. As this is done click “submit to index” on each
  11. Submit the sitemap of the new domain to Google via Search Console
  12. Change the URLs in your social sharing buttons so the share counts are carried over to the new website. It’s likely that any SEO benefit you would receive from social shares will be lost, but then it’s unlikely that you actually get any SEO benefit from social shares anyway, so what are you worried about?
  13. Reach out to the site owners of the most valuable links you identified when prepping the site migration. Ask them to change the destination of the links so that they point to the new URLs – this means that when a search engine crawls a linking website and follows an inbound link to your site there is no redirect to interpret, which ensures that the maximum possible amount of PageRank or link equity is passed through the link

Monitoring the migration

The sooner you can spot an issue the sooner it can be fixed. Monitoring all your data after a migration is vital for damage limitation.

A hint: if you can monitor 404 errors in your CMS you can fix them before Google is able to find them and list them in Search Console.

  1. Check daily for crawl errors in the Google Search Console account of the new domain for at least the first month after the migration has taken place
  2. Crawl the old URLs as often as possible to ensure 301 redirects are still working (maybe one or twice per week for the first month after the migration will be enough)
  3. Check indexation of both the new and old domains in Search Console (and using a site: search in Google for reference). Indexation of the old website will decrease and then disappear whilst the new will increase (hopefully!)
  4. Check the benchmark rankings to ensure organic visibility is maintained and also that the rankings URLs are what is expected (Horizon checks rankings bi-weekly – you should rank check as often as possible)
  5. Monitor organic traffic volumes and behaviour of organic visitors using your analytics platform to ensure the new site is still receiving traffic and users can navigate it without issue
  6. Continue to update external links that go to the old domain if possible. As stated above PageRank will flow through a 301 redirect without issue, but links are more valuable pointing directly to a URL with a 200 response code
  7. Maintain control of the 301 redirects and the old domain at least until it stops being indexed, referring traffic and attracting links.

What do you need to bear in mind?

Changing website will not recover you from a penalty

Before changing URLs you must be sure that your website is not suffering from link issues or algorithmic penalties. A message in your Search Console citing Unnatural Links, for example, indicates a lack of trust in your website. Failing to remove this message before changing URLs implies an attempt to cheat.

Penalties – including algorithmic issues such as Panda and Penguin – are transferred through redirects and will usually result in a further loss in rankings. Failing to recover a penalty before a site migration generally means a huge loss in traffic even from what you received under penalty.

Monitor search rankings and 404 errors

Search rankings must be monitored closely throughout a site migration. This means a thorough keyword research in the planning stage – not to identify your opportunities but to identify the keywords you currently rank for.

Gather as many ranking keywords as you can from tools such as Searchmetrics, Horizon and historic keyword data from Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools, if you are fortunate enough to have some. Check your positions for these keywords as often as possible throughout the launch – and the following months – to quickly spot errors.

When designing a new website you must retain keywords in titles and body copy that you rank well for, regardless of the quality of surrounding content. If you are taking the opportunity to remove poor, thin or duplicate content from your web pages you must replace it with something better or you will no longer be relevant for the terms you were ranking for.

There is more to SEO than keyword rankings, but it’s a guarantee that neglecting keywords during a site migration will cost you.

Old redirects must be updated to avoid losing rankings

A change in URL is achieved by redirecting old pages into new. Old redirects must be updated so that old pages point to the newest destinations directly rather than via a redirect that is currently live. Each time a request results in a redirect:

  • Page load time is increased as a newer version is loaded. Bounce rate begins to increase after page load times reach three seconds – force users to wait for 10 seconds as they are redirected from one page to the next and up to 40% will leave.
  • A small amount of link authority is lost. The further a URL is located from a website’s homepage (product pages within sub categories within categories, for example) the less PageRank reaches that page to begin with as most of your links will point to your homepage. Forcing Google through more than one redirect on a product page will dilute this further. This increases the risk that product pages will not rank as well after a site migration, or worse, not be added to Google’s index at all.

Links in the top navigation must be updated to reflect their new destinations in order to avoid unnecessary redirects…but also links in blog posts and sitemaps.

Update Search Console and other web properties

External web properties can sometimes be forgotten during a website migration. It’s important to remember to submit a change of address in Google’s Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools) in addition to updating your Analytics tracking codes and Google My Business listings. It’s not going to be possible for me to list all the properties you need to check but if you control the links on any platform (Facebook, personal/professional social profiles, even your Moz account) you should update the links if you have changed URLs.

PPC in a site migration

In AdWords you can’t redirect to a different domain in the final URL, so if you are changing web address you will have to create new ads. The final URL has to match the display URL. Tracking codes must be updated too – once this has been done it’s a good idea to attempt a transaction and ensure everything is being reported as you would expect.

As above, ensure you’re not losing any keywords or content that is currently making a page relevant for a specific query. You could see an improvement in Quality Score following a site migration, with better content and a better user experience, but any drops in performance should return to normal levels within a week or two at most.

You’re losing a whole lot of history

Every website has a history. This does not just mean the age of the domain – SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation, so if you’ve been doing SEO for a while then your website will be optimised. The same is true of CRO – Conversion Rate Optimisation. You cannot know how Google – or users – are going to react to a brand new website that has not been optimised just for them.

This does not mean you shouldn’t always look to make changes to provide a better experience…but bear in mind that your meta data describes what was on your page; your CTAs were a certain colour because that worked with your old design; links pointed to content that was on a certain URL.

A new website is a huge change. Be prepared to see a dip in performance while search engines and users adjust.

Timing is everything

If Christmas is your peak period then don’t migrate your website in November. Even a successful migration can take a week or two to be understood by search engines. Make sure it’s a quiet(er) time for your business.

What can go wrong when you launch a new website?

For an SEO a site migration can be a hard sell. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say best case scenario is your new website performing as well as the old one – and it should be apparent from the checklist above that the amount of input involved from the person(s) responsible for SEO is not insignificant.

It’s not just dangerous to switch domains – any change in URLs can be problematic.

In June Toys ‘R Us moved their mobile website from m.toysrus.co.uk to toysrus.co.uk/mobile/, which initially caused a severe traffic loss. A comparison of m.toysrus.co.uk vs toysrus.co.uk/mobile/ just in mobile search results.

Toys R Us site migration

Comparison of m.toysrus.co.uk vs toysrus.co.uk/mobile/ just in mobile search results.

Mobile traffic to the primary domain is steadily increasing but the site is still feeling the effects of the switch.

The migration from the m. domain has negatively affected rankings for the desktop site too, which we’re estimating is down around 10,000 non-brand organic visits compared to the day before the change took place (down 120,000 visits they day after).

Toys R Us site migration desktop

It can take a significant amount of time for Google to understand what has changed following a migration, even if that migration was largely successful and the domain(s) migrating were clean. Conversely Google can be incredibly unforgiving for attempts to migrate domains affected by penalties (in the below case Penguin).

Searchmetrics site migration mistake

Searchmetrics shows a failed site migration from blue to green. The (comparatively) small drop in visibility on the blue line is likely to be the Penguin algorithm which is one of the major contributing factors to the site never recovering its visibility after launching the new website. For context: outside of search green is arguably the market leader in this industry with a significant ATL spend. Orange is a much smaller brand with almost no spend above the line, but a technically sound website. You’re welcome orange.

Old site still ranks for 40 keywords

Continuing with the same site migration blue still ranks for around 40 keywords 2 years after moving to the new site, so not all of the redirects have been implemented correctly.

Lost traffic after launching new website

…and finally, assuming the trend shown in Searchmetrics continued (disregarding the rest of the awesome work being done) when the two websites were neck and neck in terms of visibility, the newly launched website (blue) is down around 237,000 non-brand organic visitors every single month compared to where it should be.

Should I migrate my website?

Many websites switch domains or URLs without issue and for many brands it’s absolutely necessary to change.

Following a process gives you the best chance of catching the problems before they occur but there is a lot of pressure on those responsible for SEO to make sure the migration is a success. Remember: just because you don’t deal with PSD files and you might not write code does not mean that you should not be one of the loudest voices in the room.

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