A Complete Step-By-Step Guide to A Successful Website Migration


by Drago Djukic | Jun 21, 2022

A Complete Step-By-Step Guide to A Successful Website Migration

Website migrations are a complex process – one of the most challenging tasks for any SEO expert. Dropping in Google rankings, broken links, decreased conversion rates – they’re a minefield filled with potential pitfalls, where even a small oversight can have massive consequences. If you want your website migration to go as smoothly as possible, you need to do rigorous research, plan ahead and have a roadmap in place.

Imagine getting glowing traffic and ranking reports after a smooth transition. To get there, you’ll need to prepare, level up, and win a few battles on your way to the top. However, website migrations can be easy to complete with the right strategies, analyses, and guidance.

The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide you’re not going to stay where you are. And we’re here to guide you through your departure every step of the way. Ready to learn how to migrate your website successfully while safeguarding your SEO, traffic, leads, and revenue?

Buckle up!

Introduction to Website Migration

Website migration – a phrase that makes SEOs, PPC-ers, site owners and stakeholders wince. Migrations are notorious for being both complex and fraught with potential problems.

Yes, every site migration comes with its own challenges but with the help of our all-in-one guide, you’ll be able to learn the ropes and take the precautions you need to ensure your site has the best chance for a smooth transition to your new destination.

Enter successful website migration!

What Is a Site Migration?

A site migration is the process of migrating a website from one domain to another. In SEO terms, website migration involves any substantial change that a site undergoes, such as the inclusion of a mobile version or the upgrade to a more secure protocol like HTTPS.

Moving to a New CMS or Framework

Website migration is not without its risks, but staying on an outdated CMS or framework is far more detrimental to your website’s success than losing some of the content in the migration. If the limitations of your current CMS are beginning to affect your website’s performance, your audience is going to get frustrated and slowly abandon your website in search of a more optimal user experience. Welcome, bounce rates!

Due to the inherent risks of website content migration such as mixed content issues and duplicate content, you should always make sure that you’ve exhausted all other options before deciding to move the website to a new platform. Choosing the right CRM for your needs and enhancing it for ultimate performance gain is out of the scope of this article, but it’s definitely worth exploring on your own.

Reasons to Migrate Your Website

There are several reasons why people usually want to get into a process that’s as challenging and complex as website migration. The most common reasons for site migration include:

  • Moving to a new CMS or framework
  • Adding a mobile version
  • Moving from HTTP to HTTPS
  • Moving to a new server (“server migration”)
  • Changing the domain name

Reworking your entire website is not to be taken lightly. You should have a clear and data-backed reason why you’re doing it before you initiate the website migration process.

It’s not something you should do on a hunch. If you’re feeling like your website is underperforming, you should explore all other potential reasons behind it before deciding to migrate the entire website.

Consider website navigation, your customer’s journey, overall user experience, and the quality of your content. Only when you’ve exhausted all the other options available should you even consider treating website design and architecture as potential culprits.

Free SEO Audit

To get the hang of things, utilize our free audit. Find out how to achieve more search traffic with this free SEO analysis. Upon completion, you will receive an email with a detailed report explaining all the SEO errors you need to fix in order to improve your rankings.

Adding a Mobile Version

Have no doubt about it — we’re living in a mobile-centric era of technology that shows no signs of changing any time soon. So, it really comes as no surprise that many businesses have redoubled their efforts to reach the audience browsing on mobile devices and thus adapted their websites to be more mobile-friendly.

With the importance of mobile-first indexing and the overbearing ratio of mobile to desktop traffic, it’s only understandable that you’d want to make your website more accessible to mobile devices. Website migration is sometimes more than necessary to achieve that goal. Building a mobile-friendly website that renders properly across different devices and browsers ensures that your website ranks properly.

Moving from HTTP to HTTPS

Why bother with HTTPS in the first place? Because it provides confidentiality, integrity, authentication. Not having HTTPS in this day and age is detrimental to both the user experience and SEO in the long run. Encrypting all communication and making your website tamper-proof adds a layer of security that all internet users have come to expect.

Seeing a popup warning you that a page you’re about to visit is unsecured only makes visitors think twice about giving you their time of day. That’s why you should seriously consider website migration if you’re still relying on outdated HTTP.

Before You Start the Website Migration

Preparing to launch? If you’ve determined you have a proper reason to proceed with the website migration process, there are a couple of things you should know and do, before you get down to it.

We’ve put together a site migration checklist of all the steps you should take before initiating the process:

  • Let your users know you’ll be moving your website. No matter how prepared you are for site migration, it’s a process prone to errors and mishaps. It’s best to warn your audience of potential issues until you get everything sorted out.
  • Move your website piece by piece. If you try to migrate your entire website all at once, you won’t be able to foresee all the potential breakdowns that can occur down the road. Create a sample website first, see how it feels, test it out, and then begin the website migration process.
  • Do one WP migration at a time. Making substantial changes to your website requires careful planning. If you’re both changing the website architecture and getting a new domain name, you should do one before the other. Trying to make such major changes at the same time will result in more headaches down the line. As tempting as it may be, killing two birds with one stone is not the answer in this case.
  • Wait for a low-traffic time. You might want to postpone website migration, depending on when the majority of your audience uses your website. Avoid migrating during peak hours to minimize the impact of the migration and the problems it often causes. On top of that, Google Bots will crawl your website faster thanks to reduced server load. Now we’re talking about getting two birds with one stone!
  • Be prepared for anything. Site migration is no laughing matter. So, do your best to expect the unexpected.

Keep this preparatory site migration checklist close, and you should be more prepared to tackle any difficulties that may arise during or after the migration process.

 

 

Preparing for Migration

It’s time to get your website ready for migration. This part of the migration process involves making backups and reference points that you can use to compare the performance of your new website with its former, or should we say shadow self.

Data Collection

Collecting all the data involves performing detailed SEO audits to check the health of your website and position tracking to keep an eye out on rankings. It’s also the ideal time for a content audit to see how the website’s content is holding up.

Setting up analytical tools for the current state of the website will help you compare and contrast site metrics ahead of the upcoming changes.

Plan the Move and Benchmark Your Current Site

Planning website migration involves setting clear objectives as to why you’re making the move in the first place, i.e., what you want to achieve with migration. It also includes estimations as to how long you expect the process to last.

Make sure that you have a team of people with varied skill sets who can help you get the job done right. Site migration requires webmaster engineers, SEOs, analysts, UX, and content specialists, at the very least. If these separate teams don’t cooperate on the migration project from day one, they are going to have a much harder time predicting potential problems, stopping them in their tracks, and solving them before they even happen.

Make a Copy of Your Site

This step involves making a copy of your website and uploading it to a new server, also known as server migration. Otherwise, you won’t be able to test any of the changes you’re making.

To optimize your tests, make sure to use a test site on a separate domain or subdomain. Once you have a copy of the site, set up your CDN (content delivery network) for the test site.

Block Access to Your New Site

If search engines attempt to index your new version of the website before the migration process is finished, it could appear in SERPs and compete with the existing version of the website.

You can block access to your new site using a couple of different methods:

  • Robots.txtPassword protection
  • Noindex tag
  • Let’s explain the robots.txt file first

Using the robots.txt file is an easy method of disallowing indexing and preventing Google Bots from crawling your website until the migration process is finished. However, you still need to give access to the migration tools you’ll be using in the process, so don’t forget to include those in the file.

For example, even though you’d want to block Google, you might still need to use Ahrefs tools for auditing. What you have to do is include the following directives in your robot.txt file:

User-agent: Googlebot

Disallow: /

User-agent: AhrefsBot

Allow: /

One of the alternatives to using the robot.txt file is setting authorization rules. Enter the credentials in the settings of the tool you’ll be using to carry out the audit of the website. This will allow it to bypass the restrictions and still let you keep the password protection on.

Finally, there’s the noindex tag. However, since noindex blocks both Google Bots and SEO audit tools from crawling your website, you’ll have to disable it before migrating.

Note: Using the noindex tag also prevents bots from crawling (including the Site Audit tool), and you’ll need to delete said tag before migrating. Note down all the URLs with the noindex tag before migration.

Check Your New Site for Errors

You can set up a new site audit project that will analyze the test subdomain in its crawl scope and reveal any potential technical errors that might exist. This is a foolproof method of checking your new site for errors before proceeding to the next step. After all, prevention is the best medicine.

Check If Google Can Access Your New Site

There is one simple method you can use to test if Google can access your new site. Add the temporary hostname of your test subdomain to Search Console. Then, use the Coverage report to ensure that JavaScript can be crawled and indexed as well.

Googlebot will need temporary access to your website in order to test it out. As soon as you’ve ensured that the site has no indexing issues, restrict access to your test site once again.

Check DNS Time-to-Live Values

A Domain Naming System (DNS) translates the user-readable name of the website into the correct IP address. It’s the type of information computers can understand, as opposed to what the users can remember.

Migration of a website often requires a change of IP address. In that case, your DNS records will require an update, and updates translate to downtime for your site. To keep the downtime to a minimum, you can adjust the Time-to-live (TTL) values of the DNS entries on your website.

The TTL values specify how long the DNS record is maintained. Lowering the TTL value before migration will speed up the process of DNS change. Once migration is complete, you can simply reverse the values.

Copy the Google Analytics Tracking Code to the New Site

Even though you’re migrating your website, you’ll still need access to all the historical data Google Analytics has accrued up to that point. To transfer all of that data to the new website, you’ll have to copy your Google Analytics tracking code from the current website to the new version of the site.

Creating a New URL Mapping

Whilst it may be tempting to apply a blanket rule to redirect every URL of the old site, it is best to analyze and consider the SEO value of the entire site and redirect every URL to the most relevant page of the new site.

Create a List of Your Current Urls

URL mapping is the necessary first step in the site migration process. List all of the URLs on your current site and match them with the URLs on your new site.

Find the most important pages of your site content-wise, traffic-wise, and link-wise. Start with your sitemaps, if they have up-to-date page information. You need to gather all of the content (including images and videos) that you want to be available on your new site.

  • Different sources can help you achieve different goals
  • Use Search Console to find all of the indexed pages
  • Google Analytics can find the pages that have traffic
  • Site Audit can filter out pages with a specific status code
  • Backlink Аnalytics will help you find the pages of your site with backlinks
  • Position Tracking can sort out the high-ranking pages of your website
  • Screaming Frog can export all HTML pages.

To avoid duplicates in your URL list, compile all the data in a single file.

Find URLs That Require Redirects

Whenever the URL structure of a site changes, you need to find URLs that require redirects. Without 301 redirects, new pages won’t be able to get the traffic of the old pages. The same goes for their previous PageRank, which will result in major hits to your rankings.

To prevent this from happening, you need to match all of the old URLs to the new ones. That will reveal all of the pages that require the redirect.

Create a 301 Redirect Map

Now that you have finished the previous step and mapped all the URLs of your old and new website, and found out which pages are missing from your new site, you’ll need to fix it. That way, you will keep your PageRank afloat and your backlinks will remain operational.

You will need to find a new destination on the new site for each and every one of the missing pages that you have. It’s of utmost importance to pay as much attention as you can when setting up redirects, as it’s quite important for a multitude of reasons. We recommend that you use a server-side 301 redirect so that your old URLs will be excluded from the index, and your redirects will still be working when you cancel your current hosting service.

Do not redirect all of your pages to a single page. It is quite common to use the main page as a destination for redirects, but it is bad practice. It confuses users, and search engines may consider the page a soft 404 error, which hurts rankings. In some cases, redirecting to a category page or the main page is a viable option, but try to minimize these. The best way is to find a relevant page for a redirect or create a new page with relevant content.

If you do not need a new page, we recommend you change the server response of a broken page from 404 to 410. The 410 status code means that the page is permanently gone, and tells the search engine bots to remove the link from their index.

Careless redirects can end up creating redirect loops, chains, and dead ends. You can always re-run your Site Audit campaign to see if everything works well.

Update All URLs

There’s only one more step you need to take to prepare your URLs for successful site migration. All that’s left for you to do is update the details of all URLs.

First of all, you need to update annotations in the HTML or the Sitemap file. What that entails is updating the rel-alternate-hreflang annotations if your website has multilingual pages. If your website has a mobile version, you’ll also need to update the rel-alternate-media annotations. Moreover, every URL should have a self-referencing rel=”canonical”.

Secondly, you’ll need to fix the internal linking structure on the new site. That involves changing all of the old URLs to the new ones.

Finally, put together a list of websites linking to your content and separate Sitemaps with old and new URLs.

Launch Day: Starting the Migration

Finally, you’ve finished your rigorous testing, you’ve set everything up, and everything is in place for the big button push. However, don’t get comfortable just yet! There are still a few matters that require your attention.

Remove All Temporary Website Blocks

It’s time to initiate the website migration process. You need to make it accessible to both the users and the search engine crawlers. You can remove any blocks you’ve put in place to prevent your two websites from competing with one another. Use the Site Audit Crawlability thematic report to check if all the blocks have been removed successfully.

Evaluate the Complexity

Small sites rarely face any challenges during the website migration process. Different pages can have different issues and throw unexpected errors your way, so the fewer pages there are, the less likely you are to run into too much trouble. In that scenario, you could migrate the entire website without a single hitch.

However, the larger the website – the more complex the entire process gets. The more pages there are, the greater the odds of something going wrong. That’s why one of the website migration best practices involves moving only one fragment of the website at a time.

How you fragment the migration is entirely up to you. What matters is that you run tests after migrating every bit of your website to ensure that everything is operating smoothly.

Record the Current Site Status and Create Content Backup

Record the current site status one last time and make all necessary backups. This will allow you to analyze and fix any problems that might occur and be prepared to deal with them if anything goes south. The backup needs to include all of the content, as well as meta tags.

Ensure your Position Tracking and Site Audit campaigns are set up and updated.

Enable Redirection

It’s time to enable all the redirects you already set up.

Re-run your Site Audit campaign to make sure there are no new 4xx errors in the Issues tab. Then, you can sort the Report for Permanent redirects, and go over the list to make sure all the page and link URLs are correct.

Make Sure Your Website Is Verified with Google Search Console

After a successful website migration, you usually need to ensure that the ownership of the website is still valid. Usually, people use an HTML file as a verification method, so make sure that file exists on your new website. You’ll need it to verify the ownership with the Google Search Console.

Update All Your Links

What follows involves updating as many links as you can. This goes for all types of links, including backlinks, internal links, ad campaigns, social media links, etc.

The first step includes reaching out to all the sites linking back to you and asking them to change the links so that they point to your new website. Alternatively, you could set up 301 redirects if getting all the links changed isn’t possible. In fact, you should have 301 redirects in place either way. Likewise, all your ad campaigns should now point to new landing pages instead of the old ones.

After that is out of the way, update the links located in your social media profiles. Finish this step off by running a site audit to locate all the internal links with redirects. Make sure to eliminate unnecessary loops to avoid losing out on valuable performance.

Submit Your Disavow Links to Google Search Console

If you haven’t changed your mind about letting all those low-quality backlinks through and have a new Search Console account, you will have to upload your disavow file again. It has to be available on your new website to prevent suspicious links from damaging your authority and reputation.

Monitoring Your Migration

If you don’t rigorously monitor your website after migration, a small and straightforward mistake could lead to catastrophic consequences. Whether it’s a website rebranding, a consolidation of different web properties, or an HTTP to HTTPS migration, when you are implementing a structural web change, it is critical to monitor the crawling, indexing, rankings, traffic, and organic search conversions on both the old and new web locations.

Carefully monitoring your website post – migration will enable you to fix any potential problems as they arise.

Check if Your Site Has Any Issues

Once the migration is complete, re-run your site audit campaign to see how many issues you’re up against.

The Compare Crawl tab will reveal if there were any issues since the last audit. Besides showing new issues, Compare Crawl will also list all the issues that were fixed since the last audit.

Check the Performance of Your New Site

Page load speed is one of the most important performance indicators. It’s not only crucial for an excellent user experience, but it also defines the speed at which Google bots index your new pages, as their speed is tied to that of your website. No matter what your objectives are, you need all the page load speed you can get, so pay as much attention to the performance of your new website as you can.

For this reason, you need to check performance time and time again to ensure it’s running at its best. You can’t recheck page load speed enough times. It’s an ongoing process that you should prioritize even after all of the pages have been indexed. Users will always appreciate an efficient page experience. It’s up to you to make sure that the new website configuration can deal with an influx of users and crawlers alike.

Use an up-to-date recrawl of Site Audit and inspect the Performance thematic report to get all the performance-related information you need. Site Speed report in Google Analytics can reveal how fast the users interact with your pages. Their individual experience depends on the browser they’re using and visitors usually face more issues than crawlers.

Track Indexing of Your New Pages

To track the indexing of your new pages (and deindexing of the old ones) upload the Sitemaps for both the old and new URLs to Google Search Console. You’ll be able to see which one of the old URLs remains indexed and monitor the indexing of the new pages. In the end, all of the old URLs should be gone and your new website completely indexed.

Track Your Positions

Even if you do everything right and keep issues down to a minimum, you’re still likely going to see a temporary drop in rankings. Keeping track of your positions for both desktop and mobile while waiting for the rankings to recover, as they usually do, is imperative. They should get back to their previous level in a matter of weeks, so patience is key.

However, if more than a couple of weeks pass and your rankings haven’t gotten back up, you should analyze everything you can to determine the cause of the issue. To that end, we’ll provide a section on troubleshooting below, so that you can take care of this problem quickly and efficiently and nip it in the bud.

Troubleshooting Checklist

Since website migration is a fairly complex process, it’s highly unlikely everything will go according to plan. You might find that your rankings have dropped or that the organic traffic income has decreased. In some cases, your audience’s behavior might hint at a potential problem.

If there’s an issue, something will give it away – at least you can count on that. When that happens, you can use the advice we provide in this section to troubleshoot your problem and get to the bottom of it.

  1. First, you need to know where exactly are you losing all the traffic. Is the entire website the issue, or is it just a couple of specific pages that are acting up?
  2. Find out if the source of the lost traffic is ads, backlinks, or organic traffic. Get to know your enemy.
  3. In the case of lost traffic from backlinks or ads, you should recheck the redirects to see if you matched all the URLs properly.
  4. In the case of lost organic traffic, inspect your Position Tracking campaign to see if your rankings are fine.
  5. When it comes to web pages acting up, if it’s only a select few that are losing positions, compare the content on the new site with content from your backup. Check if there are any changes in content and meta tags.
  6. However, if it’s an issue affecting a great many pages, run the site audit again and follow the tool’s instructions to troubleshoot any potential technical issues.
  7. If you don’t know what to do about the underperforming pages, use the On-Page SEO Checker tool to get some optimization ideas you maybe haven’t thought of before.
  8. Not all issues are of technical nature, and these are, unfortunately, the most difficult ones to troubleshoot. Growing bounce and exit rates accompanied by a drop in conversion rates might just point to your audience simply being displeased with the migration. If that’s the case, the best solution is to create a customer’s journey map and find out what it is that your audience is missing. When you do, make sure to provide them with what they are looking for, to avoid even worse bounce rates and conversion rates.

Wrapping Up After a Successful Migration Journey

There’s no question about it — website migration is a delicate process and quite a complex subject. It’s never to be taken lightly, as even when you’re completely prepared for what’s coming, unexpected situations can still occur. You need to know exactly what you’re getting into and for what reason — site migration should always be your last resort, never your first choice.

By following our comprehensive website migration guide step by step, you’ll be able to keep potential issues down to a minimum and migrate the site smoothly, with only minor setbacks. The end result will be an optimally running website that will outperform the previous one and get you closer to reaching your business objectives.

Ready to skyrocket your website and launch it to new heights? 3…2…1… Migrate!

 

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