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How to Plan an SEO Migration Strategy for Your Website

Published on: 
February 17, 2021
Updated on: 
October 14, 2021
by
Tory Gray
Tory Gray

Undergoing a website migration can be a big deal for SEO. Anytime major changes are made to website’s domain, platform, URLs, etc. there are risks involved. This is why the process of migrating a website is more aptly known as "SEO migration." 

While many web developers will confidently take the reins in handling your migration strategy, not all are adept in the SEO nuances that can make or break a business. That's not to spread fear among those embracing a complex SEO migration. Rather, it’s to underscore the importance of doing it right

Those who grasp the value of SEO as a driving force behind their business are usually very conscious of the ramifications that can occur when implementing dramatic changes - like migrating to a new domain name, CMS platform, design layout, navigation, or URL structure. Plummeting organic traffic post-migration can often be attributed to one or more of these elements getting overlooked.

After helping several organizations undergo seamless SEO website migrations, we've assembled this guide to help ensure your strategy unfolds as it should - without damaging your current SEO performance - and instead, bolstering it.

Scale weighting SEO Migration Risks
Weighting SEO Migration Risks

The various types of site migrations cover many different needs and technical demands. It’s important to understand what kinds of changes you are making to your website, including the relative SEO risk each change can bring to your organic search traffic. This can help you plan for the types of SEO tasks you should prioritize so the work you do will result in more, not less, SEO traffic over time.

Use the links below to jump to the type migration project you’re planning to tackle. Or keep reading to get a full breakdown on all of the site migrations that can influence your SEO performance.

Changes to a site’s design and branding elements are perhaps the most common forms of migration. For SEO, it’s worth noting that design changes have far less risk compared to rebranding, which can often come with greater technical overhauls. 

  • Design-only migrations – without any structural or URL changes – tend to be the “safest” kind of migration you can carry out. Note that in this case, the context of "rebranding" refers specifically to visual changes only. 
  • Rebranding typically involves global website changes that influence both user experience and technical overhauls, such as domain names and page URL changes (see the section on Domain Migrations below.) These assets play a critical role in maintaining a site’s SEO health amidst a migration.
  • However, that doesn’t mean it’s without risk. The primary concern for design-only changes is around content accessibility issues, usually relating to JavaScript (JS) and CSS issues. 

Risk: Low(ish)

Recommendation:

  • Crawl your stage site (complete with redesign changes) with JS and CSS disabled. Check all major page template types to ensure that all content is accessible/readable on the page when it’s turned off. If/when content is missing, work with your development team to ensure search engines do, in fact, have access to them.
  • Don’t worry if it’s ugly – a site without CSS is pretty much guaranteed to be lacking any sort of design aesthetics.

Server Migration

Server changes, with or without any other site changes, present some level of SEO risk - primarily in terms of site performance (i.e. speed!) Load time is an SEO ranking consideration, but perhaps more importantly, it’s a conversion issue – after all, what’s the point of your hard-earned SEO traffic if it isn’t translating into tangible leads and sales?

Changing server types or service providers can also come with other potential issues, especially if you’re:

  • Moving from Apache to Nginx or IIS, and employing the rules that apply to redirects. Example: if you go from IIS to Apache you'll find out that the case sensitivity of a URL matters. Conversely, Apache uses .htaccess, but IIS and Nginx does not. (Hat tip to the fabulous Anne Hennegar for this insight!)
  • Moving to a new location (or server service provider) may mean that some functionality you previously used is no longer available. Ensure you are vetting the services for the functionality you need when making this change; server providers are NOT inherently interchangeable.

Risk: Low(ish)

Recommendation:

  • Set up a staging site on the new server, and compare your existing site’s page load speeds against the new server’s load speeds. Aim for page load speed improvements!
  • If you are changing server types, double-check all your redirects to ensure they behave as expected.

URL Migration

Animal migrations and SEO migrations
The Great SEO Migration

In simple terms, URLs are specific webpage addresses that make up what appears in Google Search. Through the perspective of a search engine, modifying a URL changes a page entirely, even if the page’s content remains exactly the same. Without a proper migration strategy, such changes can hit the reset button on your SEO efforts, not to mention cause confusion with search engines.

  • URL changes (e.g. from old URLs to new URLs) present both SEO risk and SEO opportunity, depending on how they’re handled. 
  • Any change to URLs (at least, those URLs that are publicly accessible to Google and other search engines) forces said search engine to re-evaluate each specific page again and re-rank it against all other pages covering the same subject. This takes time to carry out and therefore can hurt your short-term SEO results. However, making URL changes to more SEO- and user-friendly language can improve SEO in the long run.
  • Learn more about SEO best practices for URL structure.

Also note that URL changes often come with design changes, so you should consider those risks/recommendations as needed.

Risk: Medium-High

Recommendations: 

  • Be sure to consider SEO when selecting your URL naming conventions – in addition to all the other important considerations like strategy, branding, accuracy, etc. – and base those decisions on solid keyword research (aka data) & a keyword strategy that is reflective of your overall business & marketing strategy.
  • Redirects are an important tool when making URL changes and should be considered and implemented part-and-parcel with any URL changes. 
  • Indexing of old vs new URLs can also be a concern; this is something to monitor post-migration. Don't worry if you stumble along the way; there is always a way to deindex the unwanted content. Use our guide on how to recover from botched SEO migrations for mitigation tips on this issue.

Platform (CMS) Migration

Your platform is what your site is built on. You could have a custom site, an SPA (single page application), WordPress (the world’s best-known CMS), Shopify, or any number of other services. Migrating your site to a different platform requires a number of considerations to avoid SEO disruptions.

  • Platform changes can be more or less risky, depending on the system you are currently using today, and the platform you are migrating to. It sounds simple and obvious, but moving to a platform that offers less control over SEO details can mean that existing optimizations and flexibility will go away.
  • Design changes are frequently a part of a platform move, which can ultimately impact how content is structured and crawled and your site.
  • Outside of that risk, platform changes are also risky due to the URL rewrites, which are frequently required to fit within the site structure and conventions that each system requires.

Example: If you migrate your site from WordPress to Shopify, chances are your site structure will have to change, as Shopify requires specific URL conventions, namely:

  • Products: /products/{product-name}
  • Category pages: /collections/{collection-name} (you may have utilized the word /category in the structure, or built these URLs directly off the root e.g. /{category-name})

In other words: it's entirely possible that most or all your site's URLs will change - and that creates SEO risk you'll need to take into account.

Risk: High

Recommendations: 

  • Be sure to vet your proposed new platform for all your business needs, including SEO functionality. For instance, a site migration to a platform like Wix or SquareSpace for simplicity’s sake might come with compromises to your SEO. That may be the right decision for your business, or it might not!
  • Consider all the recommendations from the “URL Changes” and “Redesign Changes” sections.

A Completely New Site

Unlike typical SEO migrations that involve moving to a new platform or design, an entirely new website has a substantial threat to damage SEO depending on your current situation.

  • Note that this does not imply an initial, brand new website that’s being built from scratch (with no previous versions). That doesn’t really have many risks, other than the probability of not having any organic traffic in the first place. :)
  • Refreshing your entire site could be the result of a completely new business direction (hello, pivoting!) or the realization that your existing site just doesn’t do its job. Regardless of the reason, a completely new site — including design & structure & content changes — brings with it a fair amount of risk.

Risk: High

Recommendation: 

Scroll down to our General Migration Recommendations section below that outline steps to take in migrating to a completely new site.

Domain Migrations

high risk areas ahead
SEO Migration Risks Ahead!

Among the most extensive types of SEO migration, moving to an entirely new domain comes with a heavy set of baggage. That doesn’t mean you can’t retain and grow SEO performance in the process; it just means you have a lot of boxes to check in order to make that happen.

  • Domain migrations are generally considered the riskiest change for SEO. This is because changing your domain name (e.g. www.OldSite.com to www.NewSite.com) means that each and every URL - including the homepage (typically your most important page) will change.
  • A domain migration also frequently means design, content, and structure changes. Hence the very-high risk assessment.

Risk: High(est)

Recommendation: 

HTTPS Migrations

Ever since Google made it known that HTTPS would become a ranking signal, there’s been heightened motivation to move to this secure protocol. But because this migration directly impacts a site’s URLs, there are definite SEO ramifications that need to be respected.

  • Should your business choose to move forward with an HTTPS migration, you should know that changing this protocol does, in fact, constitute a sitewide URL change. Therefore, the “URL Changes” migration type should be reviewed to understand the risks therein.
  • Note that an HTTPS migration is not as risky as a Domain Migration, despite the fact that it’s also changing 100% of your URLs. This is because Google has officially recognized it as a ranking signal, which counteracts (at least somewhat) these URL changes.

Risk: Medium

Recommendations: 

  • Ensure you aren’t making this change purely for SEO ranking reasons, because - chances are - it’ll hurt in the short term. There are, however, many good business reasons for making this change. 
  • In general, the Web is moving to HTTPS. It’s just a matter of time. So consider timing this change in a way that works for your business’ needs and seasonality, in order to limit SEO pain.
  • Follow Google’s best practices for HTTPS migrations.

“Other” Migration Types 

Much like the world we live in, migrations can come in all varieties, shapes, and sizes. While there are systems in place to address each type of migration, oftentimes the process is highly dynamic based on the individual project and scenario. 

Consider the list above a shortlist of the major concerns. If your site migration fits in more than one bucket from above (the most common scenario!), all the concerns/issues for each type should be addressed.

Once you’ve determined the migration risk, you should spend time considering:

Is this migration project worth the risk?

While you can seek guidance with your SEO migration strategy, only you and your team can make this decision. It’s important to carefully weigh the risks versus the metrics/results you hope to gain from the project. Consider putting it off if it’s not critical, or finding a platform that's a better fit for your requirements.

When is the best time to complete a migration?

Generally, you need to consider the urgency of the work needed from the migration versus your core seasonality (e.g. if you are an eCommerce business, you should not be migrating your website immediately prior to Black Friday! Potentially obvious point: short-term drops in SEO traffic or a broken checkout process will impact your business!)

We recommend coordinating the timing of migration projects after your “big season” winds down - allowing the largest amount of time possible to recover from the migration prior to your next seasonal upswing.

General SEO Website Migration Recommendations and Best Practices

Below we outlined a few recommendations and best practices to help you best navigate your SEO site migration. In general, plan for evaluating new platforms and/or themes against all your SEO needs, in addition to all of your regular business and marketing needs. Clearly document what you need from these tools, how critical each item is (as in, is it a deal-breaker if it doesn’t have it? Or just more annoying?), and whether or not each of your newly proposed solutions accommodates each item on your list.

Develop a migration and deployment plan that accounts for SEO, in addition to technical and marketing considerations. 

  1. We highly recommend building SEO QA and conflict resolution time into your plan; you can anticipate some issues ahead of time by doing a good job vetting your new changes in the first place. However, there is really no substitute for crawling and evaluating the development site to identify and fix issues prior to pushing your changes live.
  2. Utilize the SEO Migration Framework, outlined immediately below, to properly QA and vet your work.
  3. Don’t forget about tracking! We can’t tell you how often Google Analytics and GTM tracking breaks upon migration - either due to inconsistent tracking, or goal funnels that have changed. Without good tracking it’s (obviously) much harder to determine how successful - or not! - a migration is. Or, it can give you a panic attack when your traffic “disappears” overnight. Make sure to check your GA & GTM tracking setup to ensure this is not a concern.

Plan for SPA Migration Needs (If Applicable)

If you are moving from an HTML website to a JavaScript-heavy site (like an SPA - Single Page Application) and SEO is critical to your business, make sure you budget time and money for working through technical SEO issues. Chances are they are conquerable - but may need more work/investment to get things working correctly.

At a minimum, we recommend: 

Define a "Successful Migration" for your organization.

In other words, set expectations with intention and purpose. Even the best-planned website migration projects can go awry. Generally speaking, not losing organic traffic is the most important KPI, or perhaps minimizing any losses that can occur. 

SEO gains are possible, but should not be expected - especially if/when you are making URL changes, or aren't actually seeking to improve the site from an SEO perspective. Also, you should have a clear procedure to follow in case you lose website traffic.

Should you choose to advance your SEO forward as a part of the project - say, by minimizing  duplicate content, speeding up your site, or adding new features like schema markup - gains in organic traffic may become more likely.

Moon phases and SEO migration phases
SEO Migration Phases

Phase 1: Audit the Live Site

Auditing your current site’s performance is crucial to prioritizing SEO migration work and processes. Document your existing keyword rankings, best landing pages, traffic data, etc. for the last 3+ months. GA (Google Analytics) and GSC (Google Search Console) are great tools for this. 

The goal here is to have a benchmark for existing performance and a holistic view into your site’s organic visibility. This perspective will enable you to  a) evaluate how successful the migration was, and how long it takes you to recover from the changes, and b) if/when something goes wrong, this data can help you dig into the differences, allowing you to better troubleshoot and fix any issues that arise. 

Keep in mind that most website migrations – at least, those that include URL changes – involve some temporary SEO traffic losses. But if you haven’t seen traffic rebounding nor returning to normal after 1-3 months, something may be wrong.

1) Organize all URL variations in Google Search Console OR claim a Domain Property (or both, ideally!) This includes: all subdomains, all protocols (eg http vs https), and all combinations thereof, including: 

  • https://www.site.com
  • https://site.com
  • http://www.site.com
  • http://site.com 
  • http://alt.site.com
  • https://alt.site.com

2) Evaluate the site using your preferred crawler of choice. We’re big fans of Sitebulb, DeepCrawl and ScreamingFrog.

3) Collect any needed broken pages to set up redirects: 

  • From your live site crawl
  • From GSC
  • From your new URL/new page changes

4) Document your Google Analytics migration plan, so you don’t break traffic or goal tracking. Doing so makes it difficult to measure, well, anything, but mostly how the migration is going.

5) Document anything that could/should be improved prior to or post-launch, including your metadata, on-page copy, alt tags, page load speeds, structured markup, canonicals, noindexes, etc. 

Phase 2: Audit the Development Environment (New Site)

  1. Ensure that your dev site is “SEO QA ready” before beginning in order to reduce the chances of wasted work (and/or work with your development team to test specific changes as they become ready.) “SEO QA Ready” generally means: all functionality is complete, all content is integrated, and all changes are made. The site should be “dev complete” in almost all cases for your final SEO check. This is because, well - software breaks, and often in unexpected ways. 
  2. Make certain the development site isn’t indexable — you don’t want your stage site showing up in Google! Generally, this is as easy as blocking all user agents in your robots.txt file or password protecting it - but if it’s too late, we recommend claiming it in GSC and deindexing the whole thing.
  3. Set up & QA redirects as necessary. Use a 301 (permanent) not 302 (temporary) redirect whenever appropriate. (Only use 302s when the change is literally temporary, and you will be building the new resource after the fact.)
  4. You can check this by inputting the URL in question in the header checker of your choice, or use Screaming Frog to check all of these status codes at once.

Phase 3: Pre-launch. Compare the Live (Old Site) vs. Stage (New Website) Sites

Before deploying the site migration, it’s critical to ensure you’ve checked all the boxes in maintaining the SEO integrity of the old site before switching to the new site. To begin, crawl the dev site and live sites, and compare/contrast the differences.

  1. Are all the pages there? Is all the content you’d expect on all those pages? Is the metadata (titles, meta descriptions & headers) equivalent to or better than what’s on your live site? 
  2. If you are intentionally retiring old pages, make sure to vet those decisions carefully. Choosing to remove a page - with no real new equivalent page - can be disastrous, especially if the page you’re removing has backlinks pointing to it.  
  3. Fix any broken links (404s and 500s), and links to old page (301s and 302s) patterns before go-live.
  4. Browse the site with multiple devices. We’re living in a mobile-first world - and UX matters to SEO across devices.
  5. Check various page templates for mobile-friendliness and page speed issues, and be sure to correct any problems that are holding up your site.
  6. Browse your site with JS & CSS turned off. Ensure you can access all content and links. Better yet, run a full JavaScript SEO audit.
  7. Work with your development team to fix and QA all issues prior to giving them the “SEO All-Clear” to go live.

Phase 4: Go-Live Migration QA

Factor in time to QA the site once it’s live! This is a critical step to ensure all went well, but one that often gets overlooked when an SEO migration is deployed. 

  1. For starters, check out our Definitive Guide to SEO QA
  2. Review your robots.txt file – you shouldn’t be blocking all search engines (Google, and others like Bing) or disallowing previously indexed pages anymore!
  3. Check robots meta tags and canonical tags (assuming you are utilizing these) to ensure they are used accurately, and that you aren’t accidentally setting "noindex" on pages you want indexed.
  4. Test your redirects – do they all work as expected? Also, scan for any broken pages and other errors in GSC, and set up redirects as needed for any new issues Google finds. 
  5. Check GA – is your data collecting? Are your goals still tracking?
  6. Crawl the live site... again. 
  7. Ensure there are no broken links (that includes internal links AND external links) –- and no links to the stage site. If there are, fix these ASAP. 
  8. Verify that all the changes and content are as you expected.
  9. Submit your site to Google for a re-crawl as needed. You can do this by submitting a new XML sitemap of the new/updated pages, or by submitting each URL individually (not recommended unless it’s just a few pages!)

If your website is changing domain names, you’ll need to submit a Change of Address form in GSC. In the tool, you'll map the old domain name to the new domain name to give Google specific clarify about what's happening.

GSC Change of Address Form
The GSC Change of Address Form for Migrations with Domain Name Changes

Phase 5: Post Migration Monitoring

  1. Watch GA and GSC for fluctuations in the days, weeks, and months following launch. 
  2. Perform cleanups as needed (actually implementing and deploying these fixes in a timely manner is critical!)
  3. If you see greater-than-expected drops in traffic, use the documents you collected in Phase 1 to understand why (e.g. which pages are seeing drops in traffic? Are other channels dropping, like PPC, or just organic traffic? Is something wrong with those pages? Etc.)
  4. Successful site migrations can be complicated, but if you know what you are getting into and you have a plan to accomplish it, you can succeed.

A Successful SEO Migration Supports Successful Marketing

  1. With each new year and every new (ever-harder) marketing goal to hit, you are probably considering making changes to your website. These might include a new, easier-to-use design, a better content strategy to grow your customer acquisition funnel, or a complete overhaul based on a new digital marketing strategy
  2. With every website change comes challenges – specifically in terms of SEO. It’s far too easy to make positive changes that improve some marketing goals, while accidentally decreasing SEO/organic traffic. But it doesn’t need to be that way!
  3. Hopefully this guide brings clarity into the processes and precautions to execute a successful site migration that positively impacts your marketing and SEO strategy & KPIs. But if you need help, we’re here - just reach out.
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