A website migration is a critical time for any business and as such should be carefully considered and planned.
As such, in this post, we’ve pulled together the ultimate SEO website migration checklist, a list of everything you need to consider, complete with an explanation of why that step is an important part of your migration.
We’ve also compiled everything into one handy PDF, complete with a checklist for you to run through that you can download here.
Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, we’ve also included a bonus HTTP to HTTPS Migration guide.
So, what are you waiting for, let’s get stuck in to our ultimate SEO migration checklist and guide!
Planning Your SEO Website Migration
1: Establish The Potential Impact of Migration
In the long term, site redesigns and migrations are designed to improve sites. Despite this improvement, site migration can have a negative impact.
Rankings will fluctuate, traffic may fall and onsite conversions can be affected.
An estimate of this impact, including the longer-term upside should be created and shared with all key stakeholders. Particularly if the website is the main source of leads or sales for your business.
2: Time Your Migration for Minimal Impact
As discussed SEO site migrations can have a tangible impact on the search channels’ performance towards a site’s objectives. As such it makes sense to time any site migration around seasonal periods of low demand.
This decision should be based on both the traffic to the website, i.e. when is it lowest and also the market as a whole, using tools like Google Trends, to understand when demand in the market is lowest as well.
Additionally, if you are an international business you may be able to “test” your redesign in smaller markets. i.e. roll-out first in a low-traffic territory and refine for roll-out in higher-traffic geographies.
3: Explore Alternative Traffic Sources to Mitigate Short-term Traffic Loss
As natural search traffic is likely to decrease in the immediate roll-out of an SEO site migration it can be prudent to explore whether an investment in other traffic sources can help reduce or eliminate the shortfall. I.e. could some budget be allocated to paid search or is it worth increasing your social media efforts to deliver more traffic?
If you’re planning budgets, it may make sense to allocate spend to mitigate the short-term anticipated impact of a redesign and migration.
4: Communicate the Scope of Work Required
Website redesigns are complex projects and there are often tight deadlines. As such, it’s important to understand the scope of work required for a site migration from an SEO perspective and ensure that the resource required to deliver this is available at the appropriate points in the timeline.
This work will include both time for a search specialist to make the recommendations and then the implementation of these changes by web development specialists.
It’s worthwhile to share a functional spec of all the work you would require carried out on a new site with developers. This will have an impact on the scope of the web development project and when a web design agency are pitching for the work, they should understand the nature of these requests and reflect them in the scope of the work.
5: Where domains are being changed, consider staggering site redesign.
Site redesigns and migrations where the website and URLs are changed but the domain is remaining the same are lower in risk than where the domain is also being changed.
One way to reduce risk is to stagger the domain change and redesign process. This splits the impact and allows you to isolate the impact of the changes.
6: Ensure test environments of the new site cannot be indexed by Search Engines
While working with a staging server or test environment of your new website, you’ll need to ensure it can’t be indexed by search engines by using both your Robots.txt file and the NoIndex tag in the <head> of all pages of your websites.
Additionally, you should password-protect your testing area to prevent browsers from accessing the site
7: Take a Full Crawl of the Old Site
Taking a full crawl of all the pages on the old site and key information about these pages is an important step in the migration process. This will give you the URLs which you will need to potentially map to the new website and important information about those pages currently.
Note: If you are expecting an extensive reworking of the site’s design and information architecture, this is particularly important.
8: Export List of All Pages of Old Site with Links
Using a tool like OpenSiteExplorer or Majestic (or both) compile a list of all the pages with external links pointing at them. These pages will be top priorities to redirect, as they will be partly responsible for your natural search performance.
This, along with the other exports, should be run near the date of the expected migration to fully capture the most recent links and pages added to your website.
9: Export a List of All Pages With More Than One Visitor in the Last 12 Months.
From your Analytics platform, take a report of all your pages which have received one visitor or more in the past 12 months.
These will be high-priority pages for redirection and you should prioritise them.
10: Export a List of all Pages Shared on Social Media
Export a list of these pages, as these are also likely to be a high priority for redirection as this is content which has clearly connected with your audience now or in the past.
11: Export List of All Pages Currently Indexed by Search Engines
Use a tool like Scrapebox to get a list of all of the pages of your site currently indexed by search engines. If time allows, you would want to ensure each of these links is redirected to the most appropriate page on the new site.
Where this is not possible, consider categorising pages into buckets and redirecting them as a group to important category pages or the homepage of your site. In many cases, this will require some degree of automation to deal with the scale of the pages within the site.
12: Combine the list of URLs to Redirect and Prioritise
Using Excel combine these different lists, de-duplicate URLs in more than one list and prioritise the URLs and how important their redirection is.
Ideally, you want all of these pages redirected, and the allocation of resources will dictate how much time you will spend finding the most appropriate page to redirect to.
13: Create URL Redirect Map
With your prioritised list of URLs on the old site, create a redirect map of where each of these old URLs will be redirected to on the new website and make sure to use 301 rather 302 redirects.
As previously discussed, this will often require some degree of automation to deal with the sheer number of pages within the site and Google Index.
14: Audit Redirect Map for Wildcard and Regular Expression Simplification Opportunities
With your complete map of planned redirects, audit the list to see if the total number of redirects can be reduced using either Wildcard or Regular Expression redirects.
Be careful when mapping the redirects as you don’t want to redirect to 404 pages
15: Generate .htaccess File Encapsulating all required Redirects
Assuming the site is using a PHP server, create the list of required redirects using the correct syntax used in the .htaccess file that can be cut and pasted into the file by your web developer.
It can be worthwhile running your htaccess file through a validator like http://htaccess.madewithlove.be/
16: Make and Keep a Backup of the Old Website
Where possible, it’s advisable to keep a version of the old site in a password-protected environment blocked to the search engines using the robots.txt file and noindex head tag on this test site.
This backup will allow you to refer back to specific changes. Where certain pages or keywords may have difficult transitions, you can look back to what came before the current site.
17: Benchmark the Old Site’s Performance
We recommend re-running these tests in close proximity to the relaunch to make the fairest possible comparison.
18: Benchmark the Old Site’s Number of Indexed Pages Across Major Search Engines
Using site:domain.com take a benchmark of the number of pages from your website currently indexed by the major search engines.
This will help you understand any changes in website indexation after your SEO site migration.
19: Benchmark the Number of Search Engine Entry Pages Within your Analytics Platform
Establish a benchmark report over the last year of how many different pages of your site acted as an entry point to your website.
Unless you are dramatically increasing or decreasing the number of pages on your site, the aim is for this number to remain fairly static post-launch
20: Carry Out an Extensive On-Site Audit of the New Site
While on the test server, carry out a complete SEO audit of the new website. This will explore and make recommendations to improve the SEO of the website and will cover issues like site information architecture, title tags and content optimisation and schema.org mark-up.
When you’ve put together an extensive functional spec for the future website, the more closely this is adhered to in the design process, the less potential work that will come as a consequence of the audit. However, it should be expected that the audit will introduce a number of additional elements to a pre-launch snagging list.
As such, a suitable amount of resource and breathing space in the launch timeline should be allocated.
21: Prepare a Robots.txt File for the New Site
Create a Robots.txt file for your new website. This file will manage which areas of your site are accessible to search engine spiders and how they behave around your site.
Ensure this doesn’t block search engines, as this is how it will have been set up in your test environment.
22: Prepare an XML Sitemap for the New Site
Based upon the pages contained within your content management system, ensure all the pages of your site are contained with a valid XML sitemap.
Where you have more than 50,000 URLs on your site, split the sitemaps accordingly and create an index sitemap. I.e. a Sitemap of your XML Sitemaps.
23: Test for Broken Links
On the test server, check for broken links to pages that no longer exist. These links may be to internal pages or external websites.
Where possible, where internal links are in the body copy, ensure these links are pointing to the new location of pages rather than old location.
Launching Your New Site
24: Ensure Crawler access
Once the site is live on the web ensure the website is accessible to search engine crawlers using tools like Fetch as Googlebot.
Ensure the homepage and important internal pages are accessible and rendering to the Search Engines as you were expecting.
25: Ensure Webmaster Verification Codes are Live
Ensure the Google Search Console & Bing Webmaster Tools verification codes are in place on the live site to ensure continued access to the Search Engine’s reporting, and communication systems.
You will be checking Google Search Console site frequently post-launch so it’s essential the code is in place post-launch.
26: Check Robots.txt file is as expected
Ensure that the robots.txt file is live on the site is as expected and as you specified pre-launch.
This is probably one of the most important things to check post-launch.
27: Ensure that NoIndex has been removed for all pages
In your test environment, you will likely have implemented the NoIndex tag. Ensure this has been removed from all the pages you want in Google’s Index.
If this hasn’t been removed you can find yourself receiving no search engine traffic.
28: Check that your redirects are 301s and are working as expected
Test to see if your specified redirects are working as expected. Use a HTTPs Status Header checker to ensure that the redirects used are 301 and not 302 redirects.
These would appear the same to the user but not to the search engines.
29: Check XML Sitemap is expected
Ensure that the XML sitemap is live on the site is as expected and as you specified pre-launch, ideally at domain.com/sitemap.xml.
Additionally, check all the links in the sitemap work, and investigate any links in the sitemap which aren’t returning the page expected.
30: Upload XML Sitemap to Search Engines
Upload your new and current XML sitemap to the search engines within their webmaster areas.
This will help the indexation of the new site post-launch.
31: Ensure all Title Tags and Meta Descriptions have been implemented
New title tags and meta descriptions will likely be one of the major outcomes of the audit carried out on the site pre-launch.
Ensure the Title Tags and Meta Descriptions reflect those you specified.
32: Test for Broken Links
Repeat your test for broken internal links on the live site to ensure that no link is pointing at a page that no longer exists.
Where there are broken links, either correct the location the link is pointing to or remove the link.
33: Ensure that the live site doesn’t show Soft 404s
On the live site test a dummy URL which should lead to a 404. Ensure this is a proper 404 error rather than a “Soft 404” which appears to be a 404 but actually returns a 200 status code.
This leads to duplication of content on your website and consequently poor search engine performance.
34: Check Analytics Codes are in Place and Working
Ensure that your analytics codes are triggering as expected on normal and conversion pages, either on the page directly or within your tag management
GACHECKER is a great tool which can assist in this process http://www.gachecker.com/
35: Monitor Real-Time Analytics for Immediate Usability issues
If using Google Analytics, allocate some time and resource to monitoring Real Time Analytics on launch day to look for serious usability issues impairing your user’s ability to carry out key journeys and activities on the site.
Google provide extensive documentation of this aspect of Google Analytics on their website https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/1638635?hl=en-GB
36: Speed up re-indexation with social signals
Social sharing has been known to increase the speed of indexation of new pages and re-crawling of existing pages.
Make use of your social platforms to announce the redesign and hopefully speed up the crawling process.
37: Check all internal links are followed
Take a sample of pages of different types within the site and ensure that the internal links are not no-followed.
If they are it will be hard for Google to index all your pages or reflect the importance of your most linked to internal pages.
38: Check Google and Bing Webmaster Tools for new Error messages
Log-in to both Google and Bing Webmaster Tools daily to check for new error messages.
Where issues do arise and are signalled by the Search Engines, respond urgently to the issues
39: Contact Key Linking Websites
Where possible contact the most important websites, linking to your website where the URL has changed.
You will have a redirect in place but inform them the URL has changed and ask them to change to the new URL where possible
40: Change all URLs on Owned Properties
Carry assessment of URLs used on owned media properties like social media accounts, and ensure that all URLs are pointing to the new URLs, even where redirects are in place.
41: Check Cache for important internal pages
Regularly check the search engine caches of your homepage and most important pages to understand when they are re-indexed.
Where particular pages are taking longer to get re-indexed than expected, consider additional social sharing and opportunities for links from frequently recached sites (e.g. news, social and blogs)
42: Compare Site Performance Benchmark
Where required recommend any remedial work needed.
43: Compare Site Indexation to Benchmark
Compare site indexation to the benchmark report.
Look out for large changes down to suggested areas of the new site not getting indexed or large increases suggesting potential duplication issues.
44: Compare the Number of Search Engine Entry Pages with the Benchmark
Compare the number of search engine entry pages reported in Web analytics on the new site compared to the old site.
Unless you’ve dramatically increased or decreased the number of pages on your site, your aim is to be near the benchmark.
So, there you have it, the Ultimate SEO Website Migration Guide. We hope that you’ve found it useful and that it helps you to ensure your website migration is a smooth one!
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If you have any questions or you’d like to find out more about how we could help you with your migration, feel free to check out our website migration services or get in touch by either giving us a call on 01273 733 433 or booking in a free consultancy call here.
We’d be happy to help!