Site migrations can be difficult. So we tapped our resident SEO brainiac, Matt, to share his insights into preparing for and executing a site migration.
Hello and welcome to another episode of the Blue Moon Digital Brainiacs! My name is Matt O’Rourke and today I will be walking you through the steps you should take to ensure a virtually seamless site migration.
Before we get started, let’s clarify what we mean when we talk about a “site migration.” Site migrations come in all shapes and sizes and the underlying theme of all of them is a significant change in the URL structure of your site. So, that can be one of many things:
- Changing domains
- Moving to a different content management system (CMS)
- Significantly changing the structure of your site’s hierarchy
- Moving content from a subdomain or subdirectory to your root domain
- …and several others
Site migrations pose a real threat to sustaining your performance in natural (or organic) search so it’s important to cover all of your bases before moving forward.
Think of it like moving. Sure, moving is not the most fun thing in the world when you’re doing it, but it’s usually exciting and full of new opportunities. When you move from one place to somewhere new, one of the things you do is sift through your belongings and pack what’s important and discard the things that don’t suit you anymore or that you simply don’t want anymore. Maybe it’s finally time to get rid of all those t shirts you have from your undergrad that you haven’t worn in 7 years…
Similarly, once you get in to your new place you’re going to find some new things to make it feel like home or maybe some upgrades, like a nice, big, new comfy couch.
Site migrations are no different. You have to first figure out what is important to take with you and then make sure that the upgrades you are making are in line with who you are.
Okay, so let’s start with packing up for our move, figuring out what is important to take with us, and making sure it gets there.
Imagine how much of a bummer it would be to move across the country, get to your new house, and then realize that you left all the boxes full of family photo albums in your old home, which has now been torn down by the new owners who want to use the land for a chicken farm.
Same thing goes for migrating a website. You don’t want to get to your new site and then realize that all of the reputation and authority that your brand has built up over the years is still back with the old site. So make sure that you move every piece of important content. If you’re struggling to figure out what is “important” – take a look at your analytics. Are people visiting these pages? How are they getting to the pages?
Have a Redirect Plan
Once you’ve copied everything important over to the new site, you’ll need to set up a complete redirect plan. This is kinda like labeling your boxes for “kitchen” and “living room” and “master bedroom” before you put them in the truck. Redirect every old URL and all of its variations to the new one so that search engines and users will be able to find the content on the new site. Assuming this move is permanent, make sure you use 301 redirects. This should help to ensure the impact in organic rankings is minimal and short-term.
If you’ve decided that there’s some old content that you won’t be taking with you to the new site it’s still important to consider the best way to handle those URLs too. If there’s an upgraded version of that content on the new site that you think serves the same purpose for site visitors, redirect it. If the content is old and musty and serves no purpose for your business anymore, there’s a couple of options. You can redirect all of it to your new and improved home page, or you can let it return a “Not Found” 404 error. If you go the 404 route, make sure you have a nice and pretty 404 page that gives users a chance to navigate to a section of your site that they will find useful.
Redirects are by far and away the most important part of a site migration, but they aren’t all you and your team need to think about. Before you flip the switch on the new site, here are a few other things you’ll want to make sure you have:
- XML sitemap from your old site that you can submit once the new site is live. This will give Google a chance to see all of those fancy redirects you put in place and help index the new site faster
- Webmaster Tools verification for the new site – if you’re moving domains
- XML sitemap for the new site – submitted to your Webmaster Tools account
Setup and Details
We also recommend taking the time to set up your new website with all the SEO 101 types of things – page titles, descriptions, header tags, and so on – before you launch it. Think of this as arranging all the furniture and hanging things on the wall before you have a house warming party.
Once you get to your new house or new site, you’re going to realize there are still some things that need fixing after the move. Keep an eye on your analytics and Webmaster Tools reports to identify issues with crawlability of the new site and traffic drops before they get out of hand.
Site migrations, like moving, are tedious and time consuming. By paying attention to the details and planning ahead you can make sure that the pain short term and the impacts on your livelihood are minimal.
Last but not least, if you don’t feel like you have the expertise, time, or desire to handle the move yourself, you can always hire some movers. Or, in this case, a team of SEO experts who have moved a few sites in their days…