As the new year rolls around, you may be looking to spruce up your personal regime. Whether it’s adding new things to your lifestyle like hitting the gym 3 times a week or cutting out chocolate on a weeknight. It’s time for a fresh start – a clean slate.
The same could be said for your website, from the largest retailers like Argos, to the smallest of independent stores, the January period is one of reflection, to look back and see how you did over the Christmas period.
If you are looking at your website and would like to give it a new coat of paint, this might require a migration, not always, but quite often. Now, before you go running for the hills at the mere mention of such a project, it’s important to know that not all migrations are equal.
Check out the quick links below if you are curious about a particular stage in the migration process.
What type of migration are you performing?
This is the first question you should be asking, so, let’s have a think about what kind of migration you might be considering. I’ve outlined a few common scenarios below:
Domain name change
Changing your domain name can have a sizeable impact on your performance, not only would you have to amend your site to redirect accordingly, but you would also need to consider the brand implications of such a move. In terms of SEO, this is the most common version of a migration.
Throughout this article, I’ll run you through exactly what you need to do to make this process go as smoothly as possible.
Site structure change
If your site structure changes, this will likely also impact your URLs. If this happens then it is not quite as drastic as a domain change, however, redirects will need to be considered. You can read more about how to tackle that throughout this post.
Protocol change (from HTTP to HTTPS)
This was much more popular when the ranking boost came in for secure websites, it is less common nowadays with most commercial websites being ran securely. If you are still unsecure, we would highly recommend adding this into your roadmap as a priority.
You will need to consider this option if you were looking to move platform providers, for example, moving your store away from Squarespace to Shopify. The specifics of this type of migration would depend on the platforms you were moving to and from, but I would recommend seeking some guidance if you are unsure.
As a Shopify expert, I’d love to talk you through the steps involved in re-platforming to Shopify.
Sometimes all you want is a fresh coat of paint on your website, and that’s okay too. Something as simple as adding a new logo or updating your theme can be considered more of a reskin rather than full-blown migration. When choosing to move themes though, there are still many considerations to take into account, such as:
- How your existing content will be reformatted
- The loss of any existing functionality
- What does this do to your speed metrics
- Impact on the customer journey
Once again, we are well-versed in this kind of discussion, so if you have any questions, particularly when it comes to Shopify themes, I’d be happy to help.
The migration process
The migration process can be stressful and will likely lead to the reading of countless articles just like this one to ensure that you don’t miss anything crucial out of your process. Even someone with years of experience and tens of migrations under my belt, I still find myself scouring blogs and forums for reassurance.
Below I have jotted down a checklist of things that will need looking at as you launch your new website.
Website migration checklist
- txt updated to remove any unneeded rules
- Canonicals following a logical implementation
- Noindex,nofollow removed from live domain
- Redirects from old domain working as intended
- Internal links all returning a valid response
- XML sitemap created and submitted
- Analytics working correctly
- Google Search Console updated
- Google Business Places updated
- Update links on your social channels
In terms of the entire process of a migration, I have set out some key steps which are split into three areas; preparation for the move, moving day itself, and how you can evaluate your level of success.
Set up your new domain in a test environment
By using a test environment, it is possible to take your new site for a spin before it’s out in the wild. This means you can cut down on any of the launch day catastrophes which might keep you up at night.
Just be careful when setting up your new test site to ensure that it cannot be found and indexed by search engine crawlers. To restrict this access you can do this by applying a noindex,nofollow tag on all test pages and including an ‘exclude’ rule within the robots.txt file. For additional security, consider password protecting your test site to keep out any outsiders who may stumble upon it.
Arguably the most important aspect of any migration. To ensure your site is redirected smoothly on launch day, you can get ahead of the game by crawling your current site and identifying all the pages you will need to address on moving day.
To do this we would recommend the use of a tool like Screaming Frog, if your site is less than 1,000 pages you can stick to the free version. Other free ways you can get a view of your pages would be to export from Google Analytics or Google Search Console, bear in mind that the only pages surfaced here will be those which have driven traffic, not necessarily every page you have on site.
Once you have a view of your current pages, you can begin mapping them up to the new locations if you have an agreed URL structure. Use 301 (permanent) redirects when implementing this.
We would also recommend taking a view of all of your current redirects on site and ensuring that they will not chain together in order to get to your new location, this will pass less SEO value to your new site.
Keep this list handy, as you will need to verify it on moving day.
Benchmark page speed performance using Google Lighthouse
Taking a view of your current performance through Google Lighthouse or other page speed tools will be essential to see how the new site stacks up against your old version. You must do this during the ‘preparation’ phase since, once the old site is taken down, there will be no way to easily run these through this tool.
Create XML sitemap
For your new website, you should create an XML sitemap, which you can upload to Search Console once generated. This will create additional signals for search engine crawlers to find your priority pages and help get them indexed as quickly as possible.
Benchmark your keyword rankings
If you are lucky enough to have a paid tool to track your keywords, such as SEMrush or Authoritas, then this should already be in hand. I always like to review my keyword sets before migration, to ensure that we are tracking those keywords which will have the largest impact and that we would expect to recover most quickly.
If you don’t have a tool to track these keywords, I would make sure that your current property is set up in Search Console to make sure you can get some level of query data through the use of their ‘average position’ metric. This might not be the most accurate way to track keyword performance, but it does come at zero extra cost.
Test, test, test
I don’t need to say anything further on this one. You can never test enough unless it is physically paining you to do so.
On the day
Remove unneeded meta robots directives
The first thing I always check when releasing a new site into the wild is the removal of any “nofollow, noindex” meta robots tags. This will completely wipe out any organic crawling and indexing of your new site if left this way. It sounds obvious, but I have seen this go unnoticed in the past, and you never forget it.
Remove these tags and replace with <meta name="robots" content="index, follow"> to allow crawlers to get to your site and start to rank your new pages.
Update your robots.txt file
Make sure you update your robots.txt file and remove any crawling restrictions you no longer want in place following the switch from test to live. A common mistake is to leave your “Disallow: /” rule in place which will stop crawlers from being able to access your site.
Since you are making changes to this file, it also makes sense to add in the location of your XML sitemap file, as per best practice.
Check your redirects (again)
Although we did this in the preparation stage, ensure you run all of your old URLs through a crawling tool such as Screaming Frog to identify any which may have broken following the transition. If some have broken, add them to your list of hot fixes.
Ensure relevant backlinks have been redirected
This should be addressed by your redirect testing, but once again it is worth another spot check on the day. All of your backlinks pass valuable trust signals to search engines and these need to be passed onto the new domain to help reduce the risk of lost rankings throughout this change.
If you have strong relationships with any of your backlink providers, reach out and see if they will update the link at their side. We wouldn’t recommend trying this for every backlink as the process can be quite lengthy, but where we have the most chance of success, I would give it a good go.
Updating Google Search Console
Use the ‘Change of Address’ tool within Search Console to allow Google to forward your old site signals onto your new domain. A Google guide of how to do this can be found here.
You should also update the Sitemap section of Search Console with your newly generated XML files to cut down on any confusion that can follow such a change.
One more thing to update in this platform is to make sure that you update the disavow file on your new property. If you have any toxic backlinks that you have disavowed in the past, you don’t want search engines considering these when ranking your new site. It is tricky to find this tool since it is no longer in the interface, but you can gain access through this Google blog post.
Check your canonicals
Something which is always worth checking. It doesn’t have to be a massive job, just spot check a few and ensure they make sense in the context of your new site.
Update tracking software, such as Google Analytics, Adobe, etc.
Check that Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager are both correctly installed on your website and collecting data. You should be able to find these tags within the code of your page and ensure these match up with what you have assigned in the relevant platform.
For clear testing, head into the ‘real-time’ tab in Google Analytics and see if you can spot yourself exploring the new site. If you can, you’re good to go.
Get your team to help QA test the new site
Having the input of the whole team can help with many UX issues that may arise from a migration. As an SEO, I tend to look at websites from this viewpoint first, however, this may blinker me to other prevalent issues that are obvious to other testers.
Call in that favour and take a half hour out of a few colleague’s days. Letting them check and play around with the new site is one of the most effective ways to identify these bugs and snags and allows for a wider range of feedback before you begin working on any hot fixes. You might have to get a round of tea and biscuits in for the team, but it is definitely worth it.
Annotate your analytics
Once your migration has been completed and your new site is being tracked correctly, ensure that you update your analytics with annotations and reference these changes in any key event logs that you may keep internally. Whilst you might think it would be crazy to forget such a drastic website change in a year’s time, you would be surprised.
Having this ensures that you will provide fair and caveated reporting in the following year.
After the migration
Report on your success
Looking back at your performance following a migration is the moment of truth. The long-term SEO impact will take some time to fully surface, but there are some early signs you can look at to determine whether or not you have been successful.
For short-term success; I would compare your Google Lighthouse scores to the benchmark you took before the migration, this lets you know how your new site performs speed-wise and for Core Web Vitals. In terms of traffic and visibility, you are likely to see a dip. By keeping an eye on Google Search Console and analytics, which have been passed over correctly, you can see if there has been any impact to your traffic, and where this may have come from.
Spot check your top performing pages in Google Search Console to make sure that they are still being found and indexed correctly, the ‘coverage’ tab will also give you a good idea as to whether any indexing errors have occurred off the back of the migration.
Remember, following a migration it is normal to see a dip in performance, don’t hit the panic button too early and keep a level head.
Audit and troubleshoot
Now that the dust should have settled and anything that was essential to be fixed has now been completed, what do you do next?
Well, from our experience, an SEO’s job is (rarely) ever done, and you can look to unlock more growth opportunities from any number of approaches. Content optimisation, site speed optimisation, page creation, SERP feature targeting, the list goes on.
Take a fresh audit of where your new site currently stands from both a technical SEO and content marketing view and identify the growth path which makes sense for your business. Now that you are no longer held back by a platform, protocol, domain, etc. growing your organic visibility can be done by implementing these tactics.
Take a break
This speaks for itself really doesn't it? Time for a break!
Overall, migrations are going to be a high-tension affair, there isn’t much that we can do about that apart from prepare extensively. Using this guide, you should have a great framework to be able to work from. If tackling a project like this is still too daunting for you and your business, please get in touch. We are happy to help and would love to discuss your approach and how we can support your transformation journey.