SEO Site Migration checklist: How not to lose traffic when you move your website

Not a lot is needed to ruin your brand’s visibility in search engines. For starters, simply mess up during the site migration process, and it’ll ensure that you lose a great chunk of your visitors and slide down Google’s rankings.

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But we don’t think you want that.

While changing your domain name or moving to HTTPS or migrating for any reason whatsoever can be a great business move, if you fail to consider the effect of this move on search engines, you can be certain to take a major hit when it comes to your SEO.

Websites, much like the businesses that operate them, are often a bunch of deceptively complicated machines. Changing or modifying any one of the parts can easily affect (or in some cases, break) the complete setup.

Even the websites that you feel are simple are often powered by complex technologies like CMS (content management systems), databases, server-side support, and what-not. There is a LOT that goes on behind the scenes of a website, both technologically and organizationally.

So much so that you can’t observe these intricacies simply by crawling the website or going through the source code.

At this point, it is important to address one question.

How can website migration affect your SEO ranking?

If you thought that website migration was only about making advanced design decisions and/or picking a new domain – boy, were you wrong!

It is extremely saddening that SEO, which is paramount to helping your clients reach you (and vice-versa), is never taken as a priority. Even while making a business decision as crucial as migrating the website.

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While migrating, one of the most crucial things to take care of is URL redirection. A successful URL redirection requires carefully thought out strategy – because as such, it can have a lot of impact on your website’s SEO ranking.

You need to think things through (yay, alliteration!), otherwise, you might end up:

  • Ruining your user experience because your old pages will now show a 404 error or error states that befuddle your customer.
  • Breaking your analytics implementations, which will eventually result in a great loss of business intelligence – the fuel that runs your organization.
  • Limiting the functionality and scalability of the site, resulting in static or immutable templates and content. For example, messing up with the CMS’s ability to edit/add pages. This will give you a site that struggles to compete in the market.
  • Missing out on benefiting of SEOs by not leveraging what they do best: beautifully blending consumer demand/behavior with the market and your competitors. This will hold you back from creating effective strategies, functionality, and content.
  • Creating a conflict between stakeholders. The last minute “hustle” to retrofit the requirements into an already complicated project will not sound exciting to the stakeholders. (“I know it’s going live in an hour, but can we PLEASE set up the analytics tracking?”)
  • Mis-utilizing your resources. Trust us, your valuable resources are better off working on crucial things, and not fixing issues that could’ve (read: should’ve) been fixed earlier.

But, we’re not here to scare you, no!

All of this can be easily avoided, and in fact, you might realize that migrating was indeed the best business decision you took in a long time.

To increase the probability of that occurrence, here is another important question that needs answering.

What to keep in mind during website migration?

First and foremost – all the links on your website (after migration) should be working just fine. You need to make sure of that – and it should pretty much go without saying.

During the migration, you should peep into 301 redirects and how to use them. These are also known as permanent redirects and they tell Google that you have permanently shifted your page. The 302 redirects, on the other hand, are known as temporary redirects. The benefit of using a 301 redirect is that it passes the link equity along with redirection, while a 302 doesn’t.

While assessing your redirects, ensure that there aren’t any multiple redirects. Multiple redirects can create a chain/loop which will significantly decrease your site’s loading time, as well as the link authority. This, consequently, will drastically reduce the quality of your website, and also affect your SEO rankings. You should look to reduce the number of redirects for each link if you wish to optimize the experience of your user.

This is also a good time to decide whether you really need to redirect some URLs to their counterpart or to a parent page – or even to the homepage! It is extremely crucial that you redirect the URLs only to the pages that hold high relevance. If the page you are redirecting isn’t exactly the same as the old one, Google treats the redirect as soft 404s. If the page with the URL you wish to redirect will not be replicated in your new website, we recommend you redirect it to the closest equivalent page, or to a closer category or topic on the site.

That’s enough of talking, now let’s get to business!

Here’s a comprehensive checklist for pre-migration, during migration, and post-migration – that will help you make your website migration a seamless process!

Pre-migration SEO Checklist

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1. Crawl the sites

Crawler software like Screaming Frog can help you identify, and therefore correct, a number of SEO factors, including (but not limited to) – current URL structures, the length and content optimization for your title and meta tags, existing page errors, and site crawl issues.

Saving this data pre-migration will help you compare it with post-migration state of your website. That way, you’ll figure out any discrepancies that might have crept in, like missing URLs, etc., and fix them.

2. Map new URLs

Mapping of the URLs is the most important stage, neglecting which or implementing which incorrectly will drastically affect your visibility post-migration.

Like we said before, correctly implementing 301 redirects will ensure that authoritative pages on the legacy site pass their authority and power to the new pages. Failing to do this successfully will result in broken links, error pages, and a steep decline in your quality score.

Take a long, hard look at the redirection of all authoritative, unique, or useful pages to similar pages on the new website. Create a detailed mapping document for future references.

3. Benchmark data

The performance and ranking of your current website should be benchmarked before migration. This will help you measure and track the progress through the process. Include a number of important metrics ranging from pages indexed to organic conversions.

4. Register Google Search Console

Remember to register as well as configure your new domain in the Google Search Console (formerly Webmasters Tool). Make sure to include both the HTTP as well as HTTPS versions of your website.

5. Set up a new robots.txt file

The new robots.txt file should essentially include all the areas that you want the Googlebot to crawl or not crawl, during the process of migration. However, it can be replaced when the site is launched.

With these things in check, you are now ready to move to the next phase. The migration!

During Migration Checklist

1. Add tracking codes to the migration plan

There is a reason this finds the first spot on the checklist – people often tend to neglect this and pay the price later.

You should install Google Analytics and other tracking software on all URLs as well as redirected URLs to collect, measure, and monitor the data.

2. Update internal links

All the old content locations should be redirected to the new location using the 301 redirects or canonicals. You don’t want your users or the Googlebot to see broken links!

Ensure that each old URL points to the new location that holds the similar content.

3. Test URL redirects

Make sure that each of the URL connects to the new URL based on the mapping you did earlier and index all the redirects. It is recommended to perform a site lookup (“site:www.thesiteyouaretesting.com”) to make sure that all the redirects have been properly indexed.

4. Check and update your XML sitemaps

Sometimes it might happen that the sitemap will not show a syntax error when checked by a third party application, but when you use Google Search Console to test it, you might come across some errors. This stands especially true for specialty maps like Google News sitemaps.

To update your sitemap, start off by deactivating the old sitemap that maps all the old URLs (rename it to sitemap-old.xml). Then, submit another sitemap that contains the list of new and redirected URLs, and save it as sitemap.xml.

Now, visit Fetch as Googlebot and submit your site and wait for it to be indexed.  

5. Submit your new address

You’ve now migrated and you have a different address to tell the world. The next step? Submit a change of address for the migrated website on the Google Search Console. This will notify Google about the new URLs so that it can update its index to reflect the new domain.

This step is irrelevant to you if you are not performing a domain migration. Otherwise, use the change of address option under ‘site configuration’ in Google Webmaster Tools to let Google know your new address.

6. Choose the best time to launch the website

Ideally, you would want to perform the migration during a slow seasonal period for your business. Perhaps, at one of the weekends, if you’re a business that operates Monday to Friday.

Post-Launch Migration Checklist

Considering everything is flowing smoothly till now, we must have reached our destination, have we? Yes and no!

Some things need to be kept in mind post-migration, as well. Let’s look at the things you should do once you’ve reached the new space:

1. Monitor errors

This is surely the first thing you should do post a successful migration. Some errors, like broken links or images, might have crept in during the procedure. These, if not fixed, will provide a poor user experience. Identify any issues that need resolving and offer opportunities for improvement.

As a good practice, re-audit the website by visiting the Google Search Console every day for the first couple of weeks post-migration.

2. Check your rankings and indexed pages

Often site-owners complain of a heavy drop in traffic post-migration. The most vivid reason for this is the incorrect implementation of 301 redirects. To help you understand the traffic on your new website, you can make use of Google Analytic (using the tracking ID which we added during migration. We did, didn’t we?).

If you’ve been following us diligently, you’ll have already benchmarked your rankings. Now is the time to see if there are any fluctuations in the same.

Similarly, check your indexed pages too. If the number of indexed pages doesn’t increase post-migration, there might be some issues with the 301 redirects.

3. Ensure all inbound links are updated

To ensure that the authority of your new domain is maintained, contact external blogs, websites, and other resources that have linked to your website (or webpage(s)) and inform them of the new location.

Prioritise this for the pages that you identify as extremely important for your SEO and ask any link relevant to that page to be updated.

4. Perform an audit on the setup of your new website

In addition to ensuring all the links work, you should also take care of the architecture of the website. This includes things like:

  • Title, meta, and H1 tags: Don’t let them go missing or duplicate. Keep them unique!
  • Robots.txt file: Ensure that you are letting Google crawl all the important pages and haven’t disallowed any.
  • The flow of the website: If the links are all in place, the flow of the website should be exactly as earlier. Make sure that all the content is easily navigated, indexed, and non-plagiarised.
  • Speed and responsiveness of the website: Just keeping the links in place won’t really help your users if they see a distorted version of your website on their smartphones. You’d want to make sure that your website is device-friendly, just like it was post-migration. Likewise, perform a speed test on your website, too.

5. Disavow any bad links

The migration of your website has migrated all the links (both good and bad). You need to request the harmful (not useful) links to be removed or set to no-follow. And any such link that you are unable to remove or no-follow should be disavowed.

If you have just recently submitted your disavow file to the Google Search Console, make sure that you have combined the two files together. Else you stand a risk of losing the previous data. With disavow files, only the most recent one will be used and the older ones will be rewritten.

In Conclusion…

See, it wasn’t so difficult after all!

If you were able to successfully follow all that we asked you to, you should’ve been able to successfully migrate to the new space – and should see no loss in your ranking and traffic! A website migration project, however risky, can be handled easily only if one remembers to keep a cool head on their shoulders and strategize properly.

If, on the other hand, you found yourself struggling with any of the items discussed above, do comment below and we’ll get back to you! If you need someone to talk to, about SEO, over a cup of coffee, we welcome you anytime!

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