A Guide To Website Migrations
Written by Luke Haslett
Written by Luke Haslett
In online marketing, “site migration” is usually a phrase that makes SEOs, PPCers, site owners & stakeholders wince. Regardless of whether you think site migrations are real, we’ve all heard horror stories about sites that have gone through domain name changes & experienced a massive drop in traffic & visibility, & those that have suffered the same fate just by changing protocol. Whether you have acquired a domain, want to roll up your M-Dot site into a responsive design, or are moving from HTTP to HTTPS, it’s crucial to have a solid action plan to avoid traffic & revenue loss.
On this journey, we’ll cover some of the most important things to address pre-migration, during your migration & post-migration. We’ll share a list of tools our team recommends & even give you a free site migration checklist – to give your site the best chance of a smooth transition to your new destination.
Before you rush off into the unknown, let’s start with the basics: migration types. There are many reasons you might need to migrate your site, but here are some common ones:
Mobile Migrations: M-Dot & Responsive Redesigns
Two main types of mobile migrations include m-dot roll ups (e.g. m.domain.com) & responsive redesigns (e.g. redesigning your mobile experience from a pinch & zoom to one that fits various screen sizes). The main reason for these migrations is to create universal experiences of your site for all users, regardless of device type. This is especially important as Google’s index is now mobile-first. Building a responsive site helps consolidate site authority & reduce development resources (due to having only one site to manage & update).
HTTP to HTTPS migrations
An HTTP to HTTPS site migration is getting rarer, as most sites are automatically built with secure certificates, like TLS & SSL certificates. This type of migration is one where the domain remains unchanged, but a secure certificate becomes associated with the site & changes your site’s protocol to HTTPS. This certificate is a symbol of a safe & trustworthy site & explains Google’s push for domains to adopt the protocol.
TLD Migrations & ccTLDs
Top Level Domain (TLD) migrations refer to changing the TLD of a site (e.g. changing TLDs from .com to .org). Country Code Top Level Domain (ccTLD) migrations refer to a move from a country-specific TLD to a more internationally recognised TLD (e.g. .co.uk to .com). These moves are valuable to website owners that are trying to target a larger audience outside of a particular country’s location.
Rebranding/Consolidating Domains migrations
Rebranding is a type of site migration which occurs due to a change of name or brand acquisition. Like ccTLD to TLD migrations, this can involve moving a single domain or migrating multiple domains into one. As expected, involving multiple sites in a migration leads to greater risk for traffic & visibility.
No matter which type of migration you are looking to do, each comes with a shared list of dos & don’ts:
Do understand that looks aren’t everything
With the prospect of a new site comes the excitement of building something visually stunning. Do put your flair on the new site, but make sure this doesn’t come at a usability or SEO cost. This encompasses things like making sure your new design is accessible to special needs users & not exclusively relying on JS to load your site’s content.
Do consider wider channels
If you’re changing your company’s name or branding as part of your site migration, it’s crucial that you not overlook your other digital channels:
Do get the timing right
Timing is everything. In the planning stage, it is vital to choose the best time to migrate by considering the following questions:
Take advantage of your analytics data to understand your business traffic patterns, & Google Trends data to understand overall user demand within your industry. Plan to migrate during quieter business periods when ample staff resources are available.
Do manage expectations
Migrations don’t always go according to plan; therefore, it is recommended to manage expectations early:
Do agree on reporting format & frequency
Agreeing on what will be monitored & reported will provide you with accountability & makes sure that you are aware of what is important to measure; & what data is important to pull before launch. From experience, clients often request weekly ranking reports with keywords divided by category type (determined by the site), & page speed insights within the first few weeks of launch.
Although this list of dos & don’ts is important, we still strongly recommend you perform thorough technical audits before migrating, on your staging site, & on launch. This allows you to identify any issues that should be resolved to prevent trouble down the line.
Now we’ve thought about what’s in the abyss; it’s time to arm yourselves with information before you get out there. It is vital to obtain as much URL information about the legacy site as possible, for tracking, benchmarking & URL mapping purposes. This can be gained by exporting data from the following sources:
Once you have exported this data, it is time to combine lists, remove duplicate URLs & prioritise the most important URLs for redirection. You can use Google Sheets, Excel or Numbers to do this. Next, create a list of URLs for the new site. When you have a list of unique legacy site URLs ordered by importance & a list of planned URLs for the new site, you’re ready to create your URL redirect map.
Map each legacy URL to the new site URL on a one-to-one (1:1) basis where possible, rather than blanket mapping to the homepage or a category page, & ensure that this is done via 301 redirects. With some migrations, there will be an enormous number of URLs that need to be mapped. If this is the case, look for opportunities to use formulas & regular expressions to make the task streamlined.
Once you have created your URL map for the new site, it’s time to benchmark the performance of your legacy site. This will make it possible to measure current performance against your new site. Make a record of the following:
Now that you have your most important data, & your new domain confirmed:
If you aren’t using a staging environment to test site changes, stop what you’re doing & set one up now. A staging site is a great way to run through changes & settings before launch to understand the full effect of the changes made. Just make sure that it is either blocked in robots.txt & all test site pages have a noindex tag on them. Once this is done, use the staging site to:
Finally, you’ve finished your rigorous testing, you’ve set up your monitoring tools, & everyone & everything is in place for the big button push – launch that site!
You’ve thought about the journey, fueled your rockets & now you are in flight. Depending on the strength of your site, backlink profile & social clout, Google will begin crawling your site quite quickly; however, there will be latency in new pages getting indexed while crawlers discover & process these site changes. Regularly check search engine caches for important pages such as the homepage & top level category pages to identify when new URLs/page content are indexed.
Google Search Console checks
In the days after migration, Google Search Console makes it easy to monitor a site migration, including messages & crawl error reports:
Beyond Google Search Console, software crawlers are great tools to monitor status codes, redirect chains, tracking codes & more. Using a crawler (e.g. Screaming Frog, Deep Crawl or Sitebulb), perform a crawl of the legacy site URLs to ensure that:
Update online properties
Make sure to update social media properties to reflect the site migration, even if redirects are already in place (e.g. update your site’s link in social bios). It may also be beneficial to update Twitter handles & brand pages. Both SearchEngineWatch & Moz provide helpful social rebrand guides for all the major social platforms.
Update your site’s most valuable inbound links
Where possible it is strongly recommended to contact the owners of sites that link to your legacy URLs. Although a redirect will already be in place, a linking root domain updating their link directly to the new URL will remove undesirable redirect chains & ensure that the maximum amount of link equity is passed to your new pages. More often than not, the sites will appreciate the update. Use the data pulls collected from Majestic, Ahrefs, Google Search Console & Moz’s Open Site Explorer to identify your most valuable inbound links & reach out.
Build new links to your site
It is important to build new links in order to replace some of the link equity lost from 301 redirects, & to create new paths for search engines to discover in order to crawl your site. As always, this is best done by creating relevant & useful content & promoting it to appropriate outlets. Evaluating the existing content you have via what performs well in terms of visits & engagement, & grouping these using a content matrix can help determine your next move.
Tracking & benchmarking
Once the new site has launched, you should monitor & report on the impact of your changes:
TL;DR (too long; didn’t read): a site migration is a significant project that affects multiple digital channels & should, therefore, be performed with great planning & care. For the greatest chance of success, be sure to follow the processes in this website migration checklist, so you aren’t spending a large chunk of the post-migration period chasing your own tail.
Remember to ask questions early, pull all necessary data with plenty of time, test & retest your 301 redirects before launch & consider the impact of site migration on wider channels. Migrating a site takes a lot of effort, but if done properly, the rewards can be plentiful.
Link/ engagement intelligence
Site speed & performance
Rank checkers/performance monitoring