Moving websites or changing URL’s as part of a redesign is both an exciting and scary time. Your website is getting a new home or a flash new look, which can have a range of impacts on your visitors and ultimately your business!
But with all this excitement comes the danger of missing some important steps. So before you pack up all of your belongings and start your big move, make sure you’ve followed this website migration checklist to ensure that you properly communicate the migration to search engines. Not communicating the move properly to search engines can have disastrous effects!
- Step 1 – Are You Really Moving?
- Step 2 – Content Audit
- Step 3 – Content Matching
- Step 4 – Redirects
- Step 5 – SEO Check
- Step 6 – Telling Google
- Step 7 – Data Check
Are You Really Moving?
First thing’s first: Are you actually moving to a new domain, or is your website just getting an upgrade? For example if your website’s homepage is changing from lets say www.example.com.au to www.example.com, then you are actually moving to a new domain, which is different from simply redesigning your current website.
If your website is just getting a bit of an upgrade then the root domain may not change, only the internal link structure. This means that your website might stay at www.example.com but maybe your pages will get new URL’s, for example www.example.com/product1 might become www.example.com/products/product-one.
Either way, you’ll want to follow these steps, however just note that moving to a new domain, such as from .au to .com or .org, can have a massive SEO impact, whereas going through a website redesign isn’t nearly as drastic. In both cases the addresses/locations of your content is changing, so you will want to complete some form of migration planning!
One of the first things you should do, and often the step that gets overlooked is to complete a content audit. The aim of this audit is to quickly identify the gaps in content/topics on the new site by comparing it to the content/topics that were covered by the existing site. To complete this there are a few things you should do:
- Ask your developer for a proposed IA or a proposed sitemap, then compare this to your existing site and try to spot pages and topics that may no longer be represented.
- Complete some keyword research and topic planning. Consider topics that you have never covered that might provide value to your visitors (hint: check out what your competitors are doing!).
- Create a list of your most important pages by exporting the All Pages report from the Behaviour > Site Content section in Google Analytics.
- Ensure that your most important content is being migrated across, as well as comparing old & new pages by looking at the in-page elements (title tags, meta descriptions, h1’s etc.) and comparing the on-page elements such as images, the copy on the page and the look and feel of the page.
As you sift through all of your content, you should be deciding whether or not you want to keep and transfer it as is, transfer and update it or get rid of it altogether. Remember, this is a fresh start for your site and the perfect opportunity for you to do some housecleaning and clean out your content closet. Doing so will give visitors a chance to explore more quality content easily without being bogged down by fluff. Another big warning is not to be too cutthroat. Generally content is the first casualty of a website redesign, and often the ramifications of removing this content is not fully understood.
Keep in mind your traffic is composed of people visiting pages, so if you have some pages that are still getting page views but have not been migrated, you will lose this traffic.
Content Audit Desired Outcome: Create a clear picture of where the gaps are, where the opportunities may be and make sure that this is considered in your content strategy for your new site!
Now that you’ve done some cleaning and re-arranging, you need to ensure the new content matches the old content. This also means trying to match the purpose of the content through title and meta description, on page title and even things like using the same terms in the content.
In addition to matching content, it’s important to decide where this content will live on your website. If you have bold plans for your new site, you might choose to host certain content under a new category or tab. This will most likely be the case if you’re undergoing a redesign. In this event, you should make sure every page on your old site is at least redirected to a similar page on your new site (with similar content).
Otherwise, to keep a consistent and seamless user experience, you will want to use page-to-page redirects which is when your old pages are redirected to the corresponding pages on your new site.
Content Matching Desired Outcome: Ensure that old content and new content match and provide an improved user experience, both from a content quality and look and feel perspective. Basically make sure that the content on the new site is just as, if not more awesome than the previous site!
Your aim is to make the transition invisible and seamless to the user, and to make sure that Google knows that your new pages should get the same quality signals as the pages on your own site. When you’re moving your site, pesky 404 (File Not Found) errors can harm the user experience and negatively impact your site’s performance in Google search results. –Google
By now, you’re starting to get a good idea about what content you need to move and where it’s going to live on your new site (or redesign.) The question now is how exactly should you move it?
As previously discussed, you will either want to move content to a similar page, or to a closely related page. A good rule of thumb is to think “if a user was looking for page a, will they be happy if they end up on page b?” Either way, each page should be redirected via a 301 permanent redirect. 301 permanent redirects tell users and search engines that a page, a piece of content or even an entire website has moved permanently to a new location. It’s also your way of telling search engines to show your new URL in search results and asking them to pass any link equity on to the new page.
Redirects are probably one of the most crucial elements when you are redesigning or migrating to a new website, so make sure that all your old pages are redirected and keep an eye on not found errors in analytics! Do this by looking for page titles or URL’s that contain ‘not found’ or ‘404’ in analytics, or by completing a crawl of your existing website before the migration with a tool like screaming frog. Then try recrawling those URL’s after the migration to ensure you have moved all of them correctly. Remember to ensure that 301 permanent redirects have been implemented and not 302 temporary redirects!
Redirect Desired Outcome: You want to ensure that all of your important old pages have been redirected to new pages which closely match the content or purpose of the old page. A list of old URL’s matched to new URL’s is something that should be created!
[box type=”alert”]Incorrectly using 302 temporary redirects sometimes means that Google and other search engines do not adjust their index, meaning your old pages will still surface in search results, and your new pages wont be able to benefit from the popularity and authority you have established in your old content.[/box]
Now here comes the fun part. You think you’ve finished all the hard work and you’ve moved everything across town… But you still need to check that your new site has the same basic SEO ingredients or will it hold back the discovery of your content!
Below are some basic SEO checks you should make sure you’ve completed:
- Have you created an up to date sitemap that is in the correct .xml format?
- Have you set up Google Webmaster tools to help you spot issues?
- Is your robots.txt file configured properly?
- Do all your pages have unique, descriptive title tags & meta descriptions?
- Are there any broken links?
- Has Google Analytics been correctly configured?
- Are all your forms working properly?
Ensuring your new site is as SEO friendly as possible means that your investment in a new website will get a better return!
SEO Check Desired Outcome: Making sure your new site communicates effectively to search engines and will aid in ensuring a high level of organic visibility for your content is vital to get the most out of your investment. Often SEO can get overlooked when there is an entire site to be built!
You wouldn’t just pack up and leave home without telling your parents or family, would you? The same goes for moving sites. Whenever you move something, whether it’s just a piece of content or your entire domain, you need to tell Google what you’re doing. 301 redirects are a good start as they help Google understand content has moved to a new location permanently. However, also take care to do the following:
- Submit a sitemap. Add your new site to your Webmaster Tools account and submit a sitemap so Google knows your content is now on your new site and it can start crawling it!
- Speaking of crawling… Make sure your new site actually is crawlable by using the Fetch as Googlebot feature, or using a tool like screamingfrog to crawl your website.
- Review crawl errors on a regular basis to make sure your new site isn’t showing pesky 404 errors (this can be done through google webmaster tools).
- Ensure both your new and old location are verified in the same Google Webmaster Tools account & then let Google know about your domain change via the Change of address option under Site configuration in Google Webmaster Tools.
Telling Google Desired Outcome: The aim here is to make sure that search engines can figure out that your website or its content has not disappeared, but that it has moved! Ensuring that no 404 errors are occurring, and that all your old pages have been redirected correctly will mean that your new content (whether it’s at a new domain or a new URL) surfaces in search results.
In any migration, data is your friend! Don’t make assumptions about your visitors experience on your old or new website, and don’t think you can guesstimate which pieces of content are the most important. Looking at your data before the migration and post migration is absolutely crucial to make sure you have not missed anything. Below is a simple checklist of the most important insights you should be looking for:
- Check that old pages are not still getting traffic.
- Monitor your events & goals to make sure that conversion tracking is still working correctly.
- Pay attention to your bounce rate. If your bounce rate has significantly increased since the website migration, it might be an indication that users are frustrated on your site or perhaps cannot navigate it easily. It may also suggest they are landing on the wrong pages, which may suggest your redirects have not been relevant enough.
- Dig through your content reports in analytics looking for ‘not found’ or ‘404’ in either page titles or URL’s to make sure visitors are getting to the right place.
- Check your site search data to make sure that people are finding the content they are looking for.
- Check your organic search data to make sure the migration has not done any damage by looking through organic search impression data (through google webmaster tools or the seo report in analytics) as well as looking at changes in sessions (previously called visits) from organic search.
Data Check Desired Outcome: The data check is a great way to diagnose issues and correct them. It also helps you better understand the impacts of a new website on your visitors and your business.
The Final Say
Don’t RUSH! The biggest mistake we notice is that people are too eager to either switch domains or redesign their site, either because their developers are pushing them or they’re just overcome with excitement. Keep in mind that a new website costs you a pretty penny, and by rushing into it, you’ll just end up dumbfounded when your traffic drops, or visitors are bouncing, or customers are telling you your new site is frustrating! So take your time.
Below is some more detailed information from Google and some other great sources to help you along the way!
- Best Practices When Moving Your Site
- How to Move Your Content to a New Location
- Web Site Migration Guide
- How to Properly Move Domains
Have a question about migrating your website? Leave me a comment!