SEO, Thoughts

How to successfully achieve an SEO website migration, without losing your organic search traffic

Reading time: 6 min

Let’s say that a company decides to spend a lot of money building a brand new responsive, beautiful, user-friendly website to replace its current site. Let’s also say that the new site location will be the same as now, their current URL (website address).

Do you think they’ll get more website traffic to their expensive new site? And do you think they’ll be able to hold onto and improve their current search engine rankings?

If your answers were “yes”, you’d be wrong. Big website relaunches, often referred to as website migrations, are actually a significant threat to both visitor numbers and rankings.

Quick pre-amble before we get to the meat of the article…

In the early teens, mobile internet usage really took off.

HTML is the code that gives websites their structure on a screen. Around that time, responsive HTML5 was launched. Before HTML5 came along, you had to code one site for big screens and one site for little screens. With HTML5, you just needed to code once and it worked on screens of all sizes.

At the same time, Google and the other search engines noticed that the number of people visiting their sites on a phone or tablet was soaring. They decided to reflect their users’ preferences by giving prominence in search results to HTML5 sites.

Brands took notice of both of these developments. Many decided to make a once-in-a-decade investment in their website to win the online search battle.

They should have hung on for a while longer before replacing their existing site. Many suffered badly because:

  • Designers used bloated coding on clients’ sites because they were still getting used to HTML5.
  • Bloated code made site speed and site performance worse than on the HTML4 sites they replaced.
  • Search engine crawlers penalised radically different new site architecture. It turned out Google wanted evolution, not revolution.
  • Old URLs were replaced by scores of broken links instead. Nearly all of the pages it was expecting to find because they’d be there for years were gone overnight.
  • Internal links seemed to prioritise different things than the old site did.

It was a disaster. Many brands had to work on their sites for years to win back the ground lost from their site migration.

…back to the meat

Please don’t underestimate just what a big job replacing your entire site with a brand new one is.

Burned by previous experiences, many brands now create a detailed project plan to mitigate risk. Many others hire an agency with experience in the site migration process (like VERB). And a handful end up using both.

Are you certain you need to migrate your site?

The only site migration guaranteed to boost traffic in the short term is switching from HTTP to HTTPS. Think of site migration as a medium- to long-term strategy.

Are you changing your brand name? It’s hard to put off a site migration in these cases. Transferring your existing site to a brand new domain and changing the logos shouldn’t negatively affect you that much.

Is your site as bad as you think it is? In that case, your traffic will probably shrink over time anyway if the content quality, internal linking and general site architecture are poor. There’s a strong argument here not to delay the project.

If none of these three reasons applies, we suggest respectfully that you keep reminding yourself that site migrations present more threats than opportunities before you commit to action.

Your 12-point website migration checklist

We wrote this article to share in brief with you our preferred website migration strategy. Every site is different so we vary order priority from project to project.

Starting at number one…

1. Crawl your current site to identify top-performing, most important pages

Ideally, you should keep successful content at the same address on your new website.

Run a crawl to determine your most valuable content by the number of visitors and current search engine rankings. The closer your new site structure is to the old one, the better for SEO.

Your traffic monitoring software should give you this information. If not, wire up Google Analytics to your site.

2. Optimise cannibalised and duplicate content

Content cannibalization happens when you create too much content competing for the same or very similar keywords. This reduces the performance of all of the affected content.

Even though you can use internal linking to tell Google which content it should prioritise, it doesn’t always produce the results you want.

So, if you have 10 articles on “Fashion trends for Spring 2023”, choose the 3 or 5 you think are most helpful and informative. Update and optimise this content using a tool like Surfer SEO. Then choose the best one and make that one your “pillar piece”. Make sure the 2 to 4 other articles link to it. Internal linking strategies like these show Google which page you believe it should prioritise for ranking purposes on that keyword.

You should also stop publishing content to your old site at a certain point. Save up all your new pages to premiere on your new site is up to give it a boost. It’ll also save time because you won’t have to set up redirects.

3. Redirect retired content to lead content

What about the five pages you’re discarding because they aren’t as high quality? Set up 301 redirects to point to your pillar piece.

4. Set up a 404 page for irrelevant content

There are almost certainly going to be pages you don’t want to keep. Resist the temptation to 301 redirect these pages because it’ll send confusing signals to Google.

For content that is no longer of use, like old landing pages and content showing your old brand or discontinued products, set up a 404 page.

5. Focus on site speed and site performance

Site speed is now a ranking matter with Google Core Web Vitals

Improve your site’s performance by choosing a fast platform (like WordPress or Webflow) and a host which has a content distribution network (they have global networks of servers which cuts the time it takes for visitors to download your page).

6. Generate a new XML sitemap.

Search engine crawlers first interrogate the XML sitemap on your site to discover its URL structure.

Bots then find it easier to spider your site and index the results. With an XML sitemap, Google sometimes completely misses new content. Consider investing in hosting software that re-submits updated XML sitemaps to search engines every time you add, replace or erase content.

7. Install Google Analytics tools

Use SEO tools like Ahrefs and SEMRush to better understand:

  • What people are searching for when they find your site
  • Which pages deliver their organic search engine traffic

Be wary though because, although Ahrefs and SEMRush detail at a granular level this type of information, they’re not 100% accurate. For the most reliable visitor figures, your web hosting software and Google Analytics should provide further data on visitor numbers, conversion rates, page views and visitor journey routes.

If you don’t have them already, install them on both your current site and future site. You’ll be able to do a before and after performance comparison to track your progress.

8. Sweat the “small stuff” to improve search engine visibility

Use every applicable technical SEO technique to ensure Google sees your site and indexes it properly. We won’t go over all the techniques in this blog – that would take too long – but three we really believe in on every project are:

  • Page titles and meta descriptions. These appear as the top line and the sub-headline on each search result. While they don’t influence search engine rankings greatly, tight copywriting can encourage searchers to choose your site over your competitors.
  • Adding pagination to blog preview pages. Sites with pagination have buttons at the bottom of the screen with “Newer articles” and “Older articles” at the bottom of pages listing blogs. Failure to use them might block search engines from indexing your older content.
  • Don’t use endless scrolling. Try to resist using JavaScript to create endless pages as Google won’t index all that content. While search engines see most of your content from the XML sitemap you submit, crawling technology is not perfect so you shouldn’t rely on it.

9. Set up a staging site (test website)

Check performance and other metrics on a staging website before replacing your legacy site. We use tools like Deep Crawl to check for download speeds and other ranking factors.

You can also use staging sites to test your redirects. Your redirects will mean that your visitors get to the right page once your new site has launched.

10. Have 503 alerts ready for site migration day

On the day of the switch, turn on 503 alerts so that Google and the other search engines know that your site is temporarily and deliberately down. This mitigates any negative effect on your search engine rankings for not being online.

Remove any temporary website blocks from your new site post-launch so that Google and the other search engines can index it.

11. Install your robots.txt file directory into your new site

When your staging site is up, use robots.txt files to block access to it from search engines. Having identical indexes for both will confuse Google and you may be penalised for duplicate content.

When the new site is live, make sure the robot files keep blocking access. But, for your new site, give Google as many indexing pointers as possible so use your robot files to grant them access.

12. Set up Google Search Console

Install Google Search Console. It provides useful information you can use to make website improvements, enhance mobile usability, correct errors in structured data (especially important for online retailers) and identify any blocked resources.

After launch, store your old and new sitemaps on Console. Many believe that, by doing this, Google will better understand internal site redirects and URL structure. This should lessen the impact of the changes.

Although it’s much smaller in comparison, you should do the same with Bing Webmaster Tools. Statistics seem to suggest that Bing users engage more with the sites they visit.

Build your own site migration checklist with VERB Brands

All successful site migrations begin with a thoroughly-research site migration project plan. From canonical tags to getting search engines to index you more often, you should take every step possible to ensure that your organic traffic doesn’t suffer too much post-launch.

To find out more about our services, get in touch with our SEO team. We’d love to start supporting you on this journey!