The Complete Website Migration Checklist for SEO
by Geoff Hineman
The eventual website migration to a new platform or content management system (CMS) is arguably the most arduous task associated with being online. Even if you flawlessly execute the technical functionality aspect of a website migration, you can still have the bottom fall out of your search engine visibility.
With all the different aspects that go into a website migration (e.g., wireframes, design, plug-ins, payment gateways, tracking codes, ERP communication, etc.), SEO can sometimes seem like a low priority. The truth is, if you execute every other aspect of a web migration flawlessly and neglect to address your SEO, you can wind up with a wonderful site that nobody will be able to find.
Worse yet, correcting SEO concerns after you realize your traffic has vanished can often take much longer than addressing those concerns during the initial website migration planning process.
To that end, we've assembled a complete website migration checklist for SEO to help ensure your migration goes off with minimal hiccups and can recover from any potential pitfalls much faster.
1. Talk to Your SEO Agency
Make your SEO person/team part of the website migration process early and make sure they are communicating with you and your web development team. A good SEO presence can help ensure you have proper support for both onsite and offsite issues that can arise from a website migration.
If you are using an agency or consultant, extend access to the staging site a minimum of one month prior to the launch date. This way, potential problem areas can be addressed and, if need be fixed, before launch.
2. Gather Your URLs
One of the most common changes that comes with a website migration is changes to URLs. At the start of a website migration project, you should crawl your entire site. (We are partial to the Screaming Frog SEO Spider Tool for this task.)
Once you have all your URLs in one place, you should start examining them to see how they could be optimized on the new site. For instance, if you have a URL for a red cardigan sweater that reads https://www.sweaterstore.com/productid/63289, it could be much improved if it read https://wwwsweaterstore.com/red-cardigan-sweater. This is an impactful kind of change you can make during the migration.
If you are restructuring you URLs—which is a good long-term strategy—you should know that you will experience a short-term drop in keyword positions, even if the best precautions are taken. At Lett Direct, we have assisted in dozens of website migrations and this is always the case. This is because Google and other search engines will have your old URLs in their index, but those old URLs will no longer be live. It takes time for search engines to crawl and index your new URLs.
Brands that work with an SEO during the website migration planning stages will see keyword positions return to normal (or increase) much faster than those that brands that don't.
3. 301 Redirects are Essential
A 301 redirect is a permanent redirect that occurs at the server level. When you set up a 301 redirect from an old URL to a new URL, it will take users who were trying to access the old page to the new page. It also tells search engines that the information that used to be on the old URL is now located at the new URL.
As a page ages, it naturally accrues links, which, in turn, help the page and the domain rank better for certain terms. When an old URL just vanishes, so does all the equity it has earned over time. By setting up 301 redirects from old URLs to new URLs, you can pass upwards of 90% of the old URL's ranking value to the new URL.
The importance of this step cannot be overstated.
4. Migrate and/or Improve Meta Data
Alt tags, meta titles, and meta descriptions are all vital, to varying degrees, for search. If you've been doing SEO work prior to the website migration, you'll want to be sure to carry the previous meta data over to the new site. If you have not been doing SEO work prior to this, consider it a great opportunity to supercharge your website migration.
Alt tags help to reinforce the topical relevancy of your page. Optimized alt tags are more likely to be found in image searches and universal results. They also make it easier for users with visual impairments to know what the image is, as certain digital reading apps can read the alt tags to users.
Meta titles are one of the most prominent areas for optimization. They tell users and search engines alike what the page is about right from the start. They are also the links that show up in your search results. Optimized titles are a great way to introduce your page.
Meta descriptions are the little snippets that accompany the link to your site in search results. They act like a small ad for that page. While they are not a ranking factor, they can be a great way to encourage a click from the search engine results page (SERP), if written better than other descriptions on the page.
5. Review Your Internal Linking Structure
If your website has existed for even a short period of time, there are internal pages linking to each other beyond just the navigation and footer links. A site crawl can help identify internal dead links for correcting. While the 301 redirects should take care of this issue from a technical perspective, having a corrected link is a much better solution than a 301 redirect.
After a few website migrations, you could be looking at a long, complicated list of 301 redirects. Fix that problem before it starts.
6. Customize Your 404 Page
Whether it's a missed 301 redirect from the old site, or users trying to find something on the new site, sooner or later, they are going to find a dead end on your site. These pages are 404 Error pages. Keep in mind, however, that a 404 error is a message sent from the server, not the site itself. This means you can customize the content that you want to show on your 404 pages. Common strategies including acknowledging that the page the user was looking for doesn't exist, then offering links to other popular pages, like sale pages, new releases, FAQs, or blogs.
This can help keep a user on your site when s/he might otherwise leave.
7. Think Mobile First
In 2015, Google launched an algorithm that took into consideration factors related to mobile-friendliness as more and more searches were being conducted on mobile devices. At Lett Direct, we have written about the impact of mobile search several times. In July 2019, Google stated that mobile-first indexing would be the default for new sites (or new-to-Google) sites.
According to Google, "Mobile-first indexing means Google predominantly uses the mobile version of the content for indexing and ranking."
If your website migration is not putting the mobile UX first and foremost, you should stop and start over. As smart devices, like assistants (Alexa, Google Home, etc.), smart televisions, and even wearable tech enter the search arena, the percentage of search being conducted on desktop/laptop computers in getting smaller. This is a trend that will not reverse in the foreseeable future.
8. Monitor Page Speeds
In concert with mobile-first thinking, you'll want to be sure that a website migration brings improved page load speeds. At the very least, you don't want slower pages. Page speed has been a ranking factor since 2013. As networks become bigger and faster to deliver better results for users, you don't want your site to be the linchpin of a slow experience.
Slowdowns can be caused by numerous factors, including server issues, uncompressed files, not hosting images on a CDN, code bloat, and more. A good way to benchmark your current page speeds (both mobile and desktop) is with Google's PageSpeed Insights. Once you have a benchmark established, you can test your new pages against the benchmark to ensure you are gaining speed with your website migration.
9. Link Building Right Away
When your website migration is complete, it will be very important to start updating links and getting new links to your new URLs. There are several tools that help you find your backlinks (e.g., Google Search Console, Ahrefs, Moz, etc.). Whichever one you choose, look at your backlink profile and get in touch with sites that are linking to you to let them know your URLs have changed and provide them with the updated URL(s) for the link(s) they have to your site.
From there, you will want to get back into your regular link building strategy.
You do have a link building strategy, don't you?
10. Update Your Google Search Console Account
Submit your new sitemap.xml file to Google Search Console. This will let Google know that your URLs have changed. You should do this right at launch. The is especially important because Google will have the information from your old URL in its index. When it sees the same content at a new URL, it might think that the content is duplicated from another source and it will not give it the weight it deserves.
Left to its own devices, Google will eventually figure it out. During that time, however, your site could be suffering. Any time you can spoon feed information to Google, you should. Right after a website migration is one of those times.
11. Update URLs in Your Paid Ads
While 301 redirects will ensure your users get to the right pages in the short term, you have a limited window to update the URLs in your ads. The reason for this is that paid ad platforms (e.g., Google Ads, Bing Ads, Facebook, etc.) require a landing page to be live. That means no 404 errors and no 301 redirects. A 404 error means you wouldn't be able to convert that user to a customer even if you wanted to. A 301 redirect can seem like you are trying to bait-and-switch users through paid ads, which could appear as fraudulent activity.
12. Block the Staging Site from Search Engines
This one seems like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how many times we see it. In short, during the development of your new site, it should be blocked from search engines. If search engines crawl and index the staging site, you can run into a couple of problems:
- This can create duplicate content issues that hurt your live site.
- Pages from the staging site—a site that is not ready to be live—can start showing up in search results.
The second point has its own hazards. Users will see an incomplete site and make judgements about your brand based up on that. Further, some users may try to complete transactions and be frustrated when they are unable to do so. This is a good way to lose a current or potential customer.
It's very simple to block the staging site during the website migration process. It's so simple, in fact, that it seems to get overlooked often. Do yourself a favor and doublecheck with your developer to make sure the staging site is blocked from search engines.
Note: We have also seen the flipside of this, wherein the staging site goes live and the development team forgets to unblock the site! This renders your brand-new site completely invisible to search engines. Make a note to doublecheck that, too.
13. Combining Pages, Combining Content
One common task brands undertake during a website migration is restructuring categories and subcategories. In time, as new product offerings increase, new subcategories are added to the site architecture to accommodate. In some cases, it doesn't take long to have a sprawling landscape of categories and subcategories that make it more difficult for users to find what they want.
During a website migration, many brands look at their architecture and start combining categories and subcategories to make navigation more user-friendly. This, however, should be done with a degree of caution. For instance, if you have two similar subcategory pages that are ranking well for their own terms and driving traffic, combining them into one could do more harm than good.
In such instances, you should look to see how your pages are performing on their own prior to making any decisions about combining them. If, after review, it still makes more sense to combine them, then care must be taken to migrate the content from those pages that have been driving the traffic. This will almost always require rewriting copy so that it doesn't look like two pages were smooshed together into one. It can be tricky, but salvaging performance from those individual pages will have a better long-term effect on your brand's bottom line.
14. Test Your Cart
If you host an e-commerce site, you should have Google Analytics tracking on your staging site, including the thank you page that follows a transaction. Note: This will be a separate Google Analytics view than the live site to prevent data from the live site and the staging site from overlapping. This will allow you to make sure your cart is processing orders correctly. Then compare the data gathered from test transaction and compare them to data gathered from your new platform/CMS admin.
When testing for functionality, cart testing can be easy to overlook. The last think you want to do is spends months and months working on a new site, just to launch with the inability to collect revenue.
15. Testing, Testing, and More Testing
No matter the degree of preparation, there will inevitably be mistakes after launch. I feel confident in saying that, never in the history of the world has a website migration gone off without a few hitches.
I mean that.
Seriously, that's not hyperbole.
For this reason, after the new site launches, you'll want to test it for any number of possible problems. Common issues can include:
- Missing meta data
- 404 pages
- Incorrect 301s
- Duplicate pages
- Missing pages
- Formatting issues
- Slow load times
- Tracking Issues
There are a host of different tools that can help you with many of these issues. The most popular (and free) option is Google Search Console. While it is not as robust, nor detailed, as some other tools, it has the distinct advantage of showing exactly what Google is seeing. That, alone, makes it valuable.
16. Monitor Performance
After your website migration is complete, you'll want to keep a close eye on performance. As mentioned above, you can expect a decrease in performance for at least two months before Google and other search engines sort out all the changes, re-index your site, and re-position pages accordingly.
That said, keep a close eye on your Google Analytics, particularly landing page performance. Are your new pages performing better than the old ones? If not, why? If so, what can you glean from those pages that you can apply to other pages that should be performing better?
Look at your KPIs, such as revenue, transactions, and conversion rates. Traffic is going to be a secondary KPI. In many cases, website migrations succeed in better targeting the right audience. As such, it is not uncommon to see a decrease in users, but an increase in conversions, as your brand is getting better at being visible to the right users.
During a website migration, there are many things that can go wrong from an SEO perspective. When two or more different things go wrong, the compounding effect can have an exponential effect on your new site. Untangling it all can be a difficult and time-consuming task.
This post isn't intended to scare you. It's intended to prepare you. By communicating with an SEO specialist, keeping the lines of communications open with the development team, and paying close attention to the items listed above, you can be well on your way to a successful website migration.