What Is an SEO Migration?
It’s one of those geeky website terms that gets thrown around like a hot potato but ends up meaning different things to different people. But no matter what your version of ‘migration’ is, it requires a great deal of planning and care to avoid breaking your website or messing up your rankings.
So when you hear the word ‘migration’ it could mean any of the following:
Why a Migration Can Be Tricky
If you remember from our Understanding On-Page Optimisation post from last month, you’ll know that your website is actually quite a technical entity. Don’t let those celebrity-studded Wix commercials fool you. The backend of a website is more like the cockpit of a spaceship than Karlie Kloss’s clean drag-and-drop web builder.
In this post, we want to explain how to prevent or mitigate any damage your migration might cause, but before we do, take a look at our pocket-sized jargon dictionary to help you follow along.
(While we’re big fans of self-learning and DIY, we wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that you take charge of your migration based on the information from this post. We don’t have the bandwidth to cover everything today…we also don’t want to put you to sleep.)
Frequently Asked Questions About Migration
We get asked this question quite a lot, and the short answer is yes, it will. All of your rankings are associated with your domain and therefore any change (such as your domain no longer existing) will, of course, have an effect.
Hopefully, you’ll have a lot of links attached to your old domain, so you’re going to want to transfer these for SEO purposes. To do this, you’ll have to keep your old domain under your control (as in, keep paying for hosting) and redirect the links to your new domain. It’s pretty easy, actually (we exclaim geekily).
For more on this, skip ahead to the post-migration steps.
Again, you can drop temporarily in search results if you restructure your URLs but keep your domain. This is usually because search engines cannot find the URLs that were previously ranking (because you changed them!) and they need to re-crawl your site to rank you. If you have removed relevant keywords from the page or done a poor job redirecting the old URLs to the new versions, then you could cause some very permanent SEO damage.
Beware of major content changes to high-ranking pages. By making changes to your content, you could be removing vital keywords or valuable internal links that are giving you your rankings. What you remove and also what you add in will have an effect. Alternatively, it can also boost your results too if you’re improving the content!
The main criteria for hosting will be the location and the speed of the server. If these things improve when you move hosting providers, then your rankings may see an improvement, too. Of course, if you move to a more ‘affordable’ option, you could see a decline.
In other words, do you really need to change hosting providers?
Your Migration Plan: An Exercise in Self-Preservation
If you’ve put months or years of hard work into your SEO, you don’t want to lose it all with a lazy or ill-prepared migration. Before you transfer your site, it’s important to follow an SEO migration plan. Otherwise, all the hard work you’ve put into your site rankings could vanish (cue gasp).
Have we frightened you enough now? Good—we’re sorry, but it had to be done.
Now, let’s move on.
Before Your Move: Your Pre-Migration SEO List
First things first: open a fresh spreadsheet.
We’re going to make a list. Of what, you might ask?
All the URLs you want to protect to make sure they don’t deliver a 404 or become lost during the migration.
Here are the steps for gathering your URLs.
Use Your Third-Party Tools (Internet Crawlers)
Various tools (ahrefs, SEM Rush, SERPed, etc.) have functions (normally called ‘Site Explorer’ or something similar) to search your domain and list your ranking URLs.
You can run your site through your chosen tool and look for the rankings URLs. If you’re multinational, most of these tools will ask you to specify the country (you may need to perform more than one search if this is your situation).
Go ahead and add these URLs to your list.
Next, repeat this process for your backlinks. For most tools, this is still within the Site Explorer section. Export that list and add the target URL (your website) but not the referring URL (somebody else’s site) to your list.
Get Links from Google Search Console
Let’s get more URLs.
Enter your Google Search Console account and make sure you’ve picked the correct property, i.e, your subdomain. Then:
Export Google Analytics Data
Enter your Google Analytics account and make sure you’ve picked the correct property and view, as in, the domain you want to migrate. Now:
Remember Third-Party Scripts
If you’re doing a major redesign, this step isn’t necessary.
If you’re moving your CMS or domain, all third-party scripts (e.g. your Google Analytics tracking script) need to be located and documented (perhaps on a different tab).
You should now have a list of all the performing URLs and tracking scripts on your website. This is what we call the golden list. In the immortal words of Gandalf the Grey:
Go Forth and Migrate
Now, it’s time to carefully migrate your site. You don’t need your golden list just yet, but you will soon.
We may sound superstitious, but as a rule of thumb, we never start a migration on a Friday. And if you don’t want to spend your weekend monitoring your progress or fixing problems, we don’t suggest you do either.
Mondays are good migration days.
Follow these steps as soon as your site goes live:
Add Your Third-Party Scripts
Make sure anything you documented as a third-party script is added back into your new site (exactly where you found it on the old if possible!). This will mean that your analytics data (for example) won’t have big gaps in it.
Review All Your URLs
Click on every URL you documented on your list. Some URLS, like your homepage, will most likely still exist in the same place (unless you changed your domain, of course).
If the URL delivers a 404 (Page Not Found) then you need to redirect it to a relevant page. If your old Contact Us page was www.customersite.com/contact/ and the new one is www.customersite.com/contact-us, then you need to redirect ‘/contact’ to ‘/contact-us’.
Every small URL change makes a big difference.
If the page delivers a 404 but there isn’t a clear alternative, redirect it to the homepage or a top-level page like your blog if the old URL was a blog post.
If You’ve Changed Your Domain
You’ll still need to keep hosting your old domain and add your redirects there. It sounds like a lot of work, but all you need to do is repeat the same pre-migration steps, making sure that when you add your redirects to your old website, they’re pointing to your new site. We think one full year of redirects being in place is enough – no need to keep hosting 2 sites forever.
The End Result
Finally, make sure to submit a new sitemap to Google Search Console once the new site is live.
And presto! This whole process should mean that all your previous ranking URLs will now take users to a new page and nobody is left with a broken link. That, my friends, is what we call a successful migration.
A small reminder: it’s normal to see a small decline in rankings and traffic, but hopefully no more than 10%, and not for too long!
Did this little tutorial leave you scratching your head? Never fear! We can help with your migration.