How to make sure there won’t be any problems down the line
Websites often get migrated during their life cycles. This term can mean many things. You generally wouldn’t consider a simple update to be an act of migration. The change needs to be severe enough to affect some of the core functionalities of the site. In its broadest definition, website migration is any process in which a website undergoes one or a series of technological changes. Such are changes to the website’s platform, structure, content, location, or design.
Some of these changes can be relatively easy to perform. Most will, however, require careful planning in order to avoid one of the biggest risks, a dramatic fall in search engine rankings. The infamous drop in traffic levels is something that can happen in just a few days and the recovery can take months or it may never occur at all. Certain companies, especially among retailers and online shops, have probably already experienced this situation over the years. The unfortunate end result: a drastic in revenue.
There is no doubt that website migration is a risky process and it’s our recommendation to always think twice before committing to the act. Never do it without a good reason. Not just that it can be risky, it can also take a lot of time and resources. To help you get through migrating a website, we have created this mini-guide and included a small checklist to make the process as efficient and painless as possible. While this is not a complete solution to all possible questions pertaining to migrating a website, it is a good starting point for anyone about to undertake the process.
Not every migration is the same
Some websites only have a few pages and are relatively easy to modify or transfer. Imagine that you need to relocate from one apartment to another with just your personal belongings. Piece of cake, right? Now try to imagine that you need to relocate an entire business and change its structure. You can’t “just do it”, you need meticulous planning and a careful approach. This is highly recommended for big B2B or eCommerce websites.
However, even a relatively small website migration can turn into a nightmare if you have more than a few things to keep an eye on.
We can’t say which type of migration is the most common but you will often hear about website location changes. These are:
- Migration from HTTP to HTTPS
- Moving to a new server
- Subdomain or subfolder change
- Domain name change
- Other URL changes. Every change that affects internal linking or the site’s architecture.
Other types of migrations account for:
- Platform changes. For example, migration from WordPress to Magento, upgrading platform’s features or integrating different platforms
- Content Changes. Some common examples are adding or removing pages, content consolidation, or implementing new languages.
- Design and user interactivity and experience changes. The most common these days is the need to add a mobile version of a website.
Things can get very complicated rather quickly when you take into consideration the infinite number of combinations of the above.
Just changing the domain name, even for a website of 1000+ pages, is a relatively easy task. However, if at the same time you want to change all the URLs and move to a new server, that’s a different story.
What can go wrong?
As we have already outlined there can be a dramatic drop in your traffic levels. This, in turn, can happen for many reasons. One common example is a failed redirect. Somebody enters your old URL of a certain page and instead of a good redirect to a new page, they end up somewhere else. Redirecting to an irrelevant page is frustrating, not to mention the 404 messages we all know about.
It’s not just the users you have to worry about. Search engines use crawlers to index and rank your site, and if some of the pages are not visible to them you will more than likely take a hit in your rankings.
There is actually one common myth in regards to the website migration process. Namely, there is a wide-spread belief that a big blow to your traffic volume and SEO metrics is inevitable. At one point you will have to shut down your old site and turn on the new version. When that happens you will lose your position.
True, they do take a hit, but it’s your approach that will determine the severity of that hit. If you take into consideration every detail and plan ahead, it will be fine. Every migration process should have two goals, a minimal visibility loss during the first few weeks and a growth in traffic volume in the subsequent period.
Some general advice
Here are some tips that we have learned over the years.
Always expect the unexpected.
Move when there isn’t much traffic. You can minimize your exposure by conducting the move during low traffic hours. Also, mixing multiple migration types in a single move is a bad idea. If you have more things to do, don’t do it all at once.
Inform your users that you will be moving your website, just in case.
Define your goals and strategy. Like in all things in business, you don’t want to rush into something without a plan or a goal. Identify the most critical aspects of the project to be successful.
Plan well ahead. This is not a one-man-army project. Some of the key people you will need to get aboard on the migration is a developer, SEO expert, and UX expert.
Never rush with the project. The idea of launching the new site as quickly as you can and fixing problems later is a far riskier approach. It can also cost you more.
Problems will happen, expect bugs during the launch date. Be ready to act quickly to fix them.
The Website Migration Checklist
Depending on the scope of the project you will need to take into consideration some if not all of the following:
Benchmark your existing “old” site.
A highly crucial step as it will allow you to compare the new site with your new site. Capture the most important metrics, site performance, and the site’s rankings.
Additionally, at this step, try to fix all the broken links, find all your links’ status codes, and see if you can find all your server errors. You can do this now or at a later step but it is absolutely necessary to crawl your legacy site and create a map of all your URLs.
If you want to redesign the site or change the architecture that means you will most likely have to develop a new prototype. Do all of the pages appear where they should? Is the content in the right place? These are some of the questions you should keep in mind when migrating a website
SEO specification for the new site.
This is a vital step. You need to deliver a thorough and in-depth document about all the technical aspects of the new site. The document should encompass things like URL structure, metadata, XML sitemap(s), redirects, custom 404 pages, page loading times, etc. You need to bring aboard an SEO expert or consultant if you want this step to go smoothly.
Identifying priority pages.
Especially important for websites with a lot of pages, you need to determine the most important pages. This step has a few sub-steps in it. Start from your old site. You will need to determine the following:
Identify all indexable pages and top-performing pages
Once you crawl your site you will have all the information about not just URLs but also page titles, metadata, headers, redirects, broken links, etc. This will help you determine indexable pages which are important because they drive traffic to your website. You can also use Google Analytics to export top-performing pages. You can also use a link analysis tool to determine the top-performing pages by “best link”.
Redirects are something that most think of in regards to website migration. They are important and for a good reason. If poorly implemented users may land on 404 pages or irrelevant pages that don’t match their intent. Since the ranking signals will not be passed from the old pages to the new ones there will be an organic search visibility loss.
The main redirects are 301s and 302s.
301s are permanent redirects and they tell search engines to index the new URLs as well as forward any ranking signals from the old URLs to the new ones. 302s are temporary redirects.
Use 301s if your site:
- Is moving to a new domain/subdomain
- Is switching from HTTP to HTTPS
- Is being redesigned (restructured)
- Check crawl stats and server logs
- Review crawl errors regularly
- Measure the site’s speed
- Level of organic traffic
- Desktop & mobile visibility
- Desktop and mobile rankings
- User engagement
- Sessions per page type and
- Conversion rate per page type
Block your new site before the launch. You can use robots.txt to do this.
At this stage, it is important to test your new site to find out any potential weak points.
Review the new site – architecture, metadata, website copy, internal linking.
Perform a technical check regarding:
– robots.txt file
– canonical tags reviews
– prepare XML sitemaps of the new and old site. The old XML sitemap will be important for Google to become aware of the redirects, and the new sitemap to become aware of the new site’s indexable URLs.
Check the mobile version of the site. Pay attention to the site’s SEO review.
During the launch day, the site will be temporarily unavailable and this is expected. Just make sure to configure the webserver to return a 503 (service unavailable) server response.
During this time you would need to:
In the end, you would probably want to know was the project successful. The visibility of the site can be quite random in the first weeks after the migration. The best thing would be to wait for that period to pass before jumping to conclusions. Keep in mind that larger sites need more time so in their case, it might be, even more, a month or two.
When measuring the success of the site take into consideration the following:
As you saw, website migration can be a very complex project. If a website has more than a few dozen pages and you need to perform more than one migration act it might be a good idea to consult an expert on the topic.
If you are running a big website or an eCommerce business it is not recommended, but rather necessary. If you don’t already have an in-house team of professionals and experts, it would be wise to seek external assistance.
ElectricBot is just the kind of agency that can make sure even the most complex migration goes smoothly.
From our experience, every good migration ended with a rise in traffic volumes. You don’t have to be afraid of migrating a website, you just need to properly plan ahead, while using an experienced team of web experts to execute the website migration.