Whether you’re looking to redesign your website, switch to a new hosting provider, or update your CMS, website migration is an undertaking that can leave even the most seasoned webmasters feeling a bit queasy.
Worry not, though, as with the right approach, tools, and mindset, you can make your website migration a success without sacrificing your hard-earned SEO rankings or losing your sanity in the process.
By the end of this article, you’ll be a pro at planning, executing, and monitoring a website migration, with all the insider tips, tricks, and best practices you need to succeed.
Without further ado, here’s everything you need to know about migrating a website!
First, what does migrating a website mean?
Contrary to what you might think, migrating a website isn’t always as drastic as moving to a new city or switching to a new hair colour (although it can be just as stressful!). Instead, it refers to any site-wide change that could affect your SEO standing.
So, what kind of changes are we talking about here?
Well, the list is long and diverse, but some of the most common changes that may qualify as website migration include:
When you need to make top-level site changes
If you’re thinking about a top-level site change, you’re in for a wild ride. We’re talking about switching to a new hosting provider, moving your site to an entirely new domain, or switching from subdirectories to subdomains. These changes are not for the faint of heart, and they can seriously affect your SEO ranking.
But here’s the thing: sometimes, a top-level change is necessary. For example, if you’re rebranding your business or trying to ditch your current hosting provider because your business has overgrown it. In those cases, a site migration might be the only solution.
When you need to restructure your website
Another case where a site migration is worth it is when you’re making restructuring your site drastically. This could mean translating your content into different languages and placing it in subdomains or subdirectories or consolidating several existing domains into one.
When you’re planning a design overhaul
Last but not least, even changes that leave your website structure intact can be considered a website migration. For example, if you’re rebranding your site or changing its design, you’re in this category. And believe it or not, this kind of change can also have a major impact on your SEO.
Why, you ask?
Well, critical on-page SEO elements can get lost in the redesign – even by accident. So, make sure you’re keeping an eye on things like heading tags and alt tags. And if you’re adding new interactive elements to your site, make sure they’re coded in a way that’s visible to search engines.
Here’s our guide on how to redesign a website without losing SEO.
How to migrate without losing your mind
The key to migrating a website successfully is planning, planning, and, you guessed it, more planning.
You need to treat migrating a website as a serious project. That means involving anyone else who might be affected by the changes.
You also need to create a detailed migration plan that covers every aspect of the process, from setting up redirects to updating your sitemap. And, of course, you need to test everything before you go live to make sure everything is working as it should. We’ll explore all of that later on.
Migrating a website: Advantages and risks
Advantages of website migration
Website migration can be a great opportunity for a fresh start. It’s a chance to rebrand or grow your business by improving your website’s functionality and user experience. Migrating to a new platform can also give you access to advanced features and better functionality. As your business evolves, it’s important for your website to evolve too, and website migration can help you do just that.
Furthermore, website migration from HTTP to HTTPS can add a layer of security to your website, which is always a good thing.
Finally, migrating your website can be an opportunity to refresh any outdated copy and locate any technical problems your site may have.
Risks of website migration
A great man (uncle Ben) once said, “with great opportunities come great risks” (or was it responsibility?). Anyway, website migration is no exception. If done incorrectly, it could lead to disastrous consequences.
One of the biggest risks of website migration is a drop in visibility. This could have a significant impact on your revenue if users can’t find you in an organic search.
Another risk is that your site’s authority could decrease if your old web pages aren’t redirected properly. This could happen because the newly migrated pages may not register old backlinks. If you had external sites linked to your old web pages, those pages have to be redirected to the new ones, or the backlinks won’t show up.
Finally, you could have issues with analytics tracking, mobile responsiveness, or page speed. To avoid such issues, it’s crucial to prepare thoroughly for your website migration and work with a web developer as needed.
The ultimate checklist for migrating a website
So, as we’ve established, migrating your website can be a major headache. After all, you’ve got to transfer all your content to a new domain, change your hosting provider, or restructure your website without breaking anything, all while making sure your SEO remains unscathed. Fear not, though, as you’ll nail the process if you follow these steps:
Migrating a website: The planning stage
#1 – Get your team onboard (if you have one)
If you business has a big marketing team, you need to make sure everyone’s on board with the changes. That means getting buy-in from all the different departments involved, including your SEO specialists, content writers, and UX specialists. After all, you don’t want to be surprised with any last-minute challenges – that’s like finding out your road trip car has no brakes halfway through a mountain pass.
Alternatively, if you’re outsourcing your marketing efforts to an agency or a freelancer, let them know of the upcoming changes. And, if you’re handling your marketing yourself, you’re already onboard and ready to go!
#2 – Define your goals
What do you want to achieve with your site migration? Are you looking to improve your SEO, or is this more of a branding decision?
Once you’ve identified your goals, you can start setting specific metrics to track your progress. For example, you could set a target for increasing your organic traffic by 10% after the migration if the goal is to get more traffic.
#3 – Prepare an overview of metrics and benchmarks
Before you start the migration process, you need to know where you stand. That means tracking key metrics like organic traffic, organic rank, and site speed.
Having a clear picture of your current performance will make it easier to assess the impact of the migration.
#4 – Set a migration deadline
Timing is everything when it comes to website migrations. You want to get the job done as quickly as possible to minimise disruption, but you also need to make sure you’re not rushing things. So, set a realistic deadline for the migration and make sure everyone knows what’s expected of them.
#5 – Prepare your website’s visitors for the change
Before you make any major moves, get the word out. After all, your customers need to know you’re moving!
If you’re changing your domain, put it on blast to your email list and social media outlets so everybody knows what’s coming. Don’t forget to explain why you’re doing this and how it will benefit your customers.
Furthermore, you could put up a “coming soon” message at the new URL’s location. It’s like a little teaser to get people excited about what’s to come. Just make sure to include an estimated date for when the new site will be live so that people know when to come back (remember the migration deadline we talked about earlier? Use it here!).
#6 – Create a content inventory
Now, it’s time to create a content inventory. This involves taking stock of all your existing content – pages, documents, media files, and any other assets you may have. And don’t forget to create backup copies of everything (here’s a detailed guide on how to do that by PCMag)!
Preparing such an inventory is critical for spotting any missing content after the migration. If you know which documents are inaccessible, you can fix the issue quickly, preferably before any significant damage is done. Uploading missing documents to your new site is also made more accessible if you have backups of everything.
PS: During the migration process, you want to avoid publishing any new content or launching new pages. This will help ensure that everything gets transferred smoothly.
Next, you need to prepare an overview of your website backlink profile. Site migrations often change your site’s structure, which can leave external pages linking to your pages, pointing to URLs that no longer exist. This can result in visitors seeing 404 errors, which can cause you to lose valuable backlinks.
To avoid this, ensure you have a comprehensive overview of your website’s backlink profile (by using a tool like Ahrefs or SEMrush) so that you can redirect incoming links to the new versions of your pages.
Even if the migration involves getting rid of some pages, it’s still better to redirect external links to existing URLs than have them point to broken ones.
Migrating a website: The testing stage
Your website migration is almost ready to go live!
Now, before you unleash it on the world, it’s crucial to perform pre-launch testing. Think of it like a dress rehearsal before the big opening night – it’s your chance to catch any technical hiccups or UX issues before they become a problem for your users.
To test your site, you’ll want to make sure it’s closed off from search engines. After all, you don’t want your visitors stumbling upon your work-in-progress! For that, use IP restrictions or password protection to keep your site under wraps.
Once your testing environment is secure, you can start poking around your site to check for issues by doing the following:
- Make sure that all the links on your website are working properly and that visitors can easily navigate from one page to another
- Test all the features and functions of your website, such as contact forms, search bars, and shopping carts
- Check that images and videos load properly and that there are no broken links
#9 – Make sure your content is complete
- Ensure that all your website’s content has been migrated successfully and that it’s displaying correctly on the new site
- Check that all the text is legible and that all images and videos are displaying properly
- Duplicate content is a nightmare for search engines, and when migrating a website, you may temporarily have multiple versions of the same page. This can make it challenging for search engines to decide which page to rank. As a result, you risk outdated pages showing up in Google searches instead of the intended pages. To avoid this, ensure that canonical links are in place where needed. A canonical tag simply signals to Google which page, amongst several with similar content, you consider to be the main version. This way, Google can prioritise the canonical URL when deciding which page to rank
#10 – Run some performance tests
- Run speed tests on your website to ensure that it’s loading quickly. Slow-loading websites can frustrate visitors and negatively impact your search engine rankings
- Make sure that all the scripts and plugins on your website are up-to-date and that they’re not causing any issues
#11 – Don’t forget about security
- Check that your website is secure and that all the sensitive information, such as login details and payment information, is encrypted
- Ensure that your SSL certificate is up-to-date and that your website is protected against malware and other cyber threats
#12 – Do an accessibility check
Last but not least, do a web accessibility check!
Migrating a website can affect its accessibility (aka, how usable it is by users with disabilities). For example, a custom font or colour combination may look cool, but it can make some content inaccessible to some users.
Whenever you make significant design or UX changes, it’s crucial to check your website’s accessibility. That especially applies if you’re trying to expand into a new market and need to comply with its accessibility regulations (such as The European Accessibility Act in Europe, the UK’s accessibility legislation, or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the USA). So, don’t neglect this step!
Migrating a website: The launching stage
So, you’ve successfully completed the pre-launch testing, and you’re ready to show the world your shiny new website!
One last thing to think about before going live: you need to think about the timing of your site migration.
What do we mean by this?
Well, you’re going to be offline during the migration, so it’s important to complete it as quickly as possible. You don’t want to be down for too long, or it could hurt your search rankings. So, consider doing the migration during off-peak hours, like late at night or during a period when you typically expect less traffic.
But don’t let the timing stress you out too much. Remember, you’ve done the hard work, and it’s time to celebrate the fruits of your labour!
So, take a deep breath, click that “go live” button (or let your developer take care of that!), and let your website soar to new heights.
Migrating a website: The monitoring stage
So, you’ve migrated your site! Congrats! Now comes the part where you figure out if everything is working as it should.
Here are some things to keep in mind during the monitoring and reporting stage:
#13 – Double check your robots.txt file
The robots.txt file is a text file that resides in the root directory of your website, and its job is to give instructions to search engine bots, telling them which pages to crawl and index and which ones to ignore. Think of it like a map of your website that tells search engines which doors are open and which ones are locked.
After migrating a website, go ahead and check your robots.txt file. Make sure it’s not blocking any key pages or granting access to sections that should stay hidden.
You don’t want to make any parts of your site invisible to search engines or visitors now, do you?
#14 – Look for technical errors
Are you seeing an increase in broken links or error response codes after migrating a website?
Once the report is ready, you’ll know which errors you must fix to keep your SEO rankings intact.
Web analytics tools, such as Google Analytics, rely on HTML tags to work properly. When you’re done migrating a website, make sure those tags work properly on all the pages you intend to monitor. You don’t want to miss any crucial data!
#16 – Test and submit Your XML Sitemap
An XML sitemap is basically a directory of all the pages on your website that you want search engines to crawl and index. It’s like a roadmap for Google and other search engines to follow, guiding them to all the important pages on your site. We’ve explained it in detail in this article.
If your URL structure has changed significantly during migration, you’ll want to check your sitemap to ensure that it lists your pages and posts correctly and that no essential pages are missing from the index. If everything’s good to go, submit your new sitemap to the Google Search Console so that the giant search engine knows which URLs to crawl.
#17 – Recheck your benchmark metrics
We’re almost done.
Go back to the metrics you prepared back in the planning stage.
Now, analyse the analytics data for the new site and see how everything compares.
If the numbers aren’t what you expected, you’ll be able to quickly identify what went sideways by referring to your benchmarks.
Let us take care of migrating a website for you
Migrating a website is no small feat. Worry not, though, as we’re here to help. Just book a discovery call with us today, and we’ll explain how we can handle this process for you.