Most businesses arrive at a specific point during their digital life; a website migration. You might be setting up offices in an international location, moving to a better host, updating your CMS platform, or setting up a better domain name for your business. Whatever the reason, you’re considering or planning migrating your website and you find yourself worried about the risks involved.
A small drop in traffic during the migration process is par for the course, but this should return to your previous benchmark fairly soon. If the migration has really worked, and you did it for the right reasons, then traffic should begin to surpass your previous benchmark. Unfortunately many websites don’t get to experience this, because their search engine optimisation (SEO) is unintentionally harmed during the migration process. Thankfully, there are only six steps to follow to protect your search engine ranking.
6 Steps to protecting SEO when migrating websites
1. Audit prior to migration
Auditing your existing website is vital, because it ensures you can action the migration successfully and track how it’s performing post-launch. At the very least, you should perform a crawl of your website prior to migration to attain an overview of all of your URLs, which is a necessity for performing checks after your migration.
A full audit should include your full list of URLs and the following information per page:
- All meta information, header information (H1s, H2s, H3s, etc.) and HTML markups — These should stay consistent post migration, as they help search engines understand what your page content is about.
- All image alt texts — These need to be maintained throughout migration, as they are the only real way that search engines can understand what your images display and how they add value to your content.
- Internal linking map — This helps you to see how and where your internal links are connected to one another, which is also how search engines understand your website content’s holistic value to users.
- Your XML sitemap and robots.txt file — This helps you understand which pages can (i.e. landing pages) and which cannot (i.e. thank you pages) be found by search engines.
These audit items are not only good for testing that your migration has gone off successfully, they also help you consider which content could be removed or optimised. You certainly don’t want to get rid of all your content, which could damage your search ranking, but you can use this as an opportunity to scrutinize your website.
2. Benchmark your analytics
Which page is being visited the most? Was that intentional, and is that beneficial? How many monthly users visit your website? Is that more or less than last month? One of the most common mistakes is forgetting to benchmark your analytics prior to migration, which can be detrimental. Without knowing what your traffic, conversion and user behaviour goals are, you’ll not be able to measure your migration.
Measuring and benchmarking your website’s data also helps you figure out when the best time to action your migration. You want to schedule this for a time when your website traffic takes a natural dip, when any loss in up-time will have the least impact on your business. But you’ll also want to ensure this lines up as well as possible with your team’s availability, as you want to ensure there is someone monitoring and maintaining the migration as it happens. We recommend actioning a migration over Tuesdays or Wednesdays, as Mondays are notorious for meetings, and this gives you a few days before the weekend to fix high-impact issues.
3. Ensure redirects are in place
A website is only good if it takes you where you mean to go. You don’t want to spend all your time working to migrate your website and then have your users run into endless 404 errors for broken pages. Over 73% of visitors leave a website immediately on being served a 404 error. This is where 301 redirects (i.e. permanent redirects) are a necessity, as they point your old URLs to your new ones. You should ensure any necessary redirects are ready to be made active upon migration, which is where the audit (step 1) is helpful in planning which URLs may require this.
This is only necessary where you’re making changes to your domain in some way (introducing a sub-domain or changing your domain name/extension), as migrations across hosts or platforms generally don’t alter your URL paths.
4. Backup your website
This is not any more complicated than the title states. Backup your website before doing anything. Sometimes things happen that nobody could plan for, and in these times it’s better to be safe than sorry.
5. Map your new website
Before you begin the migration, be sure to map out your new website if there are any changes to your navigation and user flow. You not only want users to be able to find what they’re looking for easily, you also want to ensure that your internal linking is strong. When mapping your URLs, ensure the structure of every one is consistent and points to the secure version (that’s HTTPS, not HTTP). Highlight all differences that your new sitemap has with your old one, and test that these paths are live after migration.
6. Monitor your new website
The last step is always testing. As soon as your website is live again, have multiple people test the most popular paths on different devices and double check your full URL list over time. Are your thank you pages included in your robots.txt file still? Is your website loading quick enough? Are your primary website pages still indexed by Google? Now is the time to ask yourself all of these questions, and to use your audit in the first step to check on the success of your migration. If in doubt, Google Search Console is a great free tool to help keep your eye on what’s being crawled by Google, where possible errors lie, and what optimisations you could do in the future.
It’s true that website migration can be a tricky process to manage and could lead to a loss in traffic or search ranking, but only if you take your eye off the ball. Take your time, analyse your existing data, plan what it is that you want, and take your time in going through the steps. Remember, patience always wins.