A site migration, simply put, refers to an event wherein a website undergoes significant changes in areas that affect their visibility on search engines. We’re talking site structure changes, content changes, coding changes, UX changes, and so on.
As you might imagine, it’s pretty tricky porting over your site to a new platform and doing a complete rebuild of its existing structure, which means that companies who undergo site migrations typically encounter some sort of rankings drop. In this article, we’ll tell you all you need to know about site migrations, and pass along a few tips to make the process as smooth as possible.
Types of site migrations
On one end of the spectrum, you have simple domain transfers. On the other end, you have complete overhauls which change a website’s server infrastructure, content management frameworks, and individual pages.
But regardless of the complexity of the site migration, these can generally be categorized into the following buckets:
1. Hosting migrations
If you’re changing anything that’s to do with your infrastructure, hardware, or server, then you’re probably dealing with a hosting migration. Because you’re altering your “foundation”, you’ll want to explore the implications of these changes on SEO—it’s highly likely that the changes will impact your front-end performance and visibility.
2. Software migrations
If you’re changing your CMS, plugins or modules within your CMS, the language that’s used to render your website, or building new plugins and tools to use on your website, then you have a software migration on your hands. Again, you’ll want to look into how these translate into your front-end performance, and make sure your new website is functional.
3. Domain migrations
Domain migrations are pretty straightforward—you’re either changing the domain of your website or adding new domains to your ecosystem. If your domain migration doesn’t involve any other structural or functional changes, then the process will be quick and painless. That having been said, you’ll still need to check your new site and make sure that your redirects and protocols work properly.
4. Template migrations
Template migrations deal with the look and feel of your website. If you’re changing your internal navigation, the layout and structure of key pages in your site, template components, or elements within your <head> code, then you’re dealing with a template migration. If that’s the case, it’s important to ensure your HTML code is structured, and that your internal linking structure makes sense to search engines.
5. Content migrations
Content migrations involve changes in your content’s tone, targeting and focus, translation of content, consolidation or removal of pages, and the like. With these projects, you’ll want to focus on consistency and make sure that you adopt the same tone throughout your site (so that you don’t confuse your readers!). On the bright side, content migrations probably won’t affect your SEO or search rankings.
6. Design migrations
Similar to template migrations, design migrations affect the look and feel of your website. These include changes to your logos, brand slogans, images and media, and other simple edits to your various design components. Assuming your changes are purely cosmetic, they won’t have an impact on your SEO.
7. Strategy migrations
Strategy migrations are a little more open-ended. These happen when your company switches to targeting a different audience, or the way you position your brand changes significantly. With strategy migrations, you’ll want to restructure your website and rework your marketing collaterals and website copy, among other things. Depending on your company’s specific vision, your strategy migration might branch out into a software or design migration as well.
To learn more about the different types of website migrations, check out Moz’s article.
Before your site migration
Planning the site migration
First, nail down the project scope, as well as the objectives of the project. Do you simply want to retain your website’s existing traffic levels? Or are you shooting to increase your traffic levels by, say, 20%?
At the same time, identify all the risks that might arise from your project, and come up with a list of ways to address these risks; (don’t get your tech team to do this alone—if you have any in-house SEO, UX, and analytics specialists, you’ll want them to pitch in with their two cents as well). Once that’s done, come up with a detailed plan for your project. Each task or step should be assigned to a team member and have a deadline tied to it.
Next, review your new website’s prototypes or wireframes. This can help you flag out potential SEO and UX issues. Following this, prepare a detailed SEO specification sheet for your developers. This asset should capture all your SEO requirements; with this sheet, your developers can have a clear idea of the time and effort that will go into the project, and quote you accordingly.
Benchmark legacy site’s performance
If you want to be able to accurately assess how well your new site is doing, you’ll have to benchmark your legacy site’s performance before porting over. Find out which keywords you’re ranking (organically!) for, and track them across both desktop and mobile. On top of that, look at your website’s loading time and site performance score. Last but not least, crawl your legacy site one last time to save pertinent information, such as your site’s meta descriptions, canonical tags, and page titles. Export your website’s Search Console data as well.
While we’ve listed pre-launch testing as the final step, you should really be doing this throughout the entire project. After all, the sooner your identify any issues, the easier (and more cost-effective) it is to tackle them. Check for user journey issues, content inconsistencies, and make sure that your redirects, canonical tags, and XML sitemaps are working well.
Psst: check out Search Engine Land’s site migration SEO checklist for more.
During your site migration
While your new website is replacing the old one, you won’t be able to access your live site.
Make sure that your web server responds to URL requests with a 503 Service Unavailable server response—this notifies search engine crawlers that your website is down for maintenance and that it’ll be live soon.
After your site migration
The moment your new site is up and running, carry out the necessary spot checks (e.g. on the robots.txt file, the top pages redirects, and more) to make sure everything’s good to go. Do this across both your mobile and desktop sites.
Next, head over to your Search Console to test and upload your XML sitemap, set your domain location, and configure your URL parameters to avoid duplicate content issues. You might also want to set your international targeting and upload the Disavow file (if applicable).
Over the next few days, check your crawl stats on your Search Console to ensure that Google is crawling your new website’s pages. There should be a visible spike (of average number of pages crawled) at your launch date. At the same time, look at your crawl errors and implement any fixes (301 redirects, soft 404 errors etc) if need be.
Potential migration pitfalls
Because most site migrations are highly complex, most companies do see a drop in rankings after implementing a site migration. In order to avoid such an outcome, project managers should familiarize themselves with the migration pitfalls that businesses commonly face:
- Not taking site hierarchy into consideration: When a website migration involves many structural changes which aren’t made with site hierarchy in mind, this messes up the vertical and horizontal linking in the new site, and potentially sabotages authority flow.
- Excessive content changes: If you delete large amounts of content, or change your content to eliminate certain keywords, then this will almost definitely affect your rankings.
- URL restructuring: If there’s a temporary drop in your rankings (that spans 1–4 weeks), that’s fine—it’s simply because search engines are recrawling your site. If your drop in rankings persists, though, this could mean your URL structure isn’t as SEO-friendly as it previously was.
At the end of the day, be sure to measure your site migration performance, and assess if your site migration was successful. Give yourself 4–6 weeks for the dust to settle, then benchmark your new site’s visibility against your old site’s. While doing this, look at other factors such as search engine rankings, user engagement, sessions per page type, conversion rates, and more. You might also want to check the number of indexed pages on your new site, your new site’s speed, and the submitted vs indexed pages in your XML sitemaps.
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