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If you own or optimize a site for long enough, you’ll eventually find yourself staring down the barrel of a website migration. Website migrations can be a difficult technical process to go through, regardless of skill level, and one wrong step could mean severe consequences for your organic search traffic, with long-term effects on your SEO. In this article we'll go over some key techniques for you to implement before, during and after your new site goes live that will limit potential negative impact on your SEO efforts.

First, what is a migration? Simply put, it’s moving your web files from one domain, server or platform to another. Website owners undertake site migrations for any number of reasons:

  • Improving security: This is arguably the number one reason you should undergo a website move. Back in 2014, Google announced that they use site SSL security as a ranking signal: Using HTTPS gets you a boost over pages that don’t.

  • Moving from subdomain to domain: Google still has trouble attributing ranking signals from a subdomain to its domain. So if you’ve got your blog hosted at blog.example.com, it’s likely that you’re not going to see any of the link and authority benefits of having a blog.

  • Going global: When launching an international site, it’s common to change from a country-specific top-level domain (TLD) to the more widely-accepted .com. If you’re creating an international site in multiple languages, remember to use hreflang tags to target the right countries and languages and to avoid duplicate content.

  • Rebranding: Maybe you’ve recently changed a brand or product, changed your business name or revamped your logo. This will most likely result in some major changes to your user experience and site design.

Bear in mind that moving your site to a new domain isn’t going to get you out of a penalty. If you have messages in Google Search Console telling you about unnatural links, that penalty will be passed through redirects to your new site. In fact, attempting to migrate your content without resolving penalties will be seen as an attempt to cheat and could hurt you even more.

What to Consider Before Migrating

  1. Block bot access to your new site until you’re ready to take your old one down. If they both are live in parallel you’ll be hosting duplicate content, which will damage your new site’s ability to rank in search results. There are two ways you can do this. The first is by using your robots.txt file. Prevent crawler access to the entire server using the following robots.txt:

    User-agent:*

    Disallow: /

The asterisks, or wildcard, sets the Disallow line for all robots. The slash in the Disallow line indicates that the entire domain is inaccessible. To make extra sure spiders don’t crawl your page if they somehow find a link, add the "noindex” meta tag. This will block search engine bots from indexing anything after the section. It looks like this:

<meta name="robots” content=”noindex”>

Note: Make sure you update your robots.txt and meta tag to allow search engine spiders access when you site goes live. It won’t get indexed if you don’t!

The goal is always the same – to make the migration as smooth as possible, without losing any of the SEO strength built up on the current site.

Impossible? Not if you are careful to watch out for these three things:

  1. What do you have on the old site?
  2. What do you have on the new site?
  3. How can you connect them?

Here are the 3 phases of site migration and what to do during each phase:

Pre-Migration Migration Post-Migration
Know what you have on the current site. Redirect old site links to new site pages. Double check all redirects.
Understand any issues you have on the current site. Make sure your new hosting/site/CMS doesn’t have any issues that you have seen on the old site (or new issues). Check the site performance with WooRank advanced reviews.
Map out the structure of the current site. Double check the on-page, HTTP status, indexing and canonical details.

A crawler is an indispensable tool to use for site migration. WooRank has a site crawler for advanced analysis that helps you map out pages with issues and required actions across any site.

Whether you are in the pre-migration or post-migration phase, the WooRank site crawler will help you.

This site crawler delivers results under 4 sections:

WooRank Site Crawl Indexing section

Pre-migration:

  1. Create a spreadsheet with an inventory of all your current URLs. You can use a crawler like ScreamingFrog or DeepCrawl to find all your URLs. Or, you can export your URLs from your CMS or your Google Analytics account. Remember, that only pages that have received traffic will show up in Analytics. Once you’ve got a list of all your existing pages, map them to your corresponding new URLs. This will make it much easier to implement your redirects later.

  2. Create benchmarks of your current traffic. There are a few tools for this step:

  3. Google Analytics: Monitor your current organic traffic levels. Record your visits and bounce rate to compare against when you launch the new site.

  4. WooRank SERP Checker: Record how your legacy homepage ranks for your target keywords. Don’t just benchmark one or two; track as many as you can to get the most accurate picture. Start tracking your rankings several weeks before you start your migration so you can tell if any change is part of a larger trend or due to your migration.

  5. Google Search Console: Check Google Search Console to track your number of indexed pages. Find this Index Status data in the Google Index section. If the number of indexed pages doesn’t recover, that means you have issues with your site’s crawlability.

Track indexed sites in Google Search Console

  1. Create an XML sitemap for your new domain. Sitemaps contain a list every URL in your site, as well as information about their importance, update frequency and when they were last changed. Submit your sitemap to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools to find any errors. This will help your new pages get indexed more quickly.

  2. Create an inventory of your existing content, title tags and meta descriptions. This will help you maintain your current rankings in search results or even improve them, if you do some extra keyword research and tweak your content accordingly

When You’re Set to Go Live

Once you’ve built your new site and set the foundation for your migration, it’s time to use some tactics to make sure you aren’t hosting duplicate content and that you are carrying over as much link juice as you can.

Majestic backlinks checker

After You’ve Gone Live

Alright, now that you’ve built yourself a sturdy SEO foundation, it’s time for your new site to go live! Your work as an SEO, however, isn’t done yet. You need to run tests and monitor key metrics to catch any errors before they cause serious damage to your new site’s SEO.

If you added the "noindex" meta tag to your pages, make sure it’s been removed, or the crawlers will index your URL, but not the content.

Post-migration:

WooRank Site Crawl on-page title tag issues

2. HTTP Status

HTTP status is another factor you will need to check in both pre- and post-migration. Here’s what to look for in your WooRank results:

  1. 5xx errors
  2. 4xx errors
  3. 3xx redirect errors
  4. HTTP/HTTPs inconsistencies

5xx Errors:

4xx Errors:

3xx Redirects:

HTTP/HTTPS inconsistencies:

3. Indexing

Pre-migration:

When creating the new site, watch for these factors:

If you have any non-indexable, disallowed or nofollow pages, make sure it is for a good reason. Otherwise, all pages should be indexable, allowed and have the FOLLOW attribute in order to build SEO value.

WooRank Site Crawl non-indexable pages

4. Canonical

This section of your WooRank results is essential for a successful site migration because:

  1. Canonical tags help search engines know which pages should be considered original – ‘canonical’ – and which should not.
  2. Having canonical issues means the tags cannot be accessed, are missing or point to broken URLs. In any case, it is important to address the issue and add the necessary tags to ensure you are not diluting the page’s SEO strength.
  3. Broken hreflang issues: When a page’s hreflang tag is non-existent or leads to a broken page. The role of hreflang is to tell search engines which URL belongs to which language and/or geographical audience.

WooRank Site Crawl canonical section

Play the Waiting Game

Like almost everything else in SEO, managing your site migration is an ongoing process. You need to be constantly checking tools like Google Search Console, SERP Checker and Google Analytics to make sure search engines are finding, crawling and indexing your new pages. Occasionally do a Google search for your target keywords to make sure your new URLs are replacing the old ones and that the sitelinks for your top pages (About Us, Categories, Contact Us, etc.) are appearing correctly. Use Search Console to demote irrelevant sitelinks.

Remember, it usually takes some time for the search engines to figure out how things have changed after your migration. It’s normal to see a drop in traffic after making such a huge change, so don’t jump to any conclusions right away. Monitor and measure your rankings and indexing for a few weeks, generally 3-4, for fluctuations to even out and sudden drops to recover a bit.

Takeaway

Site migration is never an easy process and the complexity will depend on the size and conditions of the sites you are moving from and to.

The key to success is preparation.

If you follow all the above steps before migration, during migration and after migration, you will be able to secure the smoothest and most SEO friendly migration possible.

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