Among search engine optimization professionals, one adage holds true: There are only a few ways to improve your SEO, but many ways to hurt it. One typical instance of SEO deterioration occurs during a site migration. Migrations entail substantial changes to your site; if these changes aren’t executed with SEO in mind, they can lead to significant problems.
Fortunately, this need not be the case. By embracing a proactive approach supported by a comprehensive checklist, your migration can sidestep SEO pitfalls and bolster your site’s performance. Here’s what you need to know.
What is a website migration?
A website migration is a change to a core part of your website’s infrastructure, usually by moving the site from one web hosting environment to another. The most common types of website migrations involve:
- Switching to a different content management system (CMS), such as WordPress to Shopify.
- Changing your website’s domain, such as from “shopify.com” to “thenewshopify.com,” which often requires updating DNS records and setting up redirects.
- Changing the site’s URL or folder structure, where you move pages or reorganize them within your site’s structure.
- A complete website rebuild with entirely new content. (A new design for existing pages and URLs would not be a migration.)
Since migrations, by definition, involve substantial changes to your site, they affect how search engines read your content. Regardless of the type of migration, it’s essential to consider SEO as part of your plan.
When to migrate your website
- You’re rebranding
- You need functionality that your CMS doesn’t support
- Your site has performance issues
Site migrations take time and careful planning. Therefore, you should be judicious when there’s a clear need. Here are a few specific situations in which you should consider a migration:
When you launch a new brand or refresh your existing one, you often have to make substantial changes to your old website to reflect the updated image. Rebranding is an excellent opportunity to consider your website’s structure and needs, such as the navigation experience, the imagery, and the collections of products. Consider a migration if your new brand would benefit from a new website experience or content.
You need functionality that your CMS doesn’t support
If you want to sell a subscription product, integrate with an analytics provider, or create a custom design, you need a CMS that can make that possible. Review your CMS ecosystem of apps and custom developers when considering migrating for functionality. Even if a CMS lacks native support for a specific functionality, you can often incorporate it as a third-party app.
Your site has performance issues
These issues can manifest as slow loading times and search engines failing to crawl the site, resulting in frustrated customers. In these cases, migrating your website may prove more effective than addressing these issues within your current system. For example, when online gardening retailer Willemse needed a more flexible, mobile-friendly ecommerce platform, it migrated to Shopify and doubled its website loading speed on launch day, while measuring a 10% boost in organic traffic (SEO) the following quarter.
Risks of ignoring SEO in a site migration
- Duplicate content risk
- Crawlability risk
- Content risk
Migrations can be risky. Not only is there the possibility that you harm your SEO performance but there is also a risk that your new content or site structure doesn’t resonate with your audience or that your new CMS doesn’t fulfill all your needs. Addressing these potential pitfalls helps minimize your overall risk during the migration process.
SEO risks fall into one of the three major categories:
Duplicate content risk
If both the old and new versions of your website are accessible simultaneously on the internet, it can create confusion for search engines, potentially causing a decline in search engine rankings as they struggle to determine the authoritative version of a page.
When launching a new site, you need to configure it to be immediately crawlable to search engines. If your URLs change, you must inform search engines of the new URLs to avoid the risk of your site disappearing from search results and losing organic traffic.
If your new site’s content is not search engine optimized, search engines may perceive it as lower quality than the previous version or have a weaker understanding of the website’s content, potentially resulting in a loss of rankings.
Website migration checklist for SEO
- Prep checklist
- Pre-migration checklist
- Post-migration checklist
An SEO site migration checklist includes three sections: one for preparation tasks, one for final tasks just before the migration, and one for post-migration. Here’s a breakdown of what each section should encompass:
The goal before migration is to establish SEO performance benchmarks, plan implementation of SEO best practices, and gather site data for backup and comparison purposes. Typically, you want to complete this list two to six weeks before the migration to allow enough time to collect benchmark data and prepare the documentation and tools:
- Record organic sessions (non-ad traffic from search engines like Google), keyword rankings, key performance indicators (KPIs) and page speed metrics (desktop and mobile) for key pages over the past 12 months.
- Confirm the URL structure for the new website. Many developers and designers do not consider this at this stage and scramble to confirm it without considering SEO implications when migrating the site.
- Create a 301 redirect (automatically sending visitors from old URLs to new URLs) list for pages you will not migrate and URLs you won’t modify.
- Create an analytics migration plan, noting what tracking codes (snippets that enable analytics tools) and analytics integrations, such as Google Analytics, you must migrate.
- Crawl your site with Screaming Frog SEO Spider or a comparable tool to create an index of pages and internal links.
- Create an account for your site in Google Search Console.
- Create a custom 404 error page (the page that appears when someone arrives on a nonexistent page on your site) for broken links, ensuring it’s on brand and includes a prompt to navigate elsewhere on your site.
These are the last steps before pressing the metaphorical big red button and launching your new website. Complete these steps on the staging version of your new site:
- Ensure you have applied metadata (title tags and meta descriptions) information and that they fit within recommended character limits.
- Configure any relevant structured data markup (code that is invisible to users but visible to search engines, describing the type of page shown).
- If your site has different regional versions, such as for other languages, update hreflang tags (code letting search engines know there are multiple regional versions of a site) to new domains.
- Implement and test the 301 redirects you planned in your redirect map.
- Execute one more site crawl on the original site and back up your data for reference.
- Review key pages for optimal performance, assessing both PageSpeed and Core Web Vitals metrics—Google’s benchmarks for site usability, conveniently found in the PageSpeed report. Typically, Google deems a PageSpeed score exceeding 70 and a “good” Core Web Vitals rating as satisfactory.
- Check key pages for mobile usability using Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test.
- Configure any SEO apps or plug-ins.
- Create a new XML sitemap file (shows search engine crawlers how to find each page on the website). Shopify does this automatically.
- Create and configure the robots.txt file, a series of directives telling search engines how to crawl the website. Shopify does this automatically.
Perform these tasks as soon as your new site is live, ideally within 48 hours, to avoid crawlability issues:
- Set your site’s “robots” meta tag to index, and remove any robots.txt directives mistakenly preventing crawling from the robots.txt file. Web developers often add settings on staging sites to prevent early crawling, and it’s essential to remove these when setting the new site live.
- Crawl your new site and compare it to the pre-migration crawl, ensuring you see the number of pages you expect. You should not see old pages, and new pages should be active.
- Ensure all title tags, meta descriptions, and alt tags are present and don’t contain developer language such as “Test Page” or “To complete later.”
- Spot-check 301 redirects to ensure they’ve properly migrated. Do this by visiting a URL that no longer exists—it should automatically send you to a new live URL.
- Spot-check key pages for page speed or mobile usability issues.
- Verify that hreflang tags reflect how you set them up in the previous step.
- Verify structured data markup accuracy.
- Submit your new sitemap to Google Search Console.
- If the domain changed, use Google’s Change of Address Tool to notify Google of the change, letting it know that it should treat the new domain the same as the old domain.
- Submit key pages to Google Search Console for re-crawling and indexing.
- Review analytics tools like Google Analytics to ensure the platform collects data.
- Monitor Search Console weekly for any significant site performance changes or crawling issues over the first six weeks.
SEO site migration checklist FAQ
Do I need to consider SEO in a website migration? What happens if I don’t?
Yes, because neglecting SEO in a website migration can lead to a drop in search engine rankings, loss of organic traffic, and potential visibility issues.
How long should website migration take?
The server processing time for a website migration typically ranges from one to 24 hours, depending on the server and site size. However, SEO preparations should start six weeks before the migration and continue six weeks afterward to ensure a smooth transition.
How much does website migration cost?
Website migration costs vary based on the type of website, scope of changes, and hosting. Paying for expert assistance from SEO or web development experts typically constitutes the largest expense in a migration. Managing the transition yourself can be cost-effective, while hiring a provider can be considerably more expensive.