A website migration is the term given to any large-scale change to your website, which will impact your brand’s overall SEO performance. This includes changes to design, site structure and navigation, a new CMS or a domain switch. While there are many benefits to a site migration and the long term impact this will have on user journey, SEO should be considered and due diligence must be taken to ensure that huge setbacks in search engine rankings aren’t experienced as a result of the changes.
Clarify the scope of your project
Before doing any work towards the website migration, the owner of the task should work with the business to clearly define the objectives of the project. These can be a range of things such as:
- Retaining organic traffic
- Improving site speed
- Improving engagement metrics such as dwell time
- Improving conversions
Mapping out the scope of the project and your aims can help you to identify the risks, which you can then plan for in advance so that these can be mitigated.
When starting a migration project, it is vital that you include all stakeholders, ranging from the marketers, through to the digital teams and development teams. Each team will have some input into the migration, so ensuring each team has identified their own risks and is aware of the plan will ensure your migration project runs on time.
Remember to also build check-in points with the various teams to ensure the website build and migration is going smoothly.
Plan ahead, migrate during a slow period
Firstly, ensure that there is time built in to the project plan for unexpected delays, as these do often crop up. It’s a good idea to also have resources in place to deal with any of these issues as they arise. As a rule of thumb, a buffer of 20% more resource than initially anticipated should cover fixing these issues.
It’s important to use your own historical traffic data to determine when is best to migrate. For example, if you are a retailer, launching around Black Friday and Christmas is generally a bad idea, as this is more than likely when you are seeing the most traffic. If you are a solicitor, you may want to save your migrations until the middle of the year, or autumn months.
Don’t reinvent the wheel unnecessarily
While the point of a migration is to make key changes to certain aspects of the site - whether from a content or structural perspective – it’s not recommended to change anything that isn’t strictly necessary, as the fewer the changes, the lesser the impact on overall rankings post-migration. As far as possible, try to keep keywords, URL naming conventions, and the creation of new pages to a minimum.
If you want to change multiple things such as the content, site structure and codebase, try and do these one at a time, and allow time for the previous migration to settle within the organic results before making more changes to your website.
Prioritise core traffic-driving pages
It goes without saying that allowing core traffic-driving pages to continue driving traffic will keep organic rankings favourable. To identify which these pages are on the existing website, firstly crawl the legacy site and identify all indexable pages, as they are the only ones with the potential to drive traffic to site. Secondly, identify top performing pages, which are generally those that convert well, generate organic visits, contribute to revenue, and have a good number of referring domains linking to them.
While not always possible, minimising the changes made to these pages will reduce the negative impact of a migration to the website. Ensure that metadata is transferred, even in the case of content or structural changes. If any of these top performing pages cease to exist altogether, a redirect should be put in place.
Iron out bugs and use a test site before launching
There will always be bugs to fix when a new site goes live, but some are more fundamental than others and should be given immediate attention.
If you are changing the codebase of the website, take this opportunity to ensure you are getting the top page speed scores, so your site is faster for users when you do migrate.
Redirects help both search engines and users to find pages that may no longer exist after a migration. If redirects are not put in place, rankings will almost certainly nosedive after the migration is complete.
In order to put redirects in place, firstly, identify the pages that will no longer exist, or are being changed and create a map of the most appropriate page on the new site to send users through to. If there is no equivalent page, then the best bet is to redirect to the parent category page.
When redirecting, you can get a list of your URL’s through tools such as Screaming Frog or Deepcrawl. However, outside of this, you should also consider using your Google Analytics account and any keyword tracking software to make sure you capture your most visited, best performing pages.
To ensure your redirects are working correctly, keep a copy of your previous website crawl, and then run this through a tool such as Screaming Frog. If your URL’s return a 301 response code, then you have redirected your website successfully.
It is also worth keeping an eye on the search results pages, as new pages that were not caught in the crawl can surface here, and redirecting these can ensure you miss no pages that may return for organic search queries you are not tracking.
Tags and tracking
Ensuring analytical stability in a migration is of utmost importance. The data your website generates is useful for making business decisions, as well as using it as a useful guide on the success of your migration.
No matter which analytics suite you are using, if it’s Google, Adobe or another party, ensuring this is present on your new website after the migration has taken place will allow you to see the success of your migration, if traffic is dropped, and to which pages. It may also bring back some pages that you did not redirect, so keep an eye on this for potential further redirects.
Another thing to consider with tags and tracking is any custom goals and dimensions that may be set up through any tagging software. If you are tracking specific bespoke events, these may change if your triggers are tied to URL’s, or certain elements within a page.
Finally, on the topic of tags and tracking, ensure any PPC ads you are running are redirected and tagged correctly to new pages if there are any.
Review internal linking
Internal links are the backbone of your website, and should be included in a natural and sensible way across main and secondary navigation, headers and footers, body content, links and to any international sites. Even when the content of pages changes, it’s a good idea to aim to keep as many of the same internal links within these pages as possible, as this will help keep the pages familiar for search engines as they index.
Reviewing your internal links using a tool such as Screaming Frog will let you know if any of your internal links are no longer working, as not only will this affect the authority flow of links throughout the website, it will also affect the user experience, as a user clicking on a link that takes them to an old URL, especially if it does not redirect can be a jarring experience.
Measure site speed
Ideally, before you launch the new site, ensure that it is loading fast enough across desktop and mobile. The site speed is a small ranking signal, so if you are launching a slow website, it may influence your rankings.
If you are rebuilding a website, or have the ability to make some speed amendments from a Pagespeed Insights test, then this is recommended so you can help the website along in being lightning-quick for the user.
Bear in mind, that third party scripts and resources will also have an affect on your website, so make sure you fully test your website in build to iron out any development changes you can to get the page loading as quickly as possible.
Measuring site performance
Post-migration you may see the effects of the website migration immediately. After your migration has happened you should be following a post-migration plan of monitoring traffic, and ensuring your redirects are in working order.
Make sure you refer to your initial objectives for the website and measure against these metrics to determine the success of your migration. Take into account metrics such as:
- User engagement – Dwell times and interactions
- User retention
- Traffic coming to the website
- Keyword rankings
- Traffic to key product pages
Taking these metrics over the period of a few weeks and months will always work out better in terms of determining the success, but be sure to keep an eye on these metrics at the very least on a week by week basis. This will ensure you can respond to any issues that may arise from the migration such as dips in traffic or keyword rankings, or, in the worst case, goals not being completed.
Chris Parker, senior technical SEO director at Avenue Digital.