Website migration is an important SEO strategy. You may need to merge a duplicate website or move content to a new domain name. Perhaps a website redesign has changed the content. These are some of the reasons we may need to do a website migration.
You need to be aware that any structural changes can cause search engines to become confused and potentially damage your organic search traffic, if not handled properly.
The kinds of visual or functional changes to your website frontend or your backend that can cause the search engines issues include:
- Changing your domain name
- Redesigning your website
- Platform or CMS change
- Adding a shopping cart
- Changing your website URLs
- Altering your blog
In a nutshell, website migration strategy is all about how we move content, since content is really ‘all of the things’ that search engines are designed to index and display in the search results.
Planning and Mapping
It’s important to understand that the basis for moving content involves putting redirects in place, commonly using a 301 HTTP status code. This code indicates to search engines that the content has been moved and points to the new URL location.
When we change the website domain name, we need to make sure all of the pages will be mapped to the new domain. So all previous URLs will need to have 301 redirects put in place.
We need to create a full list of all the webpages, images, and any other files that existing the old domain so that we can create a map of all the required 301 redirects to the new domain.
- http://olddomainname.com/page1 redirect to http://newdomainname.com/page1
- http://olddomainname.com/page2 redirect to http://newdomainname.com/page2
This process is relatively simple if the new domain name does not already have any existing content and is essentially a fresh domain with no site on it yet.
Merging the website
If the new domain name already has a site on it, then we need to merge one website into another. Special consideration needs to be given to how each of the URLs need to be mapped.
The process for deciding whether to simply do blanket redirects rather than individual redirects per URL will be guided by how well established and positioned the page’s content is within the search results. Some of the pages on the website to be merged, may have rankings, traffic and inbound links for certain pages.
It’s important to make efforts to preserve the SEO of the content on these pages across to the new domain name. Here is a great guide on merging two WordPress sites together, which covers the steps you would take to complete the technical tasks successfully.
However, this may be a more complex task than at first thought, particularly if the URL structure of the new domain is different. I can be useful to identify these pages and if there is no clash of existing content on the new domain name, then the page can simply be moved. If however, there is already similar or duplicate content on the new domain name, then further analysis is needed to decide how to further merge that content in an effective way.
This may involve a combination of merging the text and images on the page, as well as a combination of mapping the URLs
- http://olddomainname.com/page1 redirect to http://newdomainname.com/page1
- http://olddomainname.com/page2 redirect to http://newdomainname.com/page1
- http://olddomainname.com/page3 redirect to http://newdomainname.com/page1
- http://olddomainname.com/page4 redirect to http://newdomainname.com/page2
There may also be content on the old domain name that you no longer need. We could consider removing that content. Typically content that is removed, causes a 404 Page Not Found Status code if that page is visited and the content is no longer there. Depending on the current level of traffic to that page’s URL, then a redirect can be put in place. Otherwise it may be appropriate to indicate to the search engine the page no longer exists by way of a 404 code.
During the moving process
Fluctuations will occur during any URL changes, content moving or merging to a new domain name, or redesigning your website.
It is common to see a drop in rankings while this process is taking place. It is often not initially clear how long it will take to recover rankings and traffic.
The larger the site, the longer it will take to be reindexed and the ranking factors to be processed. Also if there has been a lot of structural change, it will take longer.
We attempt to speed up the process by ensuring the new domain’s structure is easy to crawl and index. Also freshly indexed inbound links can help speed up the process. But none of this can be promised since the search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo will ultimately have their own crawl rates and processing speeds.
When moving to a fresh domain that has not had content or a website on it before, we can use the Change of Address tool in Google Search Console. This should speed up organic traffic and rankings recovery time somewhat.
It is common to wait for up to 60 to 90 days to see recovery from moving content, but often we see faster recoveries. However this is out of our hands in many respects.
One way to mitigate the effect of large scale downturn in rankings and traffic is to implement a phased migration. In this case we would strategically space out the content moves. We move a smaller set of content at a time, so as to have less overall impact from the moves. However, the downside of this approach is that the overall migration could take a lot longer to complete.
Website Redesign Considerations
We need to consider a number of potential scenarios while redesigning a website so that we minimize the loss of rankings and traffic. These cases should be handled:
- Moving content to new URLs
- Content gets removed
- Changes to the onpage content
- Adding or removing structural categories
- Changing the website navigation
- Internal linking structure is changed
New Domain Name Considerations
The business drivers for choosing to migrate your site to a new domain may outweigh any temporary downturns. However, it is important to cover off the major considerations of migrating to a new domain name:
- Losing the search engine trust with the old domain name
- Slow ranking and traffic recovery if the the domain age is young
- New domain may become sandboxed
- Any penalties can be passed on to the new domain
- Check for manual reviews on the old domain
- Perform a backlink audit for spammy links prior migrating
Below is a great explanation and mini tutorial by Matt Cutts, that explains a lot about moving to a new domain.
Best Practice for handling website migration
After analysis of the the content that is to be migrated, we can implement any number of the following best practices as required:
- Reduce risks by implementing a phased migration
- 301 redirects for any and all URLs as required
- Analysis of incoming referral traffic coming from inbound links sending traffic
- Verify both domains in Google Search Console then use Change of Address tool
- Promote new domain name once live to get new inbound branded links
- Monitor search engine rankings and organic traffic reports for recovery signals
- Notifying inbound linking webmasters to update the URLs in their website code
- Address any 404 page not found errors with appropriate 301 redirects
- Update sitemap.xml and re-submit to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster tools
- Identify other status codes such as 500 or 302
- Keep a copy of old URLs until migration is complete for troubleshooting
Using Website Migration Checklists
Through careful analysis and strategic planning and execution, we can implement a successful migration, and see enhanced SEO as a result. This approach is important so we can successfully complete a website migration to move content or redesign as needed. One very important way to stay organized and ovoid becoming overwhelmed during the migration is to use a good solid checklist.
- This Infographic is a good summary, and a very useful checklist to help you visualize what you need to do for an SEO friendly website migration, by Aleyda Solis.
- It may be helpful to download a website migration checklist by Seer Interactive, and use it as a guide if you plan to tackle this process your own, or in house.
- If you are migrating to SSL, here is specific HTTPS migration checklist download by Aleyda Solis to help walk you through the all important process of moving away form HTTP.
Advanced Website Migration
For more detailed info, you can go beyond the basics of website migration with this deck of slides to guide you. Here is a video by Omi Sido at Brighton SEO explaining the importance of getting advanced SEO migration done right.
If your serious about doing your own SEO then you are going to really need a lot of good quality guidance. It’s important to listen to trusted professionals, and read plenty of good advice. If you like books then you may want to read The Art of SEO book and keep it by your side as you navigate the turmoil of migrating your site, and trying to understand the SEO implications yourself.
In any case, creating and executing a solid strategic plan, will be the key to your website migration success.