Website Migration Checklist

Author - armstrong-admin

As I’m writing this it’s the start of a new year, which is often the time for new beginnings. Is that brand name not reaching the heights? Perhaps it’s time for a name change and a branding and design refresh?

In life we are accustomed to changing things around now and then, it makes life more interesting and when it comes to websites, it can revolutionise a business and bring in new customers and revenue streams. A brand refresh can make a business more appealing to a particular demographic or customer when old branding has grown to be tired and dull.

So yes it may be a good idea for a change but this change can end in a catastrophic loss of search engine visibility if the website migration that goes with it isn’t handled correctly.

Not all migrations are going to be this risky of course and a lot depends on how much you are migrating and how much you can swallow a potential loss of organic traffic – Is it a wholesale move of the domain as well as the website structure or simply a refresh of the design and layout? The former can be particularly problematic.

While all migrations are likely to have some impact on organic search positions, domain migrations can be particularly problematic because the urls are inevitably going to change. This is why it is strongly advised that the structure of the previous website is maintained to give Google a better chance of identifying where pages have moved to. Changes can always be made later on when things have settled down.

Search engines are not well set up to adapt quickly to changes of urls and this can often result in your website dropping out of the search results altogether for a time while the new urls are indexed. One thing you learn as an SEO is not to trust search engines to do what you think ought to be done automatically because it often isn’t.

Looking on the bright side, if you still want to take the plunge and migrate your website, here is a checklist that should hopefully make the process a bit less risky.

  • Crawl your website
  • Check your current Google Rankings
  • Map the old urls to new ones
  • As soon as your new domain is live
  • Add your new domain to Google Search Console
  • Notify Google that your domain name has changed
  • Instruct Google to transfer across to the new domain
  • Continue to monitor performance

Carefully consider the best time for the migration

One thing a migration isn’t going to do is help your search engine rankings or organic traffic. As we have established it will inevitably result in some disruption. To limit that disruption, it would be wise to try and make sure it happens at less busy times of year and well in advance of your peak sales periods because it could take several months to regain the organic traffic even with an impeccably well managed migration. There have been cases where businesses have been hit hard in organic search when changing domains. You might also want to avoid migrating just before a holiday because you may find yourself working on various issues when it is supposed to be your time off.

Crawl your website

Again, before you even begin to implement the website migration the old website should be crawled in detail. This will ensure you have a full record of how the website was set up before including a full list of web pages.

A detailed crawl will also reveal all the internal links between pages on the old site which you can use to ensure that these to are pointing to the right places following the migration. You might think that simply letting 301 redirects handle this process is ok but unfortunately you end up with what is referred to in SEO as redirect chains.

Redirect chains happen when a page is moved and the internal link to that page remains the same. So rather than having a direct link using the correct url for the new page, there is an extra step to go through the 301 redirect. This will slow down the rate search engines can follow links through the website because of the redirection delay and this can end up reducing search performance as a result because it takes longer to crawl the website. Multiply this by every web page and it can create a lot of issues on larger websites.  

Check your current Google Rankings

Again this needs to be done prior to the website migration. If your website has prominent search engine rankings for competitive keywords then you can expect to lose these rankings at least in the short term with a domain migration. Which again brings us back to our prior point, is migration worth the risk? A keyword raking audit will ensure that you know which pages ranked for which keyword so that you can monitor how the new domain is recovering or not. Recovering those keyword rankings as quickly as possible is going to be vital in helping your website recover. Understanding how the previous website performed and how the website was able to achieve prominent rankings will provide critical data to help restore any keyword rankings that are lost.

Compile a detailed record of organic search traffic

As well as keeping a record of keyword rankings and web pages, having a record of traffic will also provide extra data on the best performing pages. Having data on these pages available will ensure you can find which pages that need attention following the migration. Some page may well recover rankings while others don’t so this will help you make changes to only those pages that require attention. There will be some pages that are critically important to organic traffic for the entire website and these will require the most attention post-migration.  

Map the old urls to new ones

As part of the migration process another essential step is to map old urls to the new ones. Often some older pages will be omitted from the new website because they no longer serve a purpose. These urls should still be redirected to a relevant new page that covers the same type of theme if one exists.

If you find there are large numbers of pages that will no longer be useful on the new website this is not the time to let all of them all go to 404. Having too many 404 errors following a site migration may again lengthen the time it takes for organic traffic to recover. Old expired pages shouldn’t automatically be redirected to the homepage either if there is a better alternative page covering the same type of theme on the new website.

Post website migration

As soon as your new domain is live.

Add your new domain to Google Search Console

Once the new domain goes live submit it to Google Search Console and add the sitemap. It can take a few days for Google to process a new sitemap so this should be done as soon as possible. While this is being done retain the old sitemap just for the purposes of checking that the migration has gone smoothly. You should see the number of indexed pages for the old domain decline while the number of pages indexed for the new domain increase over time.

Notify Google that your domain name has changed

As part of letting Google better understand what is happening, you can also notify Google via Google Search Console that the domain name has transferred. This is why retaining your old domain in Google Search Console is important. Keeping it in your account will allow you to select the domain from a dropdown menu which you can then instruct Google to transfer across to the new domain.

When have requested the transfer through Google Search Console you should get the following notification that the validation is passed. If anything went wrong with the 301 redirection process then it will show up here and prevent the move being processed when you select the confirm move button.

Continue to monitor performance  

Even after your migrated website goes live seemingly without any hitches, you may still see new issues popping up or areas that were overlooked prior to launch. Monitoring for these issues will ensure that nothing is missed.

Pay close attention particularly to website traffic, keyword rankings. Sometimes there will be cached versions of old pages that don’t load properly unless they are visited so it is worth going through all your most important urls to make sure they are all immediately accessible on the new domain rather than serving up an error page which sometimes happens.   

Any external links should redirect to the new domain but you will likely lose some of the link juice these passed on to the previous domain. This could be rectified to an extent by notifying the websites linking to yours that the domain has changed. Keeping the site structure intact as we advised will certainly help with this. It is unlikely anyone will have the time or patience to go through all the backinks but taking care of those passing on the most link juice should be prioritised.