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The Definitive SEO Website Migration Checklist for 2021

Ready to boost your online presence and give your brand a makeover with a shiny new website? Here’s the deal: migrating a website isn’t as easy as pressing a button and pushing it live. You need to have a clear plan and roadmap in place if you want to make the transition as smooth as possible. Otherwise, you could end up disappearing from Google. Keep reading for our three-phase framework to get you prepared for before, during, and post launch.

You’ve built a brand spanking new website. Now you want to migrate it seamlessly WITHOUT losing your traffic and revenue.

Sounds simple in theory.

But in reality, website migration is a minefield filled with potential pitfalls from dropping in Google rankings to broken links, missing products, decreased conversion rates — and the list goes on.

Miss a step, and soon your beautiful new site is overshadowed by all the time and resources spent fixing issues in the site migration process.

Here’s the deal: migrating a website isn’t as easy as pressing a button and pushing it live. You need to have a clear plan and roadmap in place if you want to make the transition as smooth as possible.

So how do you migrate your new site while safeguarding your SEO, traffic, leads and revenue?

That’s what we’re going to cover here.

We’ve put together a website migration checklist that will help you get things right the first time around. This is the checklist we use with our clients, and will take you through everything you should look out for in the pre-launch, launch day, and post-launch stage of website migrations.

Ready? Let’s go.

How does site migration affect SEO?

In theory, you should be able to push a new site live and have all of your hard work carry over from your old one.

Unfortunately, reality — also known as Google — works a little bit differently. A site migration can lead to a decline in organic traffic, which you can see from this image below:

web migration organic traffic

Image source: Moz

Why does this happen?

Simple. When you migrate a new website, Google needs time to process the change, crawl the website, and update its index accordingly.

It essentially treats your website as a completely new site, re-evaluating all of the different search engine ranking signals from technical SEO to on-page, content, and off-page SEO.

If your website migration is well planned and carefully executed, this dip should be temporary. Your traffic, rankings and revenue should bounce back before you know it.

However, the reality is that site migrations are complex beasts, particularly if your website is undergoing a number of drastic changes at the same time. You might end up with links redirecting to nowhere, changes to URL structure, image compression issues, site speed changes...and the list goes on.

All of these changes to site location, platform, structure, content, design, and UX affect how Google crawls and indexes your site, which in turn affects your organic visibility. 

This drop can last anywhere from a few weeks to several months — depending on how your search engine ranking signals have been affected and how long it takes to recover.

Ultimately, you need to prepare your roadmap for both scenarios if you want to set your migration up for success, which means:

  1. Organizing your plan and configuring everything correctly

  2. Making sure that everything goes smoothly on launch day

  3. Monitoring any issues that occur after the site migration

 

Website migration checklist:
pre-launch

The pre-launch phase is THE most important part of your site migration. 

This is where you get your ducks in a row, organize your roadmap, bring all the necessary stakeholders on board, get the right technical and on-page SEO elements sorted, set up any redirects, crawl your old site, and test your new site.

Try to tick off every step on this list and put yourself in the best position possible for your new site.

1. Prepare your project plan and roadmap

If you haven’t done so already, you need to set up your project plan.

Migrating a website is a MASSIVE project that can easily take months. 

That’s why you need to:

  • Gather all your stakeholders as early as possible

  • Outline every task clearly, along with any dependencies (tasks that can’t be completed without the help of others)

  • Assign an owner to each task

  • Map expected delivery dates against each task 

A project management tool, like a Gantt Chart or Trello, can be a lifesaver, as it helps everyone visualize every stage of the migration and check off tasks as they go along.

2. Set your anticipated launch date

Site migrations never go 100% according to plan. However, it’s still good to have an anticipated launch date in mind for your migration.

Ideally, you should be migrating your site during a quiet period, in order to minimize any impact on traffic and revenue. It's also recommended to avoid launching on a Friday as it's likely you'll have less support over the weekend should anything go wrong. 

Look back over your website traffic trends and revenue over the past couple of years to see where there’s a lull. Try to launch during these times, as this will give your team maximum time to address any unforeseen issues that spring up during the migration.

For example, if you’re running a fitness company, you might find that it’s quieter in the last quarter of the year. Migrating your website during this time means you’ll have enough leeway in case anything goes wrong.

Last but not least, make sure you’re not launching before or during a peak period for your business. It’s far better to delay a site migration than to push a website live during your busiest time of year.

3. Crawl your current site

screaming frog crawl

Image source: Screaming Frog

Before you start migrating your website, it’s important to conduct a site crawl for URLs, page titles, metadata, content, redirects, broken links, and so forth. 

This helps you pinpoint any issues with your current site, which you can then address as part of your website migration.

There are plenty of tools that you can use to crawl your site, such as:

  • Screaming Frog: A simple and easy-to-use crawler that’s ideal for small to medium websites.

  • Deep Crawl: A powerful cloud-based crawler that you can use to crawl your existing site and your staging environment, then make comparisons.

  • Botify: Another cloud-based crawler for your current website and your staging site. Botify also generates a to-do list, which makes it easy to identify errors and address them before launch.

Tip: Store your crawl log file a few months before your website migration. This data will come in handy if anything goes wrong after the site migration is complete.

4. Identify your top-performing pages

During the crawl process, it’s also a good idea to take note of your top-performing pages. If any of these pages are affected in your site migration, they’ll likely have a bigger impact on your site’s rankings and revenue than a website that only a handful of people visit a year.

Review your crawl data and note down:

  • The pages that generate the most organic traffic

  • The pages with the highest conversion rate

  • The pages that drive the highest revenue

  • The pages with the highest number of referring domains

This will help you prioritize which pages to preserve in your new site, and which ones to focus on if any issues arise post-launch.

5. Set up a staging site

Your staging environment is where you test your website BEFORE migrating it over. This is a good opportunity to check that everything is working as it should, and to compare your new site against the old site for any issues.

Make sure to block access to this site so Google doesn’t end up indexing it. You can either do this by making your staging site password protected, or by blocking access in your robots.txt file.

6. Map and implement your 301 redirects

Redirects are a critical part of site migration, particularly if you’re changing your top-level domain or moving from http:// to https://. These tell search engines and users where to find pages that may have been renamed, moved, or deleted. 

If the old URLs from your legacy site cease to exist after your migration and you don’t have redirects in place (or the wrong redirect chains), you’ll lose all of the SEO juice from that page. It’s a MASSIVE visibility killer — plus, it can lead to users landing on 404 pages or getting redirects to irrelevant content.

The best way to prevent this from happening? 

Set up 301 redirects on your new pages or to your new domain name.

To do this, create a redirects spreadsheet with your old URLs and your new URLs:

301 redirects spreadsheet

Send this old and new URL list to your dev team to set up any redirects when the new site is launched. 

Doing this will help ensure your web pages get indexed faster by Google AND ensure your website continues to deliver a solid user experience after your migration.

7. Create and test your 404 page

Despite your best efforts, it’s highly likely that users will encounter a few 404 errors after you migrate pages to the new site. Create a custom 404 page that directs users back to relevant landing pages, like this one by Airbnb:

404 page example

8. Review your URLs

A site migration is the perfect time to double-check that your new URLs are structured correctly and in line with technical SEO requirements.

There are two important URL components to review in the pre-launch phase.

First, check that absolute URLs are used throughout your website. An absolute URL contains all the information necessary to locate a resource on your site, while a relative URL only uses part of the URL.

Absolute URLs look like this:

<a href = http://www.onlinemarketinggurus.com/hello.html>

While relative URLs look like this:

<a href = "/hello.html">

Absolute URLs are preferred from a technical SEO standpoint because they help avoid duplicate content issues and can improve your internal linking.

At the same time, your new site migration is a prime chance to review the structure of your new URLs:

  • Make sure your new URL structure is clean and tidy

  • Follow the same standard URL structure throughout your website

  • Use dashes instead of underscores

  • Remove any special characters (e.g www.hello/com/web%page.html)

9. Identify potential duplicate content issues 

Duplicate content can be a pesky and potent search engine ranking killer in site migrations, particularly if you're moving to a new domain name. When you conduct a site migration, you might end up with multiple versions of the same page. The problem with this is that Google won’t know which page to rank first, and your pages ultimately end up competing against each other in organic search engine results.

The best way to prevent this is to clean up your content and remove any duplicate pages altogether (while putting the necessary 301 redirects in place). 

If you can’t do this, you can always add a rel="canonical" link to tell search engines which page you want to prioritize in search results.

This is also the moment to comb through your old website and fix any errors with canonical tags before making the move to your new site.

10. Check your site speed

google-pagespeed-insights-update

Image source: Search Engine Land

Site speed plays a big role in determining where your website appears in search. When you’re doing your site migration, you want your new site to at LEAST be at the same speed as your old site (if not faster).

Run your staging website against your current site using Google’s PageSpeed Insights. This will show you how they both stack up, and pinpoint any site speed issues that should be addressed before your site launch.

11. Generate an XML sitemap

XML sitemaps are like a roadmap of your website for search engines. It shows them how your website is structured, which makes it easier for bots to crawl and index your website. 

Ask your developers to create a new XML sitemap for your new site (or do it yourself using a generator tool). Once your site is switched over, you’ll need to upload it to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools.

12. Make sure your analytics tool is installed on your website

You’ve set up your website, migrated it over, and now you want to use Google Analytics to check the results.

Just one problem: you can’t see any results since moving to a new site.

This problem is common and it’s a huge headache for digital marketing teams. A gap in analytics data can make it difficult to track website traffic, visibility and conversions. Essentially, you have NO visibility on how your new site is stacking up in search, or if your results have been impacted.

Make sure that all scripts, tags, and codes from your old site are implemented on your staging site. It’s ideal to work with a specialist analytics team at this stage to ensure all of your Goals and Events are set up correctly, and that all of your eCommerce tracking is in place (if you have it).

13. Optimize your on-page SEO elements

On-page SEO is just as important as technical SEO when it comes to ranking on Google. 

Use this stage of your site migration to review and update your on-page SEO elements. This gives you the best chance of being crawled and indexed quickly by search engines after you’ve switched to your new site.

  • Navigation: Can you navigate to all of your important pages easily from any location using internal links?

  • Keywords: Have you incorporated keywords into the copy where natural and relevant? 

  • Alt tags: Have you added alt tags on all of your images to help them rank on Google Image Search?

  • Editable text: Do you have any text embedded into an image? If so, can you convert this to text?

  • Metadata: Do all of your pages have meta titles and meta descriptions? 

  • Install SSL: Ensure you move your URL from http:// to https://, if you haven't done so already.

14. Run benchmarks

As your website migration approaches, you should take the time to benchmark your old website’s performance. This will give you a barometer to measure your new website’s performance against, and help you quickly pinpoint and resolve any issues once the migration occurs.

For example, if your benchmark shows that your legacy blog was ranking in position 3 with 1,000 clicks per day, but your new site is appearing on position 8 with 100 clicks per day, that’s a surefire sign that there’s a problem that needs to be addressed stat.

How you benchmark your website depends on the tools you have at your disposal. Ideally you should run three different benchmarks:

  • SEMRush: Benchmark your website rankings, clicks, impressions and CTR

  • Ahrefs: Benchmark your top content, the traffic to these pages, and number of keywords for each page

  • Google Analytics: Benchmark key performance metrics, such as sessions, users, bounce rate, pages per session, conversions, transactions and revenue

Website migration checklist: migration day

Keep calm — the big day is finally here. The most important thing during a site migration process is to minimize the amount of website downtime, ensure the website is working properly once live, and start testing ASAP to resolve any issues.

1. Make sure your server is responding with 503 status codes

503 status code

Image source: Dribbble

It goes without saying that during your site migration, your website will be temporarily down. During this time, make sure that your server is responding with a 503 (service unavailable) server response. This tells crawlers that your site is down for maintenance — essentially it’s a ‘Come back later’ sign for your website.

2. Set up your analytics and Google Search Console

It’s important to make sure that your web analytics and Google Search Console are all set up correctly from day one of the website migration, particularly if you have a new domain.

This will put your site in the best position possible to be crawled and indexed by search engines, and ensure that you have the data needed to see any changes in key metrics like traffic, conversions, and revenue. 

Don’t forget to action these steps on launch day:

  • Make sure that your web analytics is tracking correctly on your new website, including your Goals, Forms and Cart

  • Set the Preferred location of your domain name as either www or non-www

  • Add an annotation to your Google Analytics platform with the date of your site migration

  • Test and upload your sitemap to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools

  • Replicate your URL parameter configurations in Google Search Console to address any duplicate content issues

 

Website migration checklist: post-launch

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! However, it’s not time to kick back and relax just yet. In fact, the post-migration phase of a new site is equally as important as the earlier stages. 

You need to make sure you keep an eye on your new website in the hours, days and weeks following the launch. This allows you to identify and resolve any issues that may affect your SEO, before they wreak too much havoc on your visibility, traffic or bottom line.

Here’s what to keep in mind during the post-migration stage.

1. Conduct technical spot checks

As soon as your new site is live, it’s time to check that everything was migrated properly. Here are a few things that you should do on launch day to iron out any glaring issues as quickly as possible:

  • Run a report for broken internal links and external links, then correct these as needed

  • Test your 301 redirects to make sure all existing and new landing pages are redirecting correctly

  • Check your canonical tags have been updated to the new versions

  • Double check that meta data is in place throughout the website

  • Comb over your website for any duplicate content

  • Temporary website blocks have been removed from your robots.txt file

  • Check that all the content was migrated

If it’s possible, enlist as many team members as possible during the launch to help test the website and spot any typos, broken images, missing pages, formatting issues, and so on.

2. Keep an eye on your crawlability and indexability

You want Google to crawl your new website stat. Regularly review your stats in Google Search Console to make sure all of your websites are being crawled and indexed accordingly. You can do this quickly using the Crawl Stats Report and Index Coverage Report

 

GSC index report

Image source: Search Engine Journal

Hint: Google should crawl new pages faster than existing web pages. if you can’t see a spike in pages crawled per day at the time of your site migration, this might mean that there’s an issue with the crawlability of your site.

3. Audit your site performance against your old site benchmarks

Remember those benchmarks you prepared earlier? This is where they come into play. Monitor your website regularly for any changes in position, traffic, users or conversions. Note down any issues, and draw on your developers or team to address these accordingly.

Remember: the faster you spot these issues, the faster you can resolve them — and the less they’ll impact your rankings.

 

Why you should use a site migration SEO service

We get it — website migrations are TOUGH.

There are a lot of challenges and issues to navigate, and there’s something very real at stake: your rankings and revenue. While you can try to do the migration in-house, the best route to safeguarding your SEO performance is to use a site migration SEO service.

These specialists have been there, done that — and they’ve seen all the migration types under the sun. Their experience is your advantage. These teams understand precisely how to make the move to a new site in a way that minimizes the risk and negative impact to your business in the short term and the long term.

Your site migration team will make sure everything is set up properly from the get-go, so Google recognizes and ranks your new site ASAP. They’ll also recommend optimizations before and after the launch, using it as an opportunity to help you rank even higher in search engine results and bring more traffic to your website.

Ready to make the move to a new site AND to better search engine rankings? Request your free digital marketing strategy session today, or learn more about SEO in our A-Z SEO Guide.

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