Five things to remember for a smooth, catastrophe-free site migration

For a good percentage of you, your website is probably your single-most important business asset. It’s where you drive traffic, sales, brand visibility (online and offline), and generate ROI.

It’s also probably where you invest the majority of your time and capital – in terms of design, build, maintenance, and marketing.

But there’s no point spending millions on a new site if no one’s going to see it.

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I recently analysed the impact of what happens when site migrations don’t go to plan.

Just take a look at this major high street bank – it’s not hard to imagine how much this downtime cost them; both financially and in terms of their SEO legacy.

What were they thinking?

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This company lost their (previous long-term) presence in the organic search space for a range of commercially valuable search terms following a migration, and never recovered positions thereafter.

And, what can you do but standby and watch when this happens?

You can’t reverse engineer SEO into your strategy, because the damage has already been done. In this case, the company threw a lot of money at PPC to claw back some presence – but not all of us have the budget for that.

The cause of this grave site migration error? A failure to plan and implement a cohesive SEO strategy.

The old migratory myth

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But that’s enough about my weekend…

In all seriousness though, these are some of the most heart-attack inducing activities you can undertake – and many SEOs would have you believe that site migrations are up there with them…

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Even Google is full of frankly terrifying site migration horror stories, which warn you to expect a loss of anywhere between 20% – 70% in site traffic.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. Migrations can be fun. Whether it’s to rebrand, apply a new domain structure, or update your CMS, there are a number of reasons for wanting to migrate your site and despite popular belief, it can in fact present you with a great opportunity for improving search presence and optimising your ROI, so long as you have a foolproof plan.

I cannot stress enough the importance of preparing a tailored SEO strategy, so I’ve defined five critical steps for achieving a smooth site migration.

1. Involve SEO from the start

Make sure you have an experienced team member working on the project, who can help to incorporate SEO at all relevant touch points, from the SOW onwards; including CMS decisions, architecture, taxonomy, page-theming, use of images, internal linking etc.

Leave nothing to chance! Don’t just give it to the nearest Dev Guy.

“Barry, are you busy? Can you SEO the new site please?”

2. Consolidate your redirects and mapping

Crawling every page of your site is intrinsic to a successful migration. You really need to know where you are before you begin.

Create a detailed redirect map and audit H1s, page titles, meta-descriptions and more, to inform the architecture of your new site.

This is also the stage to identify the stragglers – we’re talking the orphan pages and subdomains which aren’t working hard enough, and can be stripped from the new site to create a more streamlined architecture. Don’t forget paid campaign pages either.

Finally, make sure you test everything thoroughly in staging and after launch.

3. Use your data

Your data is your life jacket. You should use it to:

  • Analyse site performance throughout the “Migration Window” (see end of article). Daily tracking is key to comparing your sites true visibility pre and post migration. It gives you the full picture of your migratory success, and highlights negative movement; allowing you to create an instant plan of action.
  • Benchmark visibility against competitors. Site-agnostic data shows you who’s performing better and why. You can use this to tweak your content and site structure for an effective migration.
  • Identify opportunities: Discover pages that, with only a slight push during migration, can move up into the conversion zone.
  • Determine and knead out conflict issues: Ensure internal cannibalisation isn’t carried over to the new site.
  • Look out for any existing redirects to avoid cycles

4. Make sure there’s a project owner:

As above, assign one person responsibility and authority to run the migration and make sure they are entirely au fait with the architecture and all elements of the site.

They must be fully-involved and empowered enough to make a case for implementing the above processes, even if it means challenging those individuals who are keen to accept the migratory myth.

5. Prevent the stage from being revealed:

Your stage site is something which you really want to keep under wraps – especially as robots.txt only blocks crawling and not indexing – meaning your stage site could still get indexed and released into the digital ether, if the right precautions aren’t carried out.

In a few cases I think I may even have seen a stage site being indexed after being shared internally via Google mail – but don’t quote me on that!

So, of course, use IP whitelisting, set up logins and apply no-index meta tags.

What is the “migration window”?

The migration window refers to the seven to 14 day period after a migration has been executed. During this time, your rankings may assume many different forms including:

  1. A straight switch in the SERPS – old page for new
  2. The change-over may take some time to set in
  3. Random drops can occur
  4. You may see a brief coexistence between your two domains for a short timeimage7
  5. You could see a straightforward transition, with no change in rankingsimage8
  6. And of course, the result everyone hopes for: You may see a positive uplift in performance (That’s if you follow the steps above!)

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In summary

SEO should be the cornerstone of any site migration strategy. Without it, we may as well drag and drop our site into the recycling bin, along with its rankings, backlinks and social media activity.

We shouldn’t expect to lose visibility, or buy into the old ‘migratory myth’ either. Instead, we need to use data to inform our entire strategy before, during and after the migration.

And, remember, you can’t just sprinkle magic SEO dust on your site if things go wrong.

Your visibility will already be damaged. That’s why we SEOs need to get in on the action from the word go, to safeguard our most important asset, and capitalise on any business opportunities.

Related reading

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