Website Migration Checklist: SEO Best Practices

Preparing for a website migration

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If you are planning a website migration or a website overhaul, you should pay attention to how it will affect your existing SEO results.

When you make such significant changes to your website, your visitors will not be the only ones paying attention to them. Google will notice something has changed so tread carefully.

To help you preserve your SEO results while giving your website a refresh, we’ve created a website migration checklist.

We’ll explain the most important steps you should take, as well as some concepts you may not be familiar with.

It’s time to refresh your site without losing all of your hard work.

Step-by-Step Website Migration Checklist

Before implementing and launching changes, first make sure you’ve created a complete list of them to assess how they will affect your SEO.

If you’re performing minor, aesthetical changes, your SEO should be largely unaffected.

However, if you’re making significant changes to your site structure, you can follow the next steps:

1. Prepare a website migration plan

Website migrations are great opportunities for bringing order into a previously chaotic website structure.

Maybe your site was slow and it was affecting your SEO, maybe you struggled with a lot of duplicate content, or the legacy systems you’ve put into place ages ago now started impairing your results.

You should use your migration to resolve any issues you’ve previously encountered, and make sure they don’t appear again.

Pay special attention to:

  • Server errors
  • Broken links
  • 404s in navigation
  • Blanket redirects
  • Orphan pages
  • Other errors

The most notable case in which a website migration is actually good for SEO is if you’re migrating from the HTTP to HTTPS protocols.

When creating your website migration plan, you should:

  • Outline all of your website migration objectives before getting to work. Identify the risks and opportunities associated with them.
  • If you have multiple objectives, prioritize them.
  • Determine the scope of your website migration. Understanding your objectives will help you with this step.
  • Analyze similar cases of website migration to understand how you may be affected. All website migrations cause drops in traffic. However, their severity varies on the scope of your migration.
  • Prepare a plan. Once you’ve performed a SWOT analysis of your old site and outlined what you’re hoping to accomplish with this migration, as well as analyzed how it could affect your traffic, you can create a strategy.

If your business relies on search engine traffic and you’re at risk of losing your rankings for a significant period of time (bots can’t index your new site immediately), prepare a contingency plan for making up for the lost revenue.

Related: https://twiz.io/blog/nginx-301-redirect/

2. Identify your priority assets, performance and the linking structure

  • Identify your priority assets. Typically, these are exceptionally well-performing pages. You can export top pages report and identify their internal linking structure, as well as their potential for accruing backlinks and social shares. They’re the pages you should pay special attention to during the course of your migration.
  • Crawl your site before the migration. You can do this to define your linking structure. It will help you understand how your links work together, and you’ll be able to make changes before the migration to avoid losing your results. You can use a tool like Screaming Frog to do it.
  • Use the crawl to identify problems you hadn’t noticed before. For example, you may notice orphan pages that you can now link to in the process of migration. The same goes for soft 404 redirects, pages with thin content, and other errors that could have been caused by legacy systems.
  • Benchmark your current performance. This way, you will be able to analyze your post-migration performance. You can do this by making a copy of your Google Analytics performance report, and exporting it for later comparison.
    Pay special attention to: organic traffic, rankings for top keywords, load times, and number of indexed pages.

3. Understand tasks, dependencies and responsibilities

  • Create a work breakdown structure. This will help you break down the entire project into sets of tasks. You’ll gain a much better understanding of what needs to be done to achieve pre-determined outcomes, as well as the resources you will need.
  • Assign an owner to each task.
  • Map out the dependencies between tasks. You can use the critical path project management method.
  • Identify risks. As you break your work down into tasks, you’ll be able to see the risks that you may not have seen previously. Make plans on how you will mitigate or avoid them.
  • Document SEO and content changes that will be made.
  • Document what aspects of the website should remain the same.

4. Use a test server

Whenever possible, avoid making changes and implementing new features on the live version of the site. Instead, add them to a sandbox and verify that everything is working properly.

Using a test server will help you fix everything before you’ve gone live.

If you’ve changed the security protocols or domain names, you should test whether the redirects are working and whether all the internal links are pointing to the right pages.

Make sure your test website can’t be crawled by search engines and pay special attention to redirects and the linking structure.

5. Review the assets before launching

Once you’ve made the necessary changes, you should review your old website’s assets:

  • Review on-page SEO features such as: content, URLs, internal and external links, page titles, meta descriptions, headings, alt text for images and media, canonical tags, language tags, AMP versions
  • Review page content. Look for duplicate content to be deleted in the migration and thin content that can be merged with different pages. If applicable, determine which pages should be updated with new content to improve search engine results.
  • Double-check the list of pages which will be deleted to make sure that you’re preserving well-performing pages (e.g. landing pages that drive revenue).
  • Avoid removing too many pages. Google could take it as a signal that you’ve created an entirely different site, demoting your rankings in the process.

6. Update the links

All of your pages should point to the new links of the new pages.

Yes, the redirect will perform that function but it can slow down your site and affect your rankings.

It’s much better to update the links so they point directly to the new site. You can use a search and replace option to do it.

Speaking of links, make sure you:

  • Canonicalize all the new pages so they’re stated as the original sources – instead of the original sources still being the old pages.
  • Avoid changing the URL structure. Google may take it as a signal that you’ve created a new site, instead of refreshing the existing one.
  • Preserve your site architecture. If your previous site architecture meant that the users could find the most important pages with one or two clicks (one or two levels link-deep), they should still be able to do the same. You can leave the less important pages at level three or four.

7. Removed and 404 pages

While you’re still in the test version:

  • Make a list of all the pages you’ve removed.
  • Remove links to the removed pages. This includes internal links.
  • Set up custom 404 pages. This way, visitors will be able to find similar content that they may have been looking for.
  • Avoid soft 404 redirects. They lead visitors to the homepage or a different page. This type of redirects can result in crawl errors and impair your rankings.
  • If you’ve created a different page for that content, set up a redirect link to the new page.

8. Check your mobile pages

After changing and checking the regular versions of pages, conduct a mobile check.

Analyze mobile tagging and your canonical setup for AMP pages.

Double-check that the content is the same on desktop and mobile versions as Google is turning towards the mobile-first indexing.

9. Crawl your sandbox

Crawl your soon-to-be new site while paying particular attention to:

  • Noindex pages
  • Nofollow links
  • Broken links
  • Internal redirects
  • Soft 404 redirects
  • 301, 401 and 501 errors
  • Pages with a non-200 server response
  • Faulty canonical tags

Again, you can use a tool like Screaming Frog to crawl your old URLs and make sure there are no errors, unintentional redirects and other factors that could impair your new website performance and rankings.

You can use the link list you’ve created prior to setting up the test site.

You should also crawl:

  • Page templates for JavaScript crawling issues
  • Cloaking issues with Googlebot for desktop and mobile

This way, you’ll make sure that there are no problems loading different elements of your site for both Google bots and visitors.

10. Structured data and pagination

Use Google’s structured data testing tool to make sure your existing structured data is still operational on the new site.

Additionally, make sure that your paginated pages can be crawled.

If you’re using infinite scroll, pay special attention as it can sometimes confuse Googlebots and result in indexing problems.

11. Review XML and HTML sitemaps

Your new XML sitemaps should include all the URLs you want indexed.

Your HTML sitemap should link to all the pages you’ve migrated, especially pages that are deeper in your site hierarchy than one or two links.

12. Compare new pages to the old ones

Site speed has never been more important for SEO than it is today.

Before you launch your new site, you should use PageSpeed Insights to test the performance of your new pages.

Then, compare their performance to old pages to identify any issues and opportunities for improvement.

Launch Time Website Migration Checklist

When it’s time to launch, make sure you double-check all the important aspects that could affect your SEO:

13. Search engine crawling

Review the following for both desktop and mobile:

  • Your robots.txt file for any crawling errors
  • Canonical tags for any errors
  • Server responses for key pages (you should be getting 200 server responses)
  • Unintentional nofollow and noindex tags
  • Hreflang errors and setup

At this point, you can add your new site to Google Analytics to make sure it doesn’t identify any errors before you’ve launched the site to visitors.

14. Redirection checks

Even if you’ve followed our checklist up to this point, it’s always good to double-check that you aren’t getting any redirect errors.

  • Old URLs should redirect to the new site
  • You should have set up a custom 404 page
  • No links to pages that no longer exist
  • Redirects are permanent redirects (301)
  • All the hreflang tags are properly set up
  • All the canonical tags are properly set up to point to the new site and prevent indexing errors
  • You set up direct redirects to new pages for internal links

15. Search Console

Now that you’ve made sure your site is free of any errors, you can proceed to the Search Console.

  • If you were migrating to a new domain, you should add a new property to the Google Search Console. Make sure you specify the HTTP/HTTPS and non-www/www properties correctly.
  • If you were moving to a new host or a new domain, use the change of address function.
  • Test your sitemaps for errors, and request Google to crawl the new sitemap with the “Fetch as Google” option so your site is indexed faster.
  • If you’re using international targeting, make sure you set the right country.
  • Upload a separate map with the old site’s indexed pages so the bots discover relevant redirects.
  • If you have any broken or spammy links, upload the disavow file.

Once completed, check the new site and launch!

Post-Launch Website Migration Checklist

Just because you’ve launched your new site doesn’t mean the work is over. There are a few other things you can do to make sure you’re still ranking highly:

  • Crawl the new site to verify that there aren’t any unintentional redirects and errors.
  • Reach out to the websites that gave you the most important backlinks, and ask them to link to the new pages instead.
  • Hold on to your old domain to prevent any errors.
  • Monitor indexation through the Google Search Console.
  • Check crawl errors daily to make sure everything is set up correctly.
  • Monitor your analytics and compare performance.

Congratulations! You’ve successfully migrated your website.

And if you followed this checklist, you’ll see that it’s not as problematic as everyone claims.

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