It’s essential to get a your website migration right since even minor errors can result in a loss of traffic (which leads ultimately to a drop in your business revenue) that can take months if not years to recover from. Even when everything is carried out correctly, there is usually going to be some initial drops in traffic. Our guide is designed to minimise the risk of migrating from one site design to another.
Key things to remember
Take a while to include your key stakeholders in the process (including the guy handling your SEO currently – be that internal or external), plan ahead and allow time to thoroughly test the new website post-launch. All parties should be involved. If you follow these important steps, you’re likely to prevent any major issues when a website is redesigned, has a change in URL structure, transferred to a new Content Management System (CMS) and even transferred to a new domain.
In this guide we will explore things to consider for pre-migration, the process of actually redirecting URLs (assuming that they will be different on the new website – remember even a slight difference needs to be catered for) and important post-migration checks and considerations. Along the way we’ll also point our some useful tools to help with the process.
Decide when the migration will happen – if you’re running an e-commerce store we encourage you to think about busy times of the year. It’s certainly not sensible to migrate close to Christmas if you’re a retailer. If you experience a catastrophe, you want to be able to have the resources to address the problems. Remember, nothing is guaranteed with Google search results! Nothing in this process should be rushed or implemented if staff aren’t available to help.
If your website is being redesigned we strongly advise that an audit of your existing website is carried out. This can be done using software such as Screaming Frog. No only will this provide you with a list of all pages on your site, it will also identify issues to be corrected and sometimes strengths that can be intentionally preserved on the new website.
Once the new design is complete and integrated to your test site, it makes sense to look across the various sections of the website. For example, pay particular attention to your existing high traffic pages – do they exist on the new website? If not, why not? If these pages don’t exist a noticeable chunk of your traffic will most likely be lost when you go live.
Prioritising your top pages (e.g. check in Google Analytics to be certain) is common sense as errors here will see a dramatic loss in search traffic. Don’t forget that you shouldn’t ignore pages that convert best – if the migration is part of a redesign, rather than a simple domain transfer you should consider whether this redesigned website is going to actually convert visitors better once they land on your site. In scenarios like this, it’s wise to do some usability and A/B testing.
Finally aside from high traffic & high conversion pages you need to think about page authority. The highest authority webpages must be prioritised in your plans. These are the strongest pages and are considered most reputable by Google. Tools such as Open Site Explorer give an insight into which pages have the highest page authority. Looking at the most linked to content in Google Webmaster Tools is an easier alternative. If you don’t have Webmaster Tools setup – why not?!
To summarise, if you can’t afford a drop in volume of traffic or revenue that your site generates, the golden rule is make sure it exists or at least replaced and works (i.e. converts) on the new website.
Other points to remember in this pre-migration process:
- Ensure the test website doesn’t appear on Google (other search engines are available). The most secure way to handle this is to password protect your test site or only allow access to certain IP ranges- password is simpler and we do this by default on our web development projects.
- Check in advance and record your organic keyword rankings – you need something to compare.
- Crawl your old site and keep a record of the URLs. You can usually export to Excel and save on your computer. We recommend Screaming Frog (you’ll need the paid version if your website has over 500 URLs but it’s worth buying).
- Check the speed of some key pages (e.g. homepage, category, product page, blog posts etc). Pingdom Speed Test is great for this for this, it’s Free! If loading times have increased, why? You will be penalised for this.
- Crawl the test version of your website (check for issues above and look for any errors such as 404 pages, 500 internal server errors etc).
- Setup a 404 page for the new website.
- If you’re moving to a new domain, add a landing page on the new domain in advance of going live. It helps Google understand a new website quicker.
- Google Analytics – keep the same profile if you can. You don’t want a blank canvas for your stats, it’s always good to have data to compare.
Golden rule: Keep the URLs of pages in the same structure as they are on the original website. This helps on two fronts; 1) This makes it easy for visitors to find the new pages (if they have bookmarks or have remembered them) and 2) it retains 100% of the authority that flows to the page.
However, if your site has URLs are not user or search engine friendly, this is a good opportunity to optimise them! Examples of URLs that aren’t friendly to search engines are ones with query strings. For example:
www.yourwebsite.com/category-name/product-name is much better than www.yourwebsite.com?category=1&product_id=32
301 Redirect URLs
What’s a 301 redirect? Well, it’s a redirect that transfers a user from one URL to another. “301 Moved Permanently” is the official title. The 301 redirect ensures authority is passed from the old to the new URLs, which is why you should avoid a 302 which is considered for temporary change in URLs. Using the correct redirect type prevents a those huge dips in traffic and Google and alike will be able to know where they are going without guessing..
When URLs have changed, each old page must have a 301 redirect pointing to the new page. Absolutely critical. Even if there isn’t an equivalent page you can redirect to a relevant page. It’s much better than getting to a 404 not found page.
At the end of the day, just think of the person who’s using your website – if a page doesn’t exist any more, what is the best page on the new website for them to land on? Keep their frustration to a minimum! You want them as a customer then make it an easy journey to purchase. In rare cases it might be better for an old page to point to a 404 page – if the 404 page is useful in providing lots of possible solutions to a visitor, otherwise forget it.
Other Redirect Considerations
Create your spreadsheet
Plan ahead by creating a spreadsheet which lists the old URLs and the new URL they will be mapping to.
Avoid redirect chains
Redirect chains should be avoided; If you redirect to a page that is already redirecting then it’s considered as having a negative impact.
How do I setup redirects?
On Apache servers (PHP/MySQL websites usually run on Apache) URLs are redirected in the .htaccess file. Some CMSs allow 301 redirects to be inputted. WordPress has the “Simple 301 Redirects” plugin. In Magento, go to Catalog > Url Rewrite Management.
Always remember to 301 redirect!
Once your new website is complete and online and your redirects have been implemented, there are a number of important checks to complete;
Check redirects are working. You don’t have to do the entire sheet but randomly pick a few and try them for yourself.
Check analytics is hooked up and correctly recording visits to the new website (Google Analytics’ Realtime is the best way to do this).
If the domain has changed (e.g. from yourwebsite.com to your.website) then you must notify Google of this change using Webmaster Tools and also don’t forget to use Bing’s Site Move tool. Keep control of the old domain for as long as possible, don’t let it expire immediately – especially if it has high authority links you’re unable to get changed.
Run a crawl of the new website now it’s live and check for issues once more i.e. 404 pages, 500 server errors, crawl restrictions (meta, robots.txt or noindex in HTML) and canonical implementations. You can use Screaming Frog to verify your analytics is running on every page.
You should use Screaming Frog to crawl the list of URLs you saved from the old website to make sure any redirects match up as you’re expecting and to check for any unexpected 404 errors. In Screaming Frog Spider you can see this under the “Response Codes” tab use a filter on “Client Error (4xx)” and “Redirection (3xx)”.
Leave your existing site map online for a few weeks after the website has been re-launched which allows Google to find the 301 redirects to the new URLs. After this time period has passed (you can see when Google has been past using Webmaster Tools) the sitemap should be updated with new pages only and submit it again to Google Webmaster Tools, and linked to in your robots.txt file.
Don’t forget to check robots.txt and ensure that’s up-to-date – We see this often, entire sites can be excluded from Google using robots.txt to block it during testing.
After a couple of weeks
If URLs on your site have changed they don’t forget to update places that are referring to them (even if 301 permanent redirects are in place). This can apply to external links from partners or blogs (prioritising the most important, contact them one by one), Google AdWords (which doesn’t like URL redirects so your ads must point to the right place) and any affiliate schemes you are part of (which will most likely not track correctly with redirects).
Check regularly in Webmaster Tools for crawl errors, reviewing HTML improvement suggestions and monitoring changes in performance (e.g. crawl rate) in Google and Bing Webmaster Tools are all advised.
Monitor your analytics for visits to 404 pages if a particular URL is receiving a lot of visits it might be worth permanently redirecting it if there is another similar or more useful page.
Even with the best plans in the world, URLs can of course be missed out. There’s a wealth of tools available for finding broken links on a site, Link Juice Recovery is a huge help here as it combines both these tasks into one easy tool.
Try site searches on Google to see how Google is indexing the new website (e.g. site:example.com) and if old URLs remain. Look at the timestamps on cached pages before you start to panic.
Monitor any changes in organic rankings, traffic and conversions. Some fluctuations are always to be expected, but take time to investigate anything major – the sooner you act, the greater chance of recovering quickly. If conversion rates drop or rise for particular pages you need to investigate the cause, fast. Likewise if your bounce rate rises, investigate!
Migrating to HTTPS
There are several extra things to be aware of if you’re migrating from HTTP to HTTPS – which is extremely recommended as Google now favours HTTPS traffic.
- If you’re migrating to a fully secure (HTTPS enabled) website, it’s worth noting that SSL websites can be slighlty slower than unencrypted websites
- All http URLs need redirecting to https – this can usually be achieved with one simple rule htaccess rule
- If you use canonical meta tags, make sure they too are updated to https
- Update all internal http references e.g. images and CSS files
- Check all pages for SSL errors and warnings
- Still struggling? Check Why No Padlock
Website migration checklist
- Audit your existing website to identify issues that should be avoided on the site
- Prioritise certain high performing pages/sections (e.g. the stuff that make the most money)
- Keep a record of current organic keyword rankings for comparison later
- Check the page load speed of key pages
- Crawl your old website and keep a record of the URLs so you can cross reference later
- Ensure test website doesn’t appear in search indexes by adding password protection
- Crawl the test website to spot errors that can be fixed before you go live
- Prepare a useful 404 page which more than just a polite message
- Keep the same analytics profile, so pre and post-launch data can be comapred
- Where possible keep URLs identical
- If URLs change or don’t exist on the new site 301 redirect them
- Create a spreadsheet of old URLs and the new URL they correspond to
- Avoid redirect chains
- Make sure your test site blocking has not carried forward (remove any password restrictions)
- Check redirects are working properly
- Crawl URLs from the old site to check 301 redirects are going to the right place
- If the domain has changed, notify search engines using Webmaster tools
- Check analytics is recording traffic
- Crawl the new website and check for errors
- Keep existing XML sitemaps available for 2-3 weeks so Google sniffs out your redircts
- Check robots.txt is up-to-date
- Compare the loading time of all key pages
- Update URLs that have changed
- Check for new crawl errors and changes in Google Webmaster Tools
- Check if visitors are landing on 404 pages more than expected
- Monitor changes in your organic page rankings, your traffic levels and of course conversions