Planning a site migration? Columnist Pratik Dholakiya’s helpful guide will ensure that you cover all the SEO bases to make the transition as smooth as possible.Few things can destroy a brand’s performance in the search results faster than a poorly implemented site migration.
Changing your domain name or implementing HTTPS can be a great business move, but if you fail to consider how search engines will react to this move, you are almost certain to take a major hit in organic search traffic
Use the following SEO checklist to prepare yourself as you develop a migration game plan for your website.
1. Carefully consider if migration is the right choice
A site migration will almost always result in a temporary loss of traffic — Google needs time to process the change and update its index accordingly. A carefully executed site migration can minimize traffic fluctuations, and in a best-case scenario, Google will ultimately treat the new site as if it were the original.
Still, that is only the best-case scenario. The reality is that site migrations, in and of themselves, typically offer little to no SEO benefit and do not eliminate search engine penalties. (That is why SEOs often use site migrations as an opportunity to make SEO improvements, like streamlining the site structure, fixing broken links, consolidating redundant pages and making content improvements.
2. Use a sandbox
Never do a site migration without first testing everything on a test server. Verify that the redirects work properly, and do all of the checks that follow in private before going public. Trying to do it all in one go without testing is bound to lead to errors, and if the mistakes are bad enough, they can set your site back by weeks.
3. Plan to migrate during a slow period
A well-planned and monitored migration shouldn’t permanently affect your traffic, but you should plan for a temporary dip. For that reason, it’s best to perform the migration during a slow part of the year, assuming that there is some seasonality to your site’s performance. A site migration during or shortly before the holidays is always a bad idea. While the goal should always be to avoid losing any traffic, it’s important to make sure that if you do lose traffic, you lose it when business is already slow.
4. Crawl your site before the migration
Crawl your site with a tool like Screaming Frog, and be sure to save the crawl for later.
You need to make sure you have a complete list of the URLs on your old site so that nothing ends up getting lost because of the transition.
Use this as an opportunity to identify any crawl errors and redirects that exist on the old site. These have a tendency to creep up over time. I rarely come across a site that doesn’t have at least some broken or redirected links.
You should absolutely remove or replace any links that point to 404 pages during the migration process. In addition, I highly recommend updating any links that point to redirected pages so that they point to the final page. You do not want to end up with redirect chains after the migration.
Remember that a site crawl may not be able to identify every single page on your site. For example, if you have pages that aren’t linked from other pages on your site, they won’t show up in a crawl. You can use your own records and databases to find these pages, of course, but if this isn’t possible, you can find these pages in your Google Analytics data, as well as through a link explorer like Ahrefs.
If you find any orphan pages, make sure to update the site, and link to these during the migration. These pages are much less likely to pick up search engine traffic if they aren’t linked to from the rest of your site.
5. Benchmark your analytics
Make a copy of your Google Analytics data; you will need this information so that you can quickly identify if any traffic is lost after the migration.
If any traffic is lost, export the Analytics data from your new site and run a side-by-side comparison with the data from your old site, so that you can identify precisely which pages lost the traffic. In many cases, a loss of traffic will be isolated to individual pages, rather than taking place across the entire site.
You may also want to identify and take note of your top linked-to pages using a tool like Ahrefs. After the migration, you will want to pay special attention to these pages and monitor them closely. If these lose traffic, it is a sign that the authority isn’t being properly transferred from your old site to the new one. These pages contribute the most to your authority, so losses here may affect the overall performance of your site.
6. Map all changed URLs from old to new
You should have a spreadsheet that lists every old URL and every new URL.
Ideally, during a site migration, all of the old pages exist on the new site. Obviously, removing a page removes its ability to capture search engine traffic. On top of that, dropping too many pages during the migration may lead Google to conclude that the new site isn’t the same as the old site, causing you to lose your rankings.
Also, ideally, the URL architecture should be identical to the old one unless you have very strong reasons to change it. If you do plan on changing it, a site migration may seem like the ideal time to do it, but you should be aware that doing so may cause Google to see it as an entirely different site. If you do both at the same time, you will not be able to determine whether any losses in traffic were the result of changing the architecture or of migrating the site.
Another reason to keep the architecture the same is that it allows you to use regex in your .htaccess file to easily redirect from your old pages to the new ones. This puts less load on your server than naming the redirects one by one, and it makes the process of setting up the redirects much less painful.
7. Update all internal links
The HTML links on your new site should point to the new site, not the old one.
This might sound obvious, but as you go through the process, you will quickly realize how tempting it might be to leave the links unchanged, since they will redirect to the new URL anyway. Do not succumb to this temptation. Apart from the server load, which slows down site performance, the redirects may dampen your PageRank.
The ideal way to rewrite the links is by performing a search and replace operation on your database. The operation should be performed so that it updates the domain name without changing the folder structure (assuming you’re keeping your site structure the same).
Write your search and replace operations carefully so that only text containing a URL is updated. You generally want to avoid updating your brand name and your URLs with the same search and replace operation.
8. Self-canonicalize all new pages
Verify that canonicalization on the new site references the new site and not the old. Canonicalizing to the old site can be disastrous, as it may prevent the new site from being indexed.
I recommend self-canonicalizing all of your pages on the new site (except, of course, for pages that should canonicalize to another page). In combination with the redirects, this tells Google that the new site is, in fact, the new location of the old site. Sitewide self-canonicalization is recommended anyway, since URL parameters create duplicate content that should always canonicalize to the parameter-free URL.