If an ecommerce site can’t be found in organic search engine results, does it even exist?
It doesn’t matter if you sell across multiple channels or not—ranking at the top of search engine results pages is the price of admission to compete in the product discovery and consideration phases of a customer’s buying journey.
According to one report, 31% of consumers use search engines to discover new products. Millennials, in particular, are search savvy—for 38% of millennial consumers, Google is one of the most important places they look for ideas on products or brands to buy.
But what happens if you decide to replatform, move domains, or change your ecommerce website’s architecture? The rankings you’ve worked so hard to build are vulnerable. With the right SEO migration strategy, you can not only maintain those rankings, but also boost organic traffic and sales after making the switch.
Table of Contents
- What is a website SEO site migration?
- Reasons for a site migration
- Risks of an SEO migration
- SEO migration checklist
- SEO site migration FAQ
What is a website SEO migration?
A website SEO migration is the process of moving a website while retaining its SEO performance. Many ecommerce merchants go through the migration process if they’re replatforming—like moving to Shopify Plus from other ecommerce platforms.
Reasons for an SEO site migration
The reasons for an SEO migration can vary. Most often, ecommerce brands go through the website migration process for the following reasons:
The old ecommerce platform is no longer fit for purpose
A slow, clunky software that can’t handle your traffic or your business needs is a big reason to migrate your site.
Jason Berkowitz, SEO director at Break the Web, has seen brands that are on buggy, old-fashioned web platforms.
“As a result, server speeds were slow, limitations on information architecture existed, and inventory updates for the in-house team were a nightmare,” Jason says.
The site structure needs to change
Problems can arise if the site’s navigation is confusing for users or search engines. An SEO migration is needed to prevent legacy pages from losing organic rankings.
Many ecommerce brands start with a variation of their brand name for their domain, such as try(brand).com or use(brand).com..
Once the idea has been validated, they invest in a new, shorter domain (brand.com). You may also want to move your domain to improve security and streamline your business processes.
“We made the decision to migrate from our custom CMS to Shopify due to security vulnerabilities and our reliance on a single provider,” says Drew Mansur, co-founder and director at TileCloud. “We wanted a robust and secure platform with multiple support partners to ensure the long-term sustainability of our online presence.”
Risks of an SEO migration
While there are a lot of reasons why you might plan to migrate your site, and big benefits for doing so, there are risks involved. These include:
Losing organic traffic
Search engines regularly crawl your site and index each page, recording metrics like traffic, page speed and bounce rates, and factoring them into your rankings. Each site change between crawls can impact your rankings.
Changing on-page content, failing to tell search engines where your internal links moved, and letting outdated pages get lost are common site migration pitfalls.
Poor user experience
Customers expect seamless shopping experiences from online brands. If they land on your ecommerce store and see duplicate content or broken links, it breaks their trust.
Lower conversion rates
Poor user experiences contribute to low conversion rates, largely because 404 errors and duplicate content can diminish the trust a visitor has in your brand.
This impacts cart abandonment—18% of online shopping carts are abandoned because shoppers didn’t trust the website with sensitive information. Another 13% exit because the site crashed or had errors.
SEO migration checklist
- Back up your old site and metrics
- Isolate the website migration strategy
- Audit existing pages
- Map redirects one to one
- Track and fix 404 errors
- Minimize on-page changes
- Monitor duplicate content and use canonical URLs
- Make it mobile, make it fast
- Submit your sitemap
- Check analytics
- Monitor and fine-tune your SEO performance
The most important part of any successful website migration is having a solid plan. Include these items in your SEO migration to prevent important tasks from slipping through the cracks, ensure stakeholders are updated, and minimize the impact on user experience.
1. Back up your old site and metrics
Things can quickly go wrong when making changes to your website’s code, structure, or platform. Back up your old website and create a staging site for the new changes. If there are issues, you can reinstall the old version. Search engine crawlers won’t index the pages on your test site’s URL until they’re published.
It is also important to back up your metrics and data. Marketing consultant Devin Stagg recommends taking note of current site and SEO performance before starting a website migration.
“No matter the SEO tools your team uses, be sure to export and create a clear database of rankings, current traffic levels, etc., that you can use as a benchmark for the migration,” Devin says.
Devin suggests focusing on any dips in organic traffic in the days and weeks after launch.
“Having your pre-migration benchmarks handy can make this process much simpler to navigate,” Devin says.
2. Isolate the website migration strategy
Many ecommerce merchants fall into the trap of looking at an SEO migration as an opportunity to revamp their entire website. When you’re doing an SEO migration, it’s wise to stick to one change at a time. For example, if you’re migrating to a new ecommerce platform, keep your website’s design, content, domain name, and metadata the same.
“If a merchant changes too many things during migration, it’s hard to tell why the data points are changing,” says Carla Wright, merchant engagement lead at Shopify Plus who’s helped lead the replatforming SEO strategies of brands like ColourPop, Quay, Kylie, and CR7.
“Only after you’ve completed your migration and have a benchmark on your new platform should you begin implementing changes to your content strategy.”
If Google has been crawling your site for a while, a major overhaul—including the words and images on the page, meta descriptions, or your site architecture—will be noticed. This can lead to a reindex and a dip in your organic traffic.
The fewer site changes made during the replatforming process, the easier it’ll be to identify the root cause of any issues. That’s because you’ll have a baseline for measurement. It’s as important for testing site performance as it is for improving your overall conversion strategy.
3. Audit existing pages
Large ecommerce websites often have thousands of pages. Instead of migrating them all to your new site, review your existing pages and remove any holding dead weight. These are URLs with poor rankings that generate little to no organic traffic.
“When bringing over a new site or migration, you identify the key pages you want to keep or get rid of,” says Ryan Skidmore, SEO lead at Pura. “In a lot of cases there are pages that get little to no traffic, which can be deprecated and redirected to better pages.”
Not only does removing dead pages make your website migration easier, it can improve SEO performance. Search engines like Google reward sites with high-quality content. Once URLs with low traffic or rankings are removed and redirected, you’ll improve the ratio of great content on your domain.
Start by creating a list of all your current site pages, including their site traffic and keyword rankings. This will help you decide which ones are worth migrating and which should be redirected. Keep an eye out for 404 pages and any other orphan pages.
4. Map redirects one to one
It’s rare to simply switch ecommerce platforms while keeping the exact same URL structure across your site. Platforms like Shopify, for example, use a specific URL structure for product and category pages.
Redirects ensure visitors are still able to access the same content on new URLs while directing search engines to the new URLs and informing them the content is legit.
“If managed correctly, your migration will not result in any traffic loss,” says Carla Wright. “That involves informing search bots of the new URL of every page and making as few changes as possible to both the content and the structure of your site.”
Wright always advises merchants to spend time on their redirect mapping for accuracy. This is where your list of current URLs comes in handy. Use it to match each old URL to a new URL.
Focus on one-to-one redirection versus many-to-one. For example, avoid redirecting 100 product URLs to a collection. Instead, spend the time mapping each product URL to the same new URL.
Here’s an example of an ecommerce website that’s replatforming. The old URLs are redirected to the default Shopify URL structures to prevent 404 errors:
- website.com/clothing-category/shoes > shopify.com/collections/shoes
- website.com/white-blouse-size12 > shopify.com/products/white-blouse
- website.com/aboutus > shopify.com/pages/about-us
5. Track and fix 404 errors
Replatforming is a great time to identify and resolve 404 errors on your site—including those old internal links missed in your redirection strategy.
Also known as broken links, 404 errors are the virtual equivalent of a dead end. Shoppers land on these dead pages and their shopping experience is disrupted. They either go back to your homepage, hit the back button, or manually search for the item they want to buy.
SEO tools like Screaming Frog can crawl your ecommerce website and highlight broken links. If you find a URL that hasn’t already been moved, create a redirection in your website’s back end. Anyone who lands on this broken link will automatically be sent to the next-most-relevant page.
Top tip: This is a great time to optimize your 404 error page, if you haven’t already done so. Baby brand MORI apologizes for the error and points shoppers to its main product categories. This ensures customers get back to buying.
MORI’s 404 error page diverts shoppers to its most popular product categories.
6. Minimize on-page changes
Many SEO experts suggest keeping your site as identical as possible after you replatform to preserve your current rankings.
Paul Rogers, an ecommerce consultant at Vervaunt, says he’s seen ecommerce businesses lose 50% of their organic traffic and revenue post-migration because they overlooked and undervalued the impact of technical SEO. That includes forgetting to do the following:
- Mirroring the structure of the website. Ensuring all categories and non-primary pages receiving traffic are on the new site.
- Reviewing how dynamic pages are handled. Including filter pages, search pages, and pagination. This requires planning how you want them to be crawled and indexed on the new site.
When planned right, an SEO migration can improve a site’s performance and ranking.
As part of the SEO strategy, the agency focused on making it easier for search engines to index the site. It worked with the BackJoy team to run a number of tests, with the goal of converting more of the site’s newfound organic traffic. They tested product bundles as well as landing page and traffic source combinations.
Six months later, the site achieved a 22% lift in conversions.
“The conversion rate numbers are really good,” says Tre Vertuca, BackJoy’s president and COO. “We’re glad we can do a lot of this on our own now, but we’re also grateful to Interstellar and their expertise.”
7. Monitor duplicate content and use canonical URLs
While technical components impact SEO, your ecommerce platform should handle the basics. This frees up time to focus on creating content that attracts and converts your buyers.
Watch for pages with duplicate content—the same words or images used across multiple URLs. Search engine algorithms don’t like duplicate content because they don’t know which URL is most relevant for the search term. In some cases, both URLs can be ranked lower.
It’s not always possible to avoid. There are many reasons why your site might have duplicate content, including:
HTTP and HTTPs
Most software-as-service platforms default to hypertext transfer protocol secure (HTTPS) and should issue an SSL for every shop’s domain. If you miss a redirect from HTTP to HTTPS, the HTTP version would be accessible and would be hosting duplicate content.
Subdomains versus TLD
Using a number of top level domains (TLD) means you as a domain administrator also need to put in the extra work to inform a search engine that your two, or many, domains are related. Subdomains imply that to the search engine.
Whether you host your own dev shops or use additional stores for staging, be sure they include no-index tags. In the event that you remove the password on the development shop, you don’t want that indexed by a search bot.
In many of those cases, use canonical URLs (the most authoritative URL you want search engines to see) to direct search engines to the original content.
“Canonicals basically say to Google, ‘Hey, if there is more than one result, I want you to pick this one,’” says Carla Wright.
On Shopify, canonicals are set by default to help manage any duplicate content that is created over time. However, they are still editable to accommodate advanced SEO strategies.
If you have dynamic product pages that display different content each time they’re viewed, make sure they’re not indexable. These steps ensure your product pages won’t have diluted rankings and you won’t be penalized for duplicate content.
8. Make it mobile, make it fast
Google prioritizes the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages. This is called mobile-first indexing, which means Google uses the mobile version of a page for indexing and ranking to better help users find what they’re seeking.
Waiting for a slow loading page can be irritating. Google scores page speed as part of your ecommerce site’s search engine rankings.
A fast, mobile-first SEO and ecommerce website strategy is required to provide an optimal customer experience. That means:
Using accelerated mobile pages (AMP)
Organizing tag tracking
Limiting mobile pop-ups
If organic visitors land on your website and are greeted with a disrupting pop-up, there’s a chance they’ll leave. First-time visitors don’t know you or your products yet. Reserve pop-ups for pages with higher purchase intent.
9. Submit your sitemap
Submit a new XML sitemap through Google Search Console, which can speed up the indexing of your new website. Search engine crawlers will also highlight any SEO errors you missed throughout the website migration process.
10. Check analytics
Make sure your website is set up correctly in Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager for seamless data tracking. You can use the real-time analytics report in Google Analytics to quickly see if your website is getting traffic.
It is important that data is being collected accurately so you have a clear view of your site traffic, demographics, and customer journey post-migration. This will also ensure you’re making accurate comparisons between your old data and newly migrated site data.
A correct setup will help you identify any site performance issues that may have popped up during the migration. This includes 404 pages, which can be identified quickly and redirected for a better user experience.
Don’t panic if you’re seeing a drop in organic traffic. This is normal, as Google crawls and re-learns your site. Use Google Search Console to monitor how Google is crawling and indexing your pages and to help you identify errors that can be corrected quickly.
Organic traffic should bounce back, and can even exceed your previous organic traffic records. Still, it is important to monitor organic traffic on key pages such as your homepage to ensure authority is being transferred to your new site.
Monitor your site rankings post-migration, and use a tool like SEMrush to track keywords and see how you rank against competitors. This can help you identify any site issues before you see a significant drop in traffic.
11. Monitor and fine-tune SEO performance
With ever-changing algorithms and updates, SEO should be an ongoing part of your ecommerce growth strategy. You’ll need to keep the momentum going after you make the switch. Even if your site is performing well, it can always do better.
Think of your website migration as an opportunity to perform an SEO SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) on your site, which can provide you with valuable insights on how to move forward.
For further SEO growth opportunities, ask yourself these questions:
1. Is my content valuable and helpful to readers?
As Carla Wright says, this is the most important factor in your search engine rankings. Consider optimizing your product descriptions for SEO to build on the success you’ve achieved.
2. Does my site use meaningful and targeted keywords?
The more relevant your pages are to a user’s specific searches, the better. Keep an eye on which keywords your website is ranking for and which ones your competitors are using. Integrate more keywords into your website copy and metadata and create helpful content surrounding them to drive more organic traffic.
3. Does my site use HTTPS?
HTTPS stands for hypertext transfer protocol secure, which is an important trust signal for customers who give you private information or credit card information. Every domain on Shopify has an SSL certificate issued for it. Shopify Plus also gives you an EV certification, which is often overlooked.
4. Are my URLs optimized?
It’s important to ensure URLs are as straightforward and driven by the most relevant keywords for each product or page. URLs should be short and sweet at 75 characters or less, contain keywords, and use only alphanumeric characters.
5. Are my directory structures simple, with three or fewer levels of depth?
Sites can use specific markup code that makes it easy for search engines to understand page content and site structure. Well-structured sites are easy for users to navigate and for Google to understand. Keeping your site to three or fewer levels makes it simpler for Google to crawl and faster for shoppers to find what they’re looking for.
6. Is my site mobile-friendly and do pages load quickly?
It’s always a good time to test how your pages can be improved even further.
Don’t worry if you migrate to another platform and website performance takes a hit.
“You should expect a dip in SEO performance after Google consumes your redirects, identifies the new site, crawls every page, and transfers its authority, affecting your SEO keyword rankings,” says David Rubie, co-founder and CEO of Sticker it.
“My takeaway is that if there is a dip of about 20% for less than six weeks, you can consider that a successful migration.”
Retain SEO performance with a successful site migration
Although the thought of replatforming can be scary, it’s important to consider all of the benefits that come from doing it right. One of those positive outcomes is improved SEO.
Use this SEO migration checklist to retain your site’s performance throughout the move. Experienced site migration consultants can also support the transition of your content and ensure technical changes are well planned out. If you’re unsure how to choose one, this ecommerce RFP template can help.
It might take a few months for organic traffic to stabilize, but there’s the potential to improve SEO performance tenfold after making the switch—especially if you’re replatforming from an outdated ecommerce platform to Shopify Plus or Commerce Components by Shopify.
SEO site migration FAQ
Does migrating a website affect SEO?
Structural changes to your website will affect SEO performance. Ecommerce merchants that move ecommerce platforms will need an SEO migration strategy to retain search performance and rankings.
How can I migrate my website without losing SEO?
- Back up your old site.
- Map old URLs to new URLs.
- Fix 404 broken links.
- Keep the same content and metadata.
- Make the new site mobile-friendly.
- Remove duplicate content.
- Submit a new XML sitemap.
- Monitor SEO performance.
Do you lose SEO if you change your domain?
Changing your website’s domain name can negatively affect SEO performance because search engines have already indexed your entire site. Minimize this impact with an SEO site migration strategy that redirects internal links, removes duplicate content, and updates the new domain in Google Search Console.