Site migration is one of the most dreaded scenarios in SEO. In fact, for many practitioners, the concept of changing URLs is practically synonymous with losing rankings and search visibility.
But it doesn’t have to be!
You can easily move to a new site without causing a major disruption to your organic traffic and a loss of precious positions in SERPs along with the revenue that goes with it.
At seoClarity, we’ve assisted multiple clients in site migrations. We even developed a proprietary migration framework - SEMS (standing for Search Equity Migration Strategy).
And in this post, I’ll show you the steps we recommend for moving a site without losing rankings and traffic.
So, let’s start at the beginning...
Site Migration - What It Entails
From the SEO point of view, a site migration focuses on nothing more than redirecting valuable pages to their new location. In turn, this ensures that Google can find, index, and retain the new content’s rankings for relevant keywords.
But of course, there's a lot more to this.
Here, let me show you tasks the entire SEMS framework involves:
We typically break the migration process into three separate stages:
And I think it only makes sense to go through them in turn, discussing the process as it typically unfolds for organizations.
Part I. The Preparation Stage
Initially, your primary objectives during the migration are simple.
- You have to ensure that your new website is designed to maximize the SEO performance
- And also, create benchmarks that will help you measure the effect of migration on your brand’s visibility.
And so, as a first step, ensure that the new website includes all the necessary elements that will convince Google to its authority. At a minimum, these must include:
- Friendly URL structure
- Properly set title and description tags
- Correct canonical tags for each page
- Mobile optimization (or ideally, a responsive design)
- A wealth of internal and external links
- Valid sitemap
- Accurate Schema.org markup, and more.
Then, analyze your content to determine your current SEO standing. If you’re using our platform already, create dashboards to monitor these metrics, and compare them with results after the move. This research will provide you with benchmarks to assess the success of the site move (or indicators where things might have gone wrong).
At a minimum, look at the following metrics:
These should include the traffic volume, bounce rate, conversion rate, and time visitors spend on site by page. These metrics help you establish the effect of the new site on customer experience (which as ultimately affects your visibility).
Create a list of top keywords you’re going to monitor to measure the effect of site transition to your search visibility. The number of keywords you include on the list is irrelevant. What's important about them is that they should quickly reveal potential challenges after the migration.
Personally, I recommend clients use rankings for pages with the highest traffic, as changes to them would be both easier to spot, and make the biggest impact on the organization.
As a last thing, consider how much difference there is between the current and new sites.
This will help you assess how many potential problems site migration might cause.
For example, if your organization redesigned the entire site, then most likely you'll be dealing with a whole range of issues, from how well new templates match your existing on-page optimization, to new URLs and site structure.
Part II. The Development Stage
A quick clarification: this step doesn’t include the actual migration.
At this stage, you’re developing assets to help you conduct the move in a way that mitigates its potential negative effect on SEO.
And in our SEMS framework, we recommend you do it in three steps:
Step #1 - Creating a Redirect List
Fact: Properly set up redirects are the key to success of this strategy.
(Unfortunately, this is also one area developers often skip, naturally focusing on code and other issues more relevant to them.)
But as a result, redirect issues don’t come to light until after the migration has taken place, and the site experiences a severe loss of traffic…
So here’s how to overcome it:
Prepare a list of URLs that need to be redirected with 301s.
This list should include pages that received an update on the new site and are important for SEO.
We typically look at for those assets in three categories:
- Top landing pages - Use at least a full year's data to identify the most popular landing pages on the site.
- Potential landing pages - Assets that do not bring high-value traffic yet, but offer the possibility to do so in the future, and are worth it to for SEO purposes. If you're using the platform you can find these though associated keywords that rank on page two and have high search volume.
- Top backlinked pages - Site migration can affect your search visibility in so many ways. And losing quality backlinks is one of them. Therefore, you need to ensure that any highly linked to page is properly redirected to ensure that it retains the link juice.
Step #2 - Content Consistency Check
Next, compare content on old and new pages to assess how any differences between them (i.e. usability and actual wording on a page) that might affect the relevancy of content to keywords, and in doing so, negatively impact rankings.
You might have cut sections from the content or replaced it with brand new wording. Although pages might redirect to the correct URLs, content inconsistencies might prevent them from retaining rankings.
Step #3 - Testing Redirects
This goes without saying, doesn't it?
Given the importance of redirects to the entire site migration process, you must test them before going live.
In particular, stress test your list for:
- Broken redirects
- Irrelevant redirects
- Correct URLs (www or no-www)
I recommend you break the process into two separate stages.
First, assess your most important SEO pages. These are any assets with prominent rankings that you want to retain. And needless to say, they should be the primary focus of your test.
Check every URL carefully to ensure that once the migration launches, those pages will experience no issues due to poor redirects.
And only when you’re absolutely certain that all those redirects work correctly, evaluate any other indexed pages that, although important, aren't as crucial for SEO and search visibility.
Testing redirects conclude all preparatory work for the migration.
What’s left is pushing the new site live….
Part III. The Launch
Although your development team will conduct the majority of the work related to the migration, it's your task to oversee its effect on the search visibility.
- First, submit the new XML sitemap to Google Search Console, and include a link to it in the robots.txt file.
- Next, remove any old directories from the robots.txt file too. Or update it with any new directories you want to prevent bots from accessing.
- Also, audit the new site for any crawl issues, traffic fluctuations, etc. that might prevent Google and other search engines from accessing your site.
TIP: Tools like Clarity Audits will allow you consistently crawl and identify technical issues on the site. And, with unlimited crawls, you can also set-up different projects to crawl dev/staging vs. production.
- Finally, go back and review traffic and rankings data after a couple of weeks to assess the impact of the migration on your visibility.
Ask any SEO, and I'm sure they'll concur: Site migration is one of their most dreaded scenarios.
After all, launching a new design, coupled with revised content can lead to lost rankings and search visibility.
Luckily, in this post, you've discovered our Search Equity Migration Strategy that helps you reduce potential negative impact of moving to a new website.