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Website Migration Checklist: Your All-in-One Guide

November 20, 2020

web developer

If you’re thinking about migrating your site, you need to have a good reason.

It should be the answer to a problem rather than an experimental technique. To get it right, you need a clear strategy, experts on your team and a dedicated amount of time.

That being said, it can be a great opportunity for your business. You could see strong improvements to your SEO strategy, and if your existing web hosting plan no longer suits your needs, migrating to a different server will offer more security, scalability and longevity. It’s just about keeping an eye on the data.

Full of expert opinion, this website migration checklist will give you actionable advice and a handful of excellent tips learned from experience. Use it to prepare a plan, overcome PPC and SEO implications and achieve the greatest amount of success.

What is site migration?

Site migration describes significant changes to a website’s platform, structure, content, location or design. From a marketing perspective, there will be a number of SEO considerations along with a potential knock-on impact across your PPC and social media marketing channels.

Common examples of site migration include moving the site to a new domain, moving web host/server, adopting a new CMS or moving from HTTP to HTTPS. The process looks different for all of these objectives, but the initial migration is as simple as copying your files and databases over. It’s only when you redirect your domain to your new hosting provider that things could potentially go wrong.

But there are several advantages to migrating your site. Two of them include:

  • People will still be able to reach your website from old links, meaning no loss of traffic or sales.
  • The authority of your old website is carried over to your new one, so you aren’t entirely starting from scratch.

How to complete a successful site migration

You'll know if your site migration has been successful after a few weeks, but 90 days is a common benchmark for people to use. If your traffic and keywords haven’t recovered or improved within that time, it’s likely something has gone wrong.

Keep in mind that you still need to analyse your data as it’s not uncommon for businesses to lose all of their traffic, so don’t take this lightly. It could be a result of mismanagement or simply underestimating the project, but monitoring your site visitors should minimise this problem. If you haven’t seen a major decline after some time, you’re probably on the right track.

A successful migration is one where all of the best practices have been followed and you’ve done all you can to make sure traffic is preserved.

When is a site migration worth it?

From a marketing perspective, a site migration is worth it when you end up with a domain that performs better in the search results than your previous one. For example, you might make improvements if your website is running on an outdated platform, your structure is limited or there are disruptions to the user journey. This can significantly increase your Quality Score, which is important for both SEO and PPC.

Quality Score matters because it determines how you rank on Google. If the overall content, relevance and usability have been improved by your site migration, then you should see a higher Quality Score. For PPC, it would largely depend on having the right links in place and providing the user with a positive landing page experience.

If you were to improve your authority manually, it would require a lot of work. This is usually the reason a lot of businesses decide to go ahead with migration.

Key factors to look out for include:

  • If your site speed is particularly low and negatively impacting your visitors
  • If you’ve significantly changed your branding
  • If you’re making serious changes to your internal linking or site content structure

One example from Jamie Hejna, Founder of Ollie, shows that site migration is especially valuable if the new platform is more fitting for the needs and goals of the company.

He told us:

“I have a client with a great e-commerce store on GoDaddy. When setting up PPC campaigns, I realized that conversion tracking could not be set up through Godaddy. As a result, we are now preparing to migrate the site to Shopify. In this example, migrating the website will improve our PPC campaigns because we will be able to track which ad groups, keywords, and product groups are leading to sales. “

For Dan Bailey, President, WikiLawn, it makes sense if your PPC campaigns are bringing in more sustained traffic than your server can handle. Speaking from experience, he said it was “either that or there was significant downtime that cost us a great deal in ad revenue. The bandwidth issue is especially frustrating because your analytics will also be skewed and you won't be able to tell how well your ad campaigns are performing.”

If you’re in a similar predicament, it’s probably time to look into a more reliable server and consider migrating your site.

Following a checklist such as this one should make it clear whether or not you have the time, knowledge and resources to complete it in-house, at what point you should begin planning for a migration and key things to look out for.

Key points to consider when migrating your website

You should never perform a site migration during a busy period or just before a holiday. Do it during the slowest time of the year or at least off-peak hours to ensure you lose minimal traffic. You should aim to be strategic and diverse, potentially migrating outside of your usual working hours to ensure as little downtime as possible.

When you’ve decided on the time scale, you should have a clear idea of the bigger picture. This will look something like:

  • Setting clear expectations on whether there will be an impact to revenue and if so what is anticipated
  • Determining whether a site redesign will take place at the same time
  • Ensuring all media links are mapped to new site and media is turned off during any planned downtime
  • Creating a thorough rollback plan and criteria in case unforeseen issues arise

Next, dig deeper into the technical details. Web Developer at Postali, Elizabeth Paparone, gave us her advice from a development perspective:

“When migrating a site, you need to assess how much of the process can be automated vs manual, if there’s going to be any plugins or previous site updates that will cause compatibility issues with the new website destination, and any other performance issues, which can include anything from site speed improvements to traffic capacity increases."

She also said there isn’t one right time to perform a migration, and that it’s more about your perceived downtime and client interaction.

Another consideration is building for mobile first and desktop second. Ben Alfrey from Session Media highlighted the importance of this, suggesting that Google’s mobile indexing in 2021 will result in them using mobile as a key indicator for where a site should rank. “Though most drag and drop website builders make this difficult to not optimise for mobile, it certainly should be at the forefront of development.”

The elements you focus on will largely depend on your objectives and KPIs, but it’s recommended that you create a full backup of your site before migration and resolve all crawl errors and duplicate content issues.

Why is this important?

Improper planning will be a disaster when migrating your site. Even if you think something is small, lack of attention often leads to significant problems regarding search engine visibility, traffic and revenue.

What’s more, development is just as important to site migration as SEO. There are hundreds of articles that focus solely on WordPress and site traffic, but you won’t have the right foundations in place without considering both sides.

PPC considerations

As we touched on earlier, SEO isn’t the only medium affected by a site migration. You need to think about your landing pages, URLs and tracking codes from a PPC perspective and potentially complete an audit of all the tracking in your campaigns. The last thing you want is to send visitors to broken links or risk your ads being disapproved entirely.

Plus, if your PPC campaigns are pointing to the old site, attribution will be lost in Google Analytics because of the redirect.

Some tools will be able to help you spot these kind of errors, suggesting ways to improve your account and achieve the greatest return on your investment.

You also want to adopt the same tracking codes/UTM parameters to ensure that there is no break in reporting. If you feel like you have a lot of data, create a spreadsheet. You’ll be able to consistently refer back to it to check for any errors.

If you’re using Google Ads, it’s smart to make a note when each ad was changed in the "Notes" section as well as in Google Analytics. This will help you monitor any changes in performance and make it easy to identify what caused the problem.

You should also consider:

  • Taking note of your Quality Score to determine whether or not it’s been affected
  • Creating new remarketing audiences
  • Ensuring your migrated site has all the right tracking codes
  • Checking your Robot.txt file to make sure the feed is not blocked from Google
  • Analysing your campaigns to make sure your products are in the same structure

Finally, make sure you’ve updated your URLs across not just your PPC ads, but all of your platforms. Look at site links, campaigns across Google, Facebook and Microsoft ads, social campaigns and in your remarketing.

“If a URL is changing, even by one character, a redirect has to be put in place if the page has search traffic and links pointing to the page” said Matt Tomkin, Founder of Tao Digital Marketing.

Coordinate with your SEO team to identify the best time to perform your migration, pause your PPC campaigns while you transfer content and work together to figure out the best plan of action. This seems like the most obvious point of them all but is essential in order to achieve maximum results.

How does site migration affect SEO?

SEO encompasses three key pillars: Authority, Relevance and Trust. Your website needs to meet the mark for all of these for your SEO efforts to be a success, hence why Google actively discourages sites that buy links or provide poor content as a way of attributing links in a short amount of time.

For this reason, elements of your site such as the structure, platform and location need to work hand in hand with your SEO. Google won’t be as accommodating otherwise. A migration without care for your SEO strategy will lose traffic and revenue that could take months or even years to return.

As Ottomatias Peura, Front-End Developer and CMO of Speechly also highlighted, factors such as how close your hosting server is to the site’s target audience could also affect load times and negatively impact SEO. It’s the little things you might not think about that could snowball and drastically affect your performance.

SEO considerations

For SEO Marketing Specialist Sandra, from The Product Analyst, you must always come up with a plan and make an inventory of inbound links before migrating a site. She continued: “These are your pivotal digital assets in your site and must come along with you to the new site you are making.”

What’s more, when migrating to a site with a new domain name, you should always keep ownership of the old domain and redirect it to your new one. This will assure visitors you’re still in business and save them time searching for your new site. Think: efficient funnel marketing – or worse, dropping off completely and going elsewhere.

Michał Suski, Co-Founder of Surfer, particularly highlights these key points:

  • Run a crawl on both new and old sites and look for discrepancies between them, then fix them with 301s.
  • Make sure the site has an identical URL structure. If not – check if all the URLs that have changed area have a 301 redirection.
  • Keep the internal linking structure – this is a powerful ranking factor, and once you change it, the crawler will have hard times on your pages. This may cost you a lot of organic traffic.
  • Keep an eye on your staging server otherwise you may be punished by duplicated content.

Faye Watt, SEO Manager at Seeker Digital, also recommends crawling your website to identify new issues, missing content and broken elements, and compare it to a crawl from the old site.

She added:

“VLOOKUP is your friend here, use it to identify any missing URLs on live vs dev/new, check if any elements such as page title, descriptions, canonicals, hreflang, etc. have changed at all. Also, if you are changing domain or URL structure – one of the first things you should do on launch day is check that all of these URLs redirect to a valid URL and haven't broken during the process.”

Last but not least, one crucial tip is to avoid migrating all of your content. Instead, review which content is worthy of being transferred to your new site by comparing metrics such as impressions, time on page, and conversions.

The smaller the data you need to migrate, the smaller the chances of problems from occurring. SEOs love culling pages at the best of times, so this might be a great opportunity to do it.

Why is this important?

Not implementing the changes mentioned above or doing them incorrectly will cost you revenue, traffic, and necessary data to make informed business decisions.

For example, if you need 301 redirects for your “money” pages and they aren’t included, customers will get 404 errors and leave your site. This is because your old site will still technically exist in Google whether you’ve tried to migrate it or not.

What’s more, it wouldn’t be unusual for your development team to suggest using 302 temporary redirects as they’re often easier to implement. If you take this advice and steer from your initial plan, things could be a disaster later down the line. 302 redirects will tell the search engines that you want to keep all of the rankings and links going to the old pages, and you only want to send traffic to the new ones for a little while.

Another example includes not uploading a sitemap, which will restrict spiders from crawling your site efficiently and potentially delay indexing.

What are the main SEO risks?

The main SEO risk when migrating to a different site is losing traffic. This can happen if you drop too many pages during the migration and cause Google to believe that the new site isn’t the same as the old one.

Common horror stories from site migrations also often include the accidental no indexing of pages and disallowing domains in the robots.txt file. According to Luke Davis, SEO Executive at Adzooma, “Doing either will take your site out of Google’s index and prevent Googlebot from crawling your site, which will cost you revenue and traffic that could take months to fully return.”

What should a successful site migration look like?

A successful site migration should show either minimal visibility loss during the first few weeks or long-term increased visibility depending on the migration type. You can determine success by comparing new data against your objectives.

Generally, a successful migration would show similar performance between your newly migrated site and the previous one.

It also relies on:

  • Having a clear plan in place months before starting a migration, including why you want to migrate, struggles with your current CRM and what you want to achieve
  • Creating a backup of your site data to ensure you can restore important content if something goes wrong
  • Establishing a good working relationship with your Development team to ensure the migration is their priority and that errors can be fixed as soon as possible

What’s more, if your migration has worked well, you should see minimal errors within your coverage reports. You can use tools such as Google Search Console to keep an eye on your organic traffic.

For Faye Watts, SEO Manager at Seeker Digital, one of the best SEO tools to monitor performance and determine whether your performance has improved is Google Analytics. “Make sure you have keyword tracking set up prior to launch for all of the keywords that your website ranks for too and monitor their movements once the website has launched.”

She also added that if you’re changing domain, a smart tip is to set up the new/old domain up as a competitor in your keyword tracking tool so that you can easily see the results side-by side.

Carefully consider if site migration is the right choice

Deciding whether a site migration is right for you is an extremely big decision and one that should be considered over a period of time. You should only do it if it makes sense. For example, if you want to move your server to a different domain name or update your site structure, navigation or design.

It’s also important to remember that while migrating a site can be a great business move, it brings a lot of risks. Having a strategy in place is key for covering all bases and ensuring you see positive results from both PPC and SEO. If you don’t, your rankings might not recover for weeks or even months.

Website migrations are challenging and require expertise to get right, but can be extremely rewarding. It just requires time, efficiency and careful planning.

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