How to Stop SEO Disasters During Website Migration

After many weeks and months of preparations, you are ready to go; you’ve done everything that you needed to do to make sure that the design and development of the new site has been put together perfectly and you are happy to move forward.

So you press the launch button (because that’s how it works, right?), you sit back and congratulate yourself and your colleagues on relaunching the new website successfully…

…only to see the organic traffic has plummeted.

You look in fear, but then stop for a second because everyone knows that a site relaunch can sometimes cause an initial slump in organic traffic. You assume that it’s normal.

But after days, weeks and months, the traffic doesn’t recover, and panic sets in…

This is a potential reality for anyone who is relaunching a website. Amidst all the excitement with the new design and new features, not everyone thinks about the consequences that could happen if you don’t plan it effectively, especially from an SEO perspective.

In order to minimise any potential disasters, there’s a simple step-by-step process that you should follow in order to make sure that the periods before, during, and after the launch go smoothly and to better your long-term SEO strategy.

What Qualifies as Website Migration?

Google is surprisingly not very specific about moving sites and what it involves. They have two pages: one for site moves with URL changes and one without URL changes.

But it can actually get a lot more detailed and complex than that.

Let’s look at some of meanings of website migration and what it can involve:

  • you are changing domains and are planning to move from one domain to another e.g. during a rebrand;
  • you are going international and require to change the TLD (Top Level Domain) e.g. from .co.uk to globally recognised .com;
  • you want geo-specific TLDs and sub-folders e.g. .com/uk, .com/fr, .com/ca;
  • you are going to undertake structural changes e.g. changing the internal linking, changing the site hierarchy, changing the user journey;
  • you are changing from HTTP to HTTPS;
  • you are going to change the CMS (content management system) or platform you are currently on;
  • you are redesigning a website completely;
  • you are changing the mobile setup by applying AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) or PWA (Progressive Web Apps);
  • you are going through content changes e.g. adding/removing pages, introducing new languages, consolidating pages.

What to be Aware of Before Starting the Migration

Every migration is different, but there are some things that you need to be aware of before you even touch the website:

  • Work out your strategy – Do you need to do this? Why? What are you hoping to achieve? What are your objectives?
  • Who is going to be involved in this project? Get them involved as early as possible – whether you like it or not, you can’t do it alone. Make sure you talk to the relevant stakeholders to understand how it can impact them and how they can help to minimise disruptions. And the earlier they can be involved, the better.
  • Get professional SEO consultations to help you – much of the tasks listed below will involve someone with SEO expertise before, during and after the site has relaunched.
  • Get professional UX and CRO consultations to help you – you also need to follow the important elements of UX e.g. what kind of impacts certain design changes are going to have on user engagement and how it will affect conversion rates.
  • Looks aren’t everything – in the middle of all the excitement about building something visually stunning, make sure it doesn’t come at a usability or SEO cost. Sure, add a bit of flair and style to it, but don’t go over the top.
  • Get everyone to test – all the stakeholders should help with testing. This also applies if you have the development site already set up and are available to test.
  • Put time aside for fixing bugs and errors after launch – no, you can’t relax after you’ve done your bit
  • Site migration is not a solution for penalty – if you are suffering from any algorithmic penalties, it will not disappear during the migration. This will need to be fixed manually.
  • Never migrate your site during peak seasons – so if your busy period is Christmas, then don’t migrate the site between October and January

Before You Rebuild Your Website

  1. Crawl all URLs using tools like Screaming Frog SEO Spider and Sitebulb
    • Compile a list of all the URLs and add traffic performance (visits, bounce rates, exit rates, conversion) to use as a benchmark post-launch;
    • Eliminate any duplicate/low quality contents by redirects or improving them;
    • Check for broken links;
    • Check for broken pages;
    • Make sure all the relevant pages are accessible to search engines;
    • Make sure all the pages are accessible to humans (blind users, mobile users, browser compatibility).
  2. Compile the list of the new URLs.
  3. Plan out your new URL structures and site hierarchy/architecture.
  4. Carry out keyword research for every single page.
  5. Compile a list of your top keywords and note their rankings.
  6. Update or create new content for the new pages and include relevant keywords.
  7. Map out the 301 redirects from old to new URLs (and avoid redirect chains) in a spreadsheet.
  8. Identify and compile a list of your most important backlinks.
  9. Measure the page speed using tools like GTmetrix and WebPageTest.org.
  10. Set-up the new social media profiles if you are rebranding the name.
  11. Register and configure the new domain in Google Search Console.
  12. Carry out usability testing to prevent bad experiences from happening on new site.
  13. Plan your relaunch campaign – “hey we launched a new website” should happen soon after the launch rather than later. Who can help you with that? Current customers/clients/suppliers/bloggers/PRs etc.

During the Redesign

  1. Block development site with meta noindex tag or robots.txt to prevent duplication issues on Google.
  2. Make sure web analytics are implemented and tested on all pages.
  3. Publish the new URLs and content on the development site.
  4. Add/update title tags, meta description and alt texts to new pages.
  5. Add Google Tag Manager.
  6. Add any necessary retargeting and remarketing codes e.g. Facebook Pixels and Google Remarketing.
  7. Set up and verify your new Google Search Console account.
  8. Remove or update internal links which are pointing to broken or removed pages.
  9. Update your XML sitemaps and have it ready to submit on Google Search Console.
  10. Update all canonical tags and self-canonicalize all new pages.
  11. Update all internal links.
  12. Update your robots.txt.
  13. Create a custom 404 page.
  14. Crawl the site and verify that all 301 redirects are working.
  15. Add schema to create rich snippets opportunities.
  16. Add Open Graph fields for further rich media experience.
  17. Ask the relevant stakeholders to help with testing.
  18. When nearing the relaunch, attempt to organize usability testing for small amount of traffic or by using focus groups to iron out any issues.
  19. Ensure the site is compatible on most popular browsers and mobile devices.
  20. Ensure the site is accessible to visually-impaired users.

After the Relaunch

  1. Submit a change of address via Google Search Console.
  2. Submit new XML sitemap.
  3. Update all social media bios with new URLs.
  4. Crawl the new site and check that the redirects are working, all internal and external links are working, and fix any 404 pages.
  5. Crawl the list of URLs that you have extracted originally and verify their redirects.
  6. Add annotations on Google Analytics to make sure you know when the site has relaunched and subsequent changes.
  7. Update backlinks with new URLs by contacting those who have linked to you.
  8. Continuously monitor the web traffic, engagement and conversion as well as page speed.
  9. Test the mobile friendliness of your site using the Mobile Usability feature of Google Search Console.
  10. Benchmark those performance metrics against the old site.
  11. Reach to the authoritative sites that link to you and ask them to update the link to the new site.
  12. Monitor the indexed page count via Google Search Console and using the site: search on Google.
  13. Monitor your search rankings over time.
  14. Keep control of the old domain just in case of any issues.
  15. Organize new usability testings of the new site.
  16. Launch your relaunch campaign.

Choosing to Migrate or Not

Relaunching can be a good thing as it allows you to deliver the best user experience possible for your audience, a chance to refresh your brand and improve the bottom-line for your clients.

But that is only if you do it for the right reason and you plan the site migration properly.

You know the old saying by Benjamin Franklin: “if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail”.

If you plan and execute your relaunch successfully, this will give you the best chance of catching any problems as early as possible and to make the process a smooth one.

Because you do not want to go through the headache of a botched migration.

Credit: Ahmed Khalifa