Website Migration Checklist: How To Get It Right

Arthur Fabik

March 30, 2022

Picture this: your lead generation has picked up. Your customer base has become something out of a dream. Your products are flying off their virtual shelves faster than you can say ‘get a free proposal with Local Digital’.

Sounds like a dream come true, doesn’t it?

Okay, hang on – don’t get too excited.

This is all well and good – in fact, amazing, for your business, but think about your website. Your poor, struggling website, growing in both size and complexity, yet not being able to handle the influx of traffic on the site.

Not to worry – we’re here to help. Website migration is a great way to make sure your site can handle your newfound traffic. When doing this, it is especially important to make sure that you can migrate your site without damaging your SEO strides in the process.

We’ve put together the ultimate checklist to help you follow a step by step approach to make the migration process smoother, keeping your SEO healthy and gifting you with a website well equipped to handle the influx of traffic.

Settle in, grab a snack, and let’s go!

What is a website migration?

Whilst it may sound like moving to a completely new site, a website migration isn’t always this drastic.

In a SEO context, a website migration is in reference to any sitewide changes that are large enough to have an impact on the site’s visibility to search engines, and indexability. This includes activities such as visually redesigning the site, or changing the internal page structure.

More often than not, these changes are of a great benefit to your site – helping it run smoother, and allowing it to handle large amounts of traffic. If this is done, however, without a concrete plan set in place, migrating your site can damage all of your hard SEO work. Because of this, be sure to treat your migration as a major project – don’t neglect it, or your site will pay the price!

What would provoke a site migration?

In many scenarios, a site migration isn’t a make-or-break essential task for your business. Regardless, there are many instances where you should at least consider launching a migration, for the overall smooth sailing and functionality of your site.

Top-level site changes

This category is arguably the most drastic when it comes to sitewide modifications. The main example of this is moving your site to a new domain. Often, this involves a switch in both hosting providers and server locations.

Another top-level change would be switching from subdirectories (site.com/category) to subdomains (category.site.com), usually changing the URL path and breaking subdirectory links, rendering them obsolete.

Another example of a top-level change on your site would be adapting your pages to the Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) framework. By doing this, Google is able to pre-load your pages and have them appear almost instantly for mobile users. By doing this, however, you can influence how search engines crawl and access your pages. This is because AMP requires extensive tweaking to your on-page code, so be mindful of this!

Site restructure

Another common reason behind a full-blown website migration is a site restructure, which involves making significant changes to the underlying structure of the site.

An example of a site restructure is reaching new international audiences by placing your site into newly created language subdomains (fr.site.com) or subdirectories (site.com/fr) after translating the content to French.

Another example of a site restructure is consolidating various existing domains into one, or changing their URL structure. This can be done by changing your permalinks from using automatic post IDs (site.com/post1) to descriptive slugs (site.com/post-topic-here).

Changes such as these mean that the old URLs need to be permanently pointed to new ones using 301 redirects. Without these, you can lose your SEO rankings as search engines will consider these pages to be broken. But, never fear! Make sure those 301 redirects are in place, and everything will continue to run smoothly.

Site redesign

Rebranding your site or changing its design may also influence a website migration. This is mainly because important on-page SEO elements can get lost in redesign, even if this isn’t intentional. For example, switching to a new font may strip the heading tags, or someone replacing on-page images may skip some alt tags.

In most cases, UX upgrades that have a positive effect on site navigation can in turn have a negative effect on SEO. This is what makes it even more imperative that you have a plan in place when migrating your site – you don’t want to risk a sitewide loss of SEO.

Your ultimate website migration checklist

If you’ve made it this far, you may be scratching your head in confusion. What exactly can you do to make sure all of these crazy site changes run smoothly for your site?

First – acceptance is key. Accept that no form of website migration will have absolutely no SEO impact. The best you can do is make sure you can minimise the extent of this SEO impact in the long term.

It can also help to be proactive in predicting the outcomes of a site migration, and having a plan in place to handle them. Of course, our checklist will be your biggest help, so read on!

Before the website migration: planning

During the initial stages of preparation before a site migration, you can set your goals and establish your buy-in.

1. Define clear migration objectives & scope your project

Of course, establishing your primary goals of this migration is key before progressing any further. What’s your scope? What do you want to accomplish? Is this going to impact all pages on your site, or certain subsections?

Often, website migration has goals that are unrelated to SEO. For example, a redesign – this would likely be purely from a branding standpoint. In certain cases, however, where SEO benefits are anticipated, such as switching to descriptive URLs – being able to measure this outcome would be ideal.

2. Involve your internal stakeholders (as early as possible!)

If you have a large digital marketing team, chances are that everyone would want a say in how the website migration is conducted. This includes:

  • Data analysts
  • Designers
  • SEO specialists
  • Content writers
  • Marketers
  • UX specialists

Because of this, it’s critical to make sure that all respective stakeholders are involved as early as possible. This will help to make sure that everyone who needs to have input on upcoming decisions is able to do so.

Raising awareness of this migration as early on as possible will help with the smooth running of the overall project – so keep those last-minute surprises at bay.

3. Create your overview of benchmarks & metrics

You should also make sure to have an overview of your current site performance before beginning a site migration. This is so you can evaluate the impact the migration has once it is complete. From an SEO standpoint, keep an eye out for:

  • Organic traffic: how many visitors find you on a search engine?
  • Organic rank: which pages rank for your target keywords?
  • Indexable URLs: how many URLs are indexed?
  • Site structure: are there any orphan pages present on the site?
  • Site speed: how quickly do pages load? How quickly do they become interactive?

Use the above metrics to set a comparison benchmark for your site post-migration. If there are large deviations from the above metrics, it’s a likely sign that there’s an issue which needs to be resolved.

4. Set a migration deadline

Aim to have a site migration executed as quickly as possible – speed will greatly help minimising the disruptive effects of a migration.

Whilst a migration is in process, try to avoid publishing new content or launching new pages on your site. A content freeze before and during the migration is the best step to take at this stage.

Also, almost any major site change results in a period of downtime where the site is non-functional. Because of this, schedule migrations during off-hours or during low traffic periods. By doing this, you’ll limit the number of prospective customers who encounter a disruption.

During the website migration: developing

As the migration is in development, try to keep tabs on the following elements of the checklist. Remember – the more you plan for, the less that will go wrong!

5. Make your content inventory

Before you launch, take note of your existing content – including pages, media, documents, and other assets. If possible, create backups of all of them.

Having this content inventory in place will make sure you can stay on top of all the content on your site, quickly being able to tell if any content is lost during migration. Knowing what is missing should hopefully be able to help you rectify the issue as quickly as possible.

Even more so – making backups of your content means it’s as simple as uploading the missing documents back onto the site!

6. Keep an overview of your website URLs & backlink profile

As we’ve mentioned, site migrations can often change the structure of your site as an entirety.

What we mean by this is that external sources linking to your pages may start pointing to a URL that doesn’t exist anymore. Visitors following these links could cause 404 errors, which will result in losing positive SEO signals from these links.

Not to worry – this is easily avoided! Make sure you have a detailed overview of your site’s backlink profile. By doing this, you can make sure that incoming links are redirected to the new, functioning versions of your pages.

Even if your migration ends up deleting pages, it’s preferable to redirect external links to an alternative functional page, instead of a broken one.

7. Make sure to update canonical links

When migrating, you may end up with multiple versions of the same page. Having duplicate content on your page can make it hard for Google to decide which pages rank, meaning that the more outdated page may be the one to take the cake.

You can easily solve this by making sure canonical links are in place when necessary. A canonical tag signals to Google which page is the ‘main version’, in which case, this is the preferable URL when ranking pages.

Also, hot tip – make sure to flag your new, post-migration pages as canonical to maintain your SEO standing as much as possible.

8. Complete a web accessibility check

Be wary of how your newfound website design may impact users living with a disability. A new custom font or colour combination may look ‘aesthetically pleasing’ to you, but could make your content inaccessible to other users.

Because of this, be sure to always consider accessibility when making major design or UX changes.

After the website migration: monitoring

Now that the hard yards are done and the migration is complete, it’s time to assess and report on its short-term and long-term impact.

9. Make updates to your robots.txt file

This file tells crawlers which parts of your site that you’d like them to access. If you don’t configure this properly, you can risk rendering entire sections of your site invisible to search engines!

Immediately after migrating your site, your first step should be to revisit your robots.txt to make sure it’s not blocking any significant pages, or allowing access to otherwise hidden sections of the site.

10. Look for errors by crawling your website

Now that your site is live, it’s time to perform a full site crawl. This is the fastest way to identify if there is an increase in broken links or error response codes.

In addition to this, a site crawl can also help you spot new pages with duplicate URLs, missing meta tags, and other errors. After this crawl, you will be able to identify what needs to be resolved to restore your SEO standing.

11. Check your analytics tags

Web analytics tools rely on HTML tags to function properly. Without these tags, your analytics tool won’t be able to track your page visits and report on them.

This is why, post-migration, you need to make sure that analytics tags are still present on all pages that you intend to monitor.

12. Submit your XML sitemap (after testing, of course!)

Your XML sitemap is, to put it simply, a top-level index of all the available URLs on your site. It can help search engines such as Google scan your pages so it can then index them.

If the URL structure of your site has significantly changed after a migration, you’ll need to test whether your sitemap still reflects the real picture. After testing, be sure to submit your new sitemap to Google Search Console, so it knows which URLs to crawl.

13. Report on benchmark metrics

Remember those metrics we gathered in the pre-migration stage of planning? This is where they come in.

The final step in any site migration is returning to the metrics you collected, and analysing the web analytics data for your new site to see how it compares.

Are the numbers in line with what you expected? If not, refer to your benchmarks – you’ll be able to source what’s gone wrong in no time.

That's all, folks!

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You’re a fully-fledged site migration expert. Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George didn’t know what SEO was, but if they did, they would be proud.

Okay, maybe we won’t go that far – but you definitely know enough now to go forth and migrate your site however you need to, without sacrificing your SEO standing.

Follow our checklist, note your benchmarks, crawl your site, and you’ll have a site ready to take on your brand new, large, substantial customer base.

Still unsure? Not a problem! Get a free proposal from Local Digital today, and our team of digital experts will put in the hard yards for you. Sit back, relax, and watch the traffic flow in.

About Arthur Fabik

Arthur is the Head of SEO at Local Digital. He's been working in the space for most of the last decade at some of the biggest agencies in Australia. Now, he's responsible for the Local Digital SEO team with one goal - smashing SEO results out of the park for our clients.