a complete website migration guide

A complete guide to website migration

Website migration is one of the most challenging tasks for any SEO — Search Engine Optimization professional.

A process like this requires a lot of planning, knowledge of the applied techniques, and detailed analysis to reduce as much as possible losses in organic search results, visits, and revenues coming from the site.

It also requires a flexible and communicative approach, so all the professionals can have a good alignment throughout the process and be aware of all steps involved.

As this is a very technical process, effective communication is key to achieve a successful migration. Indeed, if something goes out of the plan, it will be easier to explain, make adaptations or postpone the process, if necessary, without misunderstandings.

In this context, well-informed and integrated departments will enhance the results of this delicate procedure!

In this article you will find:

Why migrate a website?

Reasons to migrate a website are varied. The main ones are:

  • you have a very old, heavy, and not functional page design;
  • your website is not responsive, which is unthinkable with people increasingly browsing on tablets and smartphones;
  • your company is in a rebranding process, for example after a merger, and this requires a change of server.

In addition to these examples, there are plenty of reasons to do so. At some point, every company with a minimum of scalability and vision is likely to face a migration to a new site.

However, changing the URL impacts your site’s organic visits and those that arrive through the sponsored links. Why this?

A website migration consists of driving the user from point A (old website) to point B (new website). Then, if this path is not established correctly, you will lose the entire relevance and authority achieved by your former website.

This happens when many clicks on your former links direct visitors to non-existent pages rather than your new website’s online addresses.

Rules for a successful website migration!

The first rule to ensure a successful website migration is to delegate tasks to a highly experienced SEO professional. If you don’t have in-house expertise, the solution may be to hire an SEO professional or even a Digital Marketing consultant.

Broken links and a fall in page ranking, even if only during a few days, can lead to huge losses for the business. Therefore, make sure to have a strong SEO planning before starting the migration process.

The second golden rule is that not every moment is a good time to make a complete site migration. You need to find the appropriate occasion according to your type of business.

For example, if your website is a toy e-commerce, it is wise not to operate the migration just before some important holidays such as Children’s Day, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve.

This planning is necessary because any error during busy periods may cause irreparable damages to the company’s finances. Then, when it comes to migrating the site, be careful not to hurry: the most important is that the migration is run smoothly and accordingly.

The third rule is to read this complete guide of website migration. It will allow you to enhance your website without losing its acquired relevance.

Everything you need to know about website migration

Search engines, which have complex algorithms developed by companies such as Google, Yahoo, and Bing, track and index pages available on the Internet on a daily basis.

Changing the structure of a website usually involves a complete change in the structure of page links, which affects the work of these search engines. This is why the main goal of a careful and attentive website migration is to prevent search engines from indexing empty pages (those with Error 404) in their routine tracking.

If you don’t rely on an efficient page redirection work, search engines will understand that error pages are not working and will remove them from their indexes.

As a result, all your work and investment in Marketing for positioning and ranking those URLs will be simply lost. That means fewer prospects, leads, and sales, a disaster that is avoidable with good SEO techniques and strong planning.

Another important point is to clearly understand the relevance of every single page of a website and pick out the ones that will be migrated. To give you an idea, a small site can have more than 5.000 indexed pages, and it is unlikely that all of them will be migrated to the new site.

An SEO expert will be able to identify the relevant pages to be migrated. For example, some pages may not bring many visits to a particular site but are important sources of backlinks.

A less attentive professional could disregard these URLs for migration purposes. Thus, a specialist will know that these links generate relevance, which improves your site’s positioning in searches, so they would keep them despite bringing low revenue.

Therefore, it is very important to have an appropriate mapping of your website, identifying which pages are more relevant, in order to benefit from a good website migration.

Checklist for all the stages of a website migration

In order to help you to plan correctly the whole migration process, we created a checklist with the main tasks for each stage:

  • before the migration;
  • during new website’s launching;
  • at the post-launching stage.

So, let’s get down to business!

Checklist: Before the migration

  • list all old URLs;
  • exports the most Google Search Console‘s relevant pages;
  • create reports: traffic, organic traffic, reference traffic, 404 error pages, keywords, indexed pages, Google Analytics;
  • create a sitemap with all the old URLs;
  • create a sitemap with all the new URLs;
  • prepare new robots.txt files;
  • double-check if all pages are available to be tracked.

Checklist: New website launching

  • launch new file robots.txt;
  • double-check if the redirections are working;
  • double-check canonical tags;
  • track the list of old URLs;
  • make 301 redirections (permanent change) to the new URLs, if they have been changed;
  • correct any pages that are not redirecting correctly (attention to redirects 302 and error pages 404);
  • turn off the old sitemap.xml;
  • add to new sitemap.xml;
  • communicate to Google Search Console about the new sitemap;
  • open again the site for Google indexing.

Checklist: Post-release

  • monitor 404 error pages and fix tracking problems;
  • follow up on the indexing status of your site;
  • track organic traffic;
  • track other traffic channels.

Please read below for a detailed step by step, with all pieces being explained!

Pre-Migration

Data archiving

Tasks

  • archive all old URLs;
  • export the 500 most relevant pages of Google Search Console.

The critical point here is to collect data. You must have all the information you need easily available for consultation. By doing this, if something fails, or if there’s a change of plans, you’ll can restore the situation more easily.

It is important to archive all links directed to the domain and all old URLs. After the migration, this data will be needed to check if everything has been done correctly.

As for the data history, if you can access it later, it’s best to do so. Then, you can focus first on more important aspects, such as selecting the pages that will be indexed. Another point is that you can take advantage of the migration to change the tag titles to more user-friendly versions that can provide better SEO.

Making custom reports

Tasks

  • create traffic, organic traffic, and reference traffic reports, as well as 404 error pages, keywords, and indexed pages reports.

Google Analytics provides all the information you need to create these reports. They are important to know if your team and yourself are in the same point and have the same references for the migration work.

Preparing website files

Tasks

  • create a sitemap with all the old URLs;
  • create a sitemap with all the new URLs;
  • prepare new robots.txt files;
  • check if all pages are available to be tracked.

Before launching your new website, do not forget to include it in Google Search Console. You need to include both old and new sitemaps.

In short, the sitemap works as a guide for the user as well as for search engines. It enables enhanced navigation, without access to irrelevant pages or duplicate contents, for example.

This way, Google and other search engines will be able to track your former sitemap and ‘notice’ more directly all the changes that are being implemented.

This allows the search engine to have a clear picture of links that are being redirected to the new URLs, in addition to the canonical tags, which identify and warn the robots about duplicate content on your site.

Migration

Launch new file robots.txt

Task

  • launch new robots.txt file.

One main point is to verify if the new robots.txt file is not limiting Google’s tracking on your new website.

Of course, some pages, such as those containing internal and purely administrative data, should be left out. However, the rest need to be tracked and indexed by the search engine to not hinder the flow to your new pages.

Releasing your pages’ visibility to Google will make the robots understand the new structure of the site and how it is related to the former one. This communication is important considering that Google is the search engine responsible for most of the clicks to your website.

Are the redirects working well?

Tasks

  • check if redirections are working;
  • check the canonicals;
  • track the list of former URLs;
  • make the 301 redirections (permanent change);
  • correct any pages that are not redirecting correctly (attention to redirects 302 and error pages 404).

It’s now time to check if all your previous work has yielded results!

Use a tool like Screaming Frog or Xenu Link Sleuth, which is just a tracker that helps you to identify problems on-page, check all the former URLs, and see if they’re properly redirected to the new site using the 301 redirect code.

If you are using any other type of redirect, such as 302, you will be able to identify and fix the problem quickly. Take the opportunity also to check if the canonical tags are working properly.

If there is any error, correct it quickly, that is, before your positioning in the search engine is impaired.

Checking your sitemap

Task

  • check if home and sitemaps are working well.

Before letting Google know that it can already index your site, take a last look at your sitemap and your homepage in order to notice possible errors. The tool available in Google Search Console is highly efficient to detect any problem with your sitemap.

Another excellent tool is ‘Fetch and Render’, also from Google Search Console. It shows how the engine searches and processes your homepage. Check for any errors and fix whatever is necessary before advising Google to update your index.

Your website available for indexing by Google

Tasks

  • former sitemap.xml;
  • new sitemap.xml;
  • open the site again for Google indexing.

After so much planning and action, there is little work left to get you website available for Google indexing.

Before putting your new site back into indexing, remove the former sitemap and transfer both the new sitemap (with the new links) and the old one (with all the former links) to the current site. Once finished, your site is ready to be tracked and indexed by Google!

Double-check as many times as you need if the link redirections, canonical, and sitemaps are working perfectly before running the indexing process. Uploading the new and old sitemaps, then indexing them again, is a way to reinforce to Google that it urgently needs to update its list of indexed sites.

Post-Migration

Your website available for indexing by Google

Tasks:

  • track 404 error pages and fix problems with tracking;
  • track your site’s indexing status;
  • track organic traffic.

So you launched your website successfully, within the deadline, you received many congratulations and now it’s just time to relax and reap the rewards, right? Wrong! You still have some work to do.

In the following days after a website migration, you need to evaluate and monitor your website’s performance. Use the customized reports that you’ve prepared, in order to detect how much your organic traffic is.

Also, keep an eye on your site’s indexing status by Google and on sitemaps to check that the search engine is tracking and correctly updating your list of indexed pages.

Website migration done, but something went wrong. Now, how to fix it?

You have done everything as recommended, but something doesn’t seem to be working out. Before you get desperate, take a look at the traffic reports available from Google Analytics. They will help to identify which part of your site the problem is coming from.

The error may come from sponsored links, which have not been correctly updated, and not from SEO. It’s also worth keeping an eye on specific keywords’ positioning to check how your pages are performing.

If something goes wrong, never forget to check and correct possible problems on your sitemap. Its structure is essential for a good organic result.

Track regularly all your former and current links to double-check if they are working as they should. Also, check the custom 404 report in Google Analytics to find out which landing pages concentrate more on this type of error.

Requesting inbound links update

You may think it’s a waste of time, but it isn’t. Backlinks of authority sites are one of the main criteria proving to Google that your page is extremely relevant. This increases your chances of getting a top position on search results.

With tools such as Majestic or OSE data, identify the main sites that offer high-quality inbound links to your site. The next step is to contact the site owner and ask them to update the link for you. It may take a bit of extra work, but the effort will be worthwhile.

A few more tips for whom will migrate the site to another server

If the reason for migrating your website is a change of website hosting service provider, be aware of this: do not cancel your service with the former company before the migration is complete and successful.

We recommend you to wait a few days in order to double-check if everything went well. Afterward, you can get in touch with the server and inform that you will not need that service anymore.

Also, some companies cancel hosting services immediately after the client’s request. So, if the site’s migration has not yet been completed, entire folders and files might be lost forever.

This will also impact your website’s performance, as well as its revenue, leading to critical consequences. Therefore, do only cancel the service when everything is right and working as it should.

Well, now you have all the necessary suggestions to successfully migrate your site, without losing all the previous SEO work. This cautious work will help your brand to get the first place in Google’s ranking.

As highlighted, one very important advice is not to rush the process, even because the site migration hasn’t a rigid deadline. Indeed, website migrations are not disclosed to the user, so no one will be expecting to enter your new site by a specific date.

Delaying a few days, if you find any problem during the process, is a wise decision to be sure these will be solved in time. Also, make sure you have enough time to go through the whole checklist. For sure, it is better to complete a safe and correct migration than to have a low performance afterward.

Now that you know all about SEO for website migration, what about learning a little more about how to launch your corporate blog? Check out our free guide!

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