Establishing your SERP (Search Engine Ranking Positions) in the various search engines is no easy feat. It takes careful planning and superbly written content, and that’s not all. To rank in today’s competitive search engines, there’s well over 200 SEO factors that need to be adequately addressed. That said, if you’ve already managed to successfully establish your rankings, migrating your website could pose a significant threat to your incoming traffic. If you lose traffic, you’ll almost certainly lose leads and/or sales. Depending on the nature of your business and your dependence on website traffic, site migration could ultimately deliver a fatal blow to your brand. The good news is there’s a way to do it right. We’ve compiled the following list of SEO considerations to help you orchestrate your website migration without any serious loss of traffic. Whether you’re switching to a new domain name, a new design or integrating SSL (HTTPS), the following considerations should prove useful.
1st) Never do your work in a live environment
This is probably common sense to most, but then again, I’ve found that sense isn’t exactly common. So it’s imperative to mention the importance of using a sandbox or test server to prepare your migration without any major hiccups. One thing is certain, you’re bound to experience some complications along the way, especially for larger websites. Using an offline sandbox environment can ensure your migration is carried out successfully and working perfectly before you make your changes live in one fell swoop.
2nd) Strategically schedule your migration
There’s a time and place for everything. I’m sure you’ve heard that one before. Well, the time for website migration is not during peak traffic hours, weeks, or months. If there’s a certain time of year your website tends to get more traffic and generate more leads or sales, that’s not the time to execute your website migration. The reality is that you are likely to experience a temporary drop in organic traffic. Even in a best case scenario a temporary dip in traffic is highly probable. By following this guide, you will mitigate as much of this probability as possible. You’ll also ensure any loss is short lived. If you enter this expecting some traffic decline, it should make sense to schedule your migration at the most opportune time for you and your unique requirements, at whatever time that hurts the least.
3rd) Avoid changing your website structure
Assuming your second and third level pages are already performing in the search engines, avoid changing your URL architecture at all costs. Anytime you change your URL paths, you confuse the search engines and risk de-indexation, or at the bare minimum, a devaluation of your individual PageRank (authority). This is a sure fire way to lose rankings and traffic in a hurry, so if you can help it, don’t do it!
4th) Make a complete list of URLs before migration
You can update your sitemap, crawl your website using Screaming Frog, or make a list of links using the Ahrefs Link Explorer. Once you’ve saved a complete list of URLs on your old site, you will want to import the list into an Excel Spreadsheet and map all your old URLs to their new counterparts. If you aren’t changing your URL architecture or removing any pages during your migration, all the URLs should match. That said, you’ll also be able to identify your 404 errors and broken or redirected links.
5th) Update links to orphans, 404, 301 and 505 pages
If you do identify pages that aren’t linked to from the rest of your site, be sure to get them linked. This isn’t just for a smooth migration but also for the benefit of ensuring indexation. You’ll also want to update links that result in 404 errors. The same can be said about pages that redirect to another page. Ideally, each link on your website needs to link directly to its destination. Also, the links on your new website MUST link to their respective new pages. Redirects will bog down your server and more importantly, will prevent authority from flowing naturally and could negatively impact your page rank.
6th) Use separate analytics and watch it closely
It’s going to be important to cross-reference your Google analytics data between the old site and the new. This will help you quickly identify the exact pages that are losing traffic. Each page on your site ranks for its own unique search phrases (keywords), so if any traffic is lost, it will most certainly occur at the individual page level. By cross referencing your old and new analytics data, you can pin-point the source of any traffic loss and investigate further down the right path to address the root cause (such as crawl errors or broken links). It’s also a great idea to utilize annotations in Analytics to notate any important events as they occur.
7th) Track your rankings at all times
Using a service such as Serpify, you can keep a close watch on your Search Engine Ranking Positions. This will let you know where you are in the search index at all times for all of your target keywords. If you handle your migration properly, it shouldn’t take too long to regain your SERP. In most cases, it happens almost instantaneously. But it’s normal for your less authoritative pages to take some time.
8th) Eliminate any duplicate content
By implementing self-cononicalization, URLs will be SEO friendly and you should only have one version of each page published by default. That said, it’s crucial that only ONE version of the site is available. If your site loads on HTTPS, ensure the HTTP redirects to the HTTPS. If your site loads on the WWW prefix, make sure to redirect the non-www URL to the WWW version. If your site loads from both www.yoursite.com and http://yoursite.com, you’re going to have serious issues with your SEO. The same can be said if both the HTTP and HTTPS versions are accessible. Make sure only ONE version of the site is live. It’s also wise to no-index your site search as search results pages that get indexed will count as double content.
9th) Customize your 404 page
Ideally, none of your pages will go to a 404. But in the event this is absolutely unavoidable, you’ll want to make sure your 404 is not basic or generic. A generic 404 is a dead-end and will scare your prospects away faster than anything. A carefully planned and comprehensive 404 page gives visitors popular navigation options, perhaps a site search, and helps ensure people end up back on path to your goal funnel(s).
10th) Update and publish your sitemaps
Never remove your old sitemap from Google Search Console or any of the other search engines. I recommend you create a new property in GSC, submit your new sitemap under the correct (new) property, then request that Google re-crawl your old sitemap using “fetch as Google” to expedite the indexation and ensure links are changed over to the new site ASAP.
11th) Update authoritative inbound links
The main reason your old site had established SERP, assuming it has, is because it got plenty of link juice (authority) from other websites linking to it. To ensure that authority transfers to your new site, it’s important to get in touch with the most prominent resources linking to your pages and ask them to update their links to reflect your new URLs. This will take some time, but it is extremely important in order to mitigate any harmful impacts to your search engine ranking positions. The same goes for any social media profiles, press releases, guest blogs, author biographies, forum and email signatures. Update everything to reflect your new URLs immediately.
12th) Keep an eye on your indexed page total
If you notice after a few weeks that your new site hasn’t reached the same totals as your old site, you need to review your most important URLs that haven’t been indexed for possible errors.
13th) Avoid selling your old domain
Assuming you’re migrating your website due to an update to your branding strategy, a business acquisition, or a domain name change, you should NEVER relinquish control of your old domain name. Your old website should permanently redirect to your new website at the page level. This ensures the authority each page on your old site acquired over time will transfer to the respective pages on your new site.
14th) Crawl your old website URLs
After your migration is completed, it wouldn’t hurt to re-crawl all your old URLs. Doing this will help you verify that all old URLs are properly redirected to their new locations. Make sure there are no 404s, double check your .htaccess or meta-refresh redirects and ensure that everything is linked up properly. If everything looks good, you’re good to go!
15th) Update your PPC and display advertisements
Any advertising you’re doing should be updated immediately after completing your website migration. This will benefit you in many ways. First, your branding will reflect the current website, which should help prevent confusing your visitors. Second, you will avoid losing prospects in redirect chains. Last, your analytics data for your new site will be accurate, protecting the true source for each hit.
Following the above considerations will ensure a smooth website migration with maximum SEO benefit. Site migration can be a time consuming and strenuous task, especially for really large websites. Taking your time and doing it right will pay dividends in the long run.