There are many reasons why you might choose to move a website; perhaps you are rebranding, having a website redesign, switching to HTTPS, or even expanding to serve an international audience. Traditionally, moving a website is something that SEOs can be quite nervous about, as a site move has the potential to seriously affect rankings, traffic, conversions, and in turn revenue.
However, SEO site migration issues can be minimised if you prepare a thorough website migration project plan and carefully follow a site migration checklist and guide such as the one we have set out for you here.
Jump straight to our site migration SEO checklist or read on for a more detailed explanation of each part of the process.
Conduct a website audit
If possible, it’s advisable to conduct a thorough audit of your website before you even begin thinking about the website move. By doing so, you can identify and eradicate any errors before they potentially get multiplied and complicated by the migration.
Crawl your legacy site
Crawl your current or ‘legacy’ site using a website crawler and don’t forget to also crawl any subdomains that exist. We recommend using either Screaming Frog or DeepCrawl. Screaming Frog offer a free package that will crawl up to 500 pages – for larger websites you will need to pay a small fee. DeepCrawl is purely a paid service, though both products are excellent.
Create XML sitemaps for your legacy and development sites
XML sitemaps help search engines understand your website’s structure and the pages it contains. You should generate an XML sitemap for your ‘legacy’ (current) site – if you haven’t already done so – as well as for your (new) development or ‘dev’ site. If you have a large website, it can be worth creating multiple XML sitemaps, so for example you might have one for your product pages, one for your category pages, one for your blog posts and so on.
Check and benchmark your rankings
In order to properly analyse how migrating a website will affect your online visibility, it’s important to check and benchmark your rankings before and after the website transfer. Rankings will almost certainly fluctuate after you transfer a website and it’s common for rankings to decrease, so having a before and after record of ranking positions is invaluable.
Map out your 301 redirects
One of the most important tasks to get right during a website migration project is to ensure your 301 redirects are properly implemented. This is not an area in which you can afford to take shortcuts, so you have to make sure you are absolutely clear about which pages will need redirecting, and where. Failure to do so is the common downfall of numerous website redesigns and can be a major cause of loss of traffic and revenue.
Firstly, any duplicate URLs should be removed. If you are not changing domains, then any URLs that will remain the same when on your dev site do not need redirecting. Any other pages should be 301 redirected to their new equivalent page. If there is no direct equivalent, you should redirect them to their relevant parent page. Don’t simply redirect pages to the dev site’s homepage; take the time to find their most appropriate new page.
If you have pages that are returning a 404 error that also have high value links pointing towards them, redirect these too and if possible, create a custom 404 page which directs your users to a new page (not the homepage).
Often, website owners will meticulously redirect the service type pages of their website but neglect to do the same for all their valuable content pages such as blog posts. These types of pages are frequently the ones which acquire the most valuable backlinks, so a carefully thought out content migration plan should be a fundamental part of your website redesign strategy.
Set up a robots.txt file and add your XML sitemap to it
If you haven’t already created a robots.txt file then do so and also add your XML sitemap to it. You may choose to request that search engines temporarily do not index your dev site through the robots.txt file, although better methods are available as are explained below.
Prevent search engines from indexing your dev site
As soon as you begin working on your dev site, make sure that search engines cannot index it. This can be achieved by either (in order from least to most desirable methods):
- Requesting search engines ignore your site by adding it to your robots.txt file
- Adding a noindex meta tag to the site
- Password protecting the site
- Only allowing access to certain IP addresses
Set up Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools
If you haven’t already done so, set up Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools (or similar for any other search engines you are focusing on) and verify your legacy website with them both. They can help you to identify and resolve many of your search engine optimisation issues.
Ensure Google Analytics tracking code is included on all pages
Make sure that you have included Google Analytics tracking code on all the pages of your dev site that you want to track.
Fix any broken links
Use a crawler or broken link checker software to identify any broken links and fix them or remove them if they are no longer valid.
Check any Pay-Per-Click (PPC) URLs are updated
Implement and test your 301 redirects
It’s now time to implement and also test those hugely important 301 redirects. These can be tested using a website crawler.
Create an XML sitemap for the dev site and add the legacy and dev XML sitemaps to it
Generate an XML sitemap for the dev site. Both this and the XML sitemap for the legacy site should be added to the dev site. You can call the legacy sitemap something like ‘/sitemap-legacy.xml’.
Choose the best time for the website to go live
Selecting the best time for your website to go live is an important part of any website migration plan. Ideally you would do so at a slow seasonal period, at a weekend if you are a Monday to Friday type of business, or perhaps most importantly, when your developers and digital marketing team are available to help with any issues you may encounter.
Allow search engines to index the new site
The time has finally arrived to allow search engines to index your new website. Depending on which method you chose in the ‘Prevent search engines from indexing your dev site’ section above to ensure search engines could not index your site, you should now reverse it.
Submit sitemaps to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools
As soon as you set your site to go live and be indexed, you should submit both the old and new sitemaps to Google and Bing. This is so that they can understand the changes in website structure you have made and see how your redirects have been implemented.
‘Fetch as Google’ in Google Search Console and ‘Submit URLs’ in Bing Webmaster Tools
It’s also worth using the ‘Fetch as Google’ and ‘Submit URLs’ features in Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools respectively. This will request that the search engines crawl your website immediately.
Use the ‘Change of Address’ tool in Google Search Console and the ‘Site Move’ tool in Bing Webmaster Tools (only if you are changing domains)
If you are actually changing your domain, you should use the ‘Change of Address’ tool in Google Search Console and the ‘Site Move’ tool in Bing Webmaster Tools to inform the search engines about the changes you have made.
Annotate Google Analytics and update your Goals
For reporting purposes, it’s a good idea to annotate your Google Analytics reports with the date that your website goes live so you can easily track any reporting fluctuations at a glance. It’s also important to remember to update any Goals you have set up.
Update your social media profiles and online citations (if migrating to a new domain)
If you have migrated to a new domain, you will need to update your social media profiles accordingly, as social media marketing is a very important part of branding – particularly if you are completely rebranding. This is also the case for any online citations you have built.
Crawl the new website and check for any errors that need fixing
It’s advisable to crawl the website now that it’s live in order to check for any errors that need fixing that may have slipped through the net, such as broken links for example.
Perform a ‘site:’ search to check that all your new URLs are being indexed
To check that your site is being indexed and to see how many URLs are in the SERPs, perform a search using the ‘site:’ operator – for example type ‘site:weareallconnected.co.uk’ into your browser’s search bar. This will only return pages from this website that are being indexed. Do this for both Google and Bing.
Check if any channels are experiencing a decrease in traffic
It’s common during a website migration for websites to experience drops in traffic, particularly if important tasks such as implementing 301 redirects have been missed. Use Google Analytics to check that none of your channels are experiencing a decrease in traffic since the new site went live.
Check your rankings
If you’ve followed the steps in this website redesign guide, you will have already checked and benchmarked your rankings. It’s now time to see if there have been any ranking fluctuations since the site went live.
Disavow any bad links
If you haven’t recently conducted a backlink audit, now would be as good a time as any to do so. After you have performed the audit and have requested that harmful links be removed or set to nofollow by the relevant webmaster, any that you are unable to have removed or set to nofollow should be disavowed. If you have recently submitted a disavow file, make sure you combine the two files together as otherwise the newer one will overwrite the older version.
Build new links and internally link to any main new pages
Building new authoritative links is a fundamental, ongoing part of most successful SEO campaigns. Doing this is particularly helpful if you have migrated to a brand new domain but is beneficial for any website. It’s also vital to ensure you internally link to any new pages that have been created, not only to assist search engines but also for your users.
Re-audit your website
If you have the time, it’s advisable to conduct another audit of your website. Although you will have already crawled the site, a thorough audit of all aspects of your online profile is always a worthwhile exercise and will help you to identify any issues that need resolving as well as opportunities for improvement. Ideally, you should also check for errors on a daily basis for the first few weeks in Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools.
Resubmit your XML sitemap
After you have fixed any errors that were highlighted by your audit, you should resubmit your new XML sitemap to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools and as before, use the ‘Fetch as Google’ and ‘Submit URLs’ features to request that the search engines crawl your website straight away.
Let the dust settle!
As previously mentioned, website migrations can be a challenging process to manage successfully if you don’t follow a carefully planned strategy, and even well-structured projects can suffer from fairly profound fluctuations post-launch. Be careful not to react too hastily to any changes that may occur in terms of traffic, rankings etc. One week in is too soon to judge and you should really wait at least a month before you draw any primary conclusions. Many migrations can take several months to stabilise, so don’t panic just yet but do of course monitor all aspects of your website’s performance very closely over this period.
So, if you have followed this guide carefully, you should be able to migrate your website with the minimum of trouble to your company, staff, and most of all your users. Website migrations get easier to manage with practice but almost all pose their own challenges, so if you experience any issues don’t worry – you are not alone!
Our TL;DR domain migration step by step checklist:
- Conduct a website audit
- Crawl your legacy site
- Create XML sitemaps for your legacy and development sites
- Check and benchmark your rankings
- Map out your 301 redirects
- Set up a robots.txt file and add your XML sitemap to it
- Prevent search engines from indexing your dev site
- Set up Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools
- Ensure tracking code is included on all pages
- Fix any broken links
- Check any Pay-Per-Click (PPC) URLs are updated
- Implement and test your 301 redirects
- Create an XML sitemap for the dev site and add the legacy and dev XML sitemaps to it
- Choose the best time for the website to go live
- Allow search engines to index the new site
- Submit sitemaps to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools
- ‘Fetch as Google’ in Google Search Console and ‘Submit URLs’ in Bing Webmaster Tools
- Use the ‘Change of Address’ tool in Google Search Console and the ‘Site Move’ tool in Bing Webmaster Tools (only if you are changing domains)
- Annotate Google Analytics and update your Goals
- Update your social media profiles and online citations (if migrating to a new domain)
- Crawl the new website and check for any errors that need fixing
- Perform a ‘site:’ search to check that all your new URLs are being indexed
- Check if any channels are experiencing a decrease in traffic
- Check your rankings
- Disavow any bad links
- Build new links and internally link to any main new pages
- Re-audit your website
- Resubmit your XML sitemap
- Let the dust settle!
If you would like our assistance with a website migration or are interested in any of our other services, then please feel free to call us on 01273 921 866 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be happy to help you.
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