There is very little that can tank a website’s performance in search engines than the migration or launch of a new website.
There are many great reasons to build a new website or to rebrand on a new domain, but neither should be done without considering serious implications to your online visibility. Without thinking about how search engines will react to an established website making a major move such as these, you’re almost certainly going to take a major hit in organic performance.
Use our list below to prepare your own website migration plan:
Plan to migration for when you have enough resource available
Just like any other major change within your business you should plan a website migration for when you can make enough resources and support available. This could be during a seasonally quiet business period, or out of hours. Either way you need knowledgeable individuals on the ground with the time and authority to take action. This goes for both the planning (actions below), and to the actual migration.
It’s likely that any migration will result in a short term loss of visitors so it’s important to make sure if this does occur, you do it during a quiet period.
Take a full crawl of your old website
Use a tool such as Screaming Frog to do a full crawl, and save file it for later. You need to make sure that from the start you have a full list of every page on your website. This is to ensure that no pages get lost during the project. This will also show any current errors and re-directs that exist – on larger websites it’s likely than there will be old redirects in place that need clearing up.
At this point you’ll want to clear up any 404 errors (links to pages that don’t exist). Also check for redirect chains (a redirect that points at a redirect), and any internal link that points at a redirect. Make your website’s link structure as clean and efficient as possible by making sure any link points to the final page.
This should also pull out any orphan pages (pages that no internal links pointing at them). These pages are much more likely to to pick up any organic visitors and this is a great opportunity to update them.
Do some benchmarking of website metrics
Take a record of your current domain authority, backlink numbers as well as visits from all sources. Also take a copy of the organic entrance pages for the last 6-12 months from Google Analytics. This is vital to ensure you can identify where your organic visitors are coming from and quickly identify lost visits moving forward.
Doing this benchmarking will show how your migration has potentially negatively affected the performance. You should monitor your highest organic landing pages closely as these are the things that will have the most negative impact on your organic authority.
Ideally maintain the same link structure on new website
As part of your benchmarking you should have created a list of every page on the old / current website. Providing the link structure is user friendly you want to keep it the same where possible. This will save on time adding redirects and limit any short term loss in organic visibility.
You should only be changing the URL structure of your website if you have very strong reasons to do so. When you remove or redirect a page you’re telling search engines that something has changed, which isn’t always a bad thing, but ideally your page structure should stay the same. If you change your link structure at the same time as migrating to a new website you may cause Google to think you’ve launched an entirely separate website.
Its ok to remove old pages
There are lots of reason why you may choose to remove pages from your migration. For example, there may be a service or product page that you no longer want to promote. In this instance there may be a relevant page to redirect those old links into, but if you absolutely don’t want any references of the page featuring on the new website then they should be left to 404 (page not found). This tells search engines that you don’t want to rank for any related keywords, and this is ok. If you were to re-direct them into irrelevant pages then Google may see this as you trying to manipulate the rankings.
You should also take time to remove any internal links to removed pages.
Update internal links so they don’t hit redirects
Whilst adding link redirects ensures users end up on the correct page, and search engines pass authority, it’s recommended that no internal links hit a redirect. So when all internal links point directly at the end or most recent version of a page. This will also avoid redirect chains where one redirect points at another.
Create a useful 404 page on new website the address removed pages
As mentioned above, there are instances where removing pages from your website is ok, and these should be left to 404. Plus, and this is especially the case of large websites, there will always be a page that slips through the cracks.
To cover for this any new website should include a useful 404 page. This will be the page that users see if they happen to visit a page that no longer exists. Your 404 page should firstly say what’s happened (the page you’re looking for can’t be found). The page should then include links to popular pages and perhaps a search facility so that users can find what they need.
If all else fails then give them a quick way to contact you to clarify what they’re looking for.
Maintain the same Google Analytics account and mark migration dates
After go live keep a close eye on visitor numbers especially from organic search and referrals. If you see a dip in visitor numbers you need to quickly pinpoint the reason why. Maintaining the same Google Analytics account will allow you to compare visitor numbers into specific pages, as well as other site performance metrics such as bounce rates.
Within Google Analytics you should also mark the dates when major updates were performed.
If you perform a migration of an established website without taking wider SEO into account, you will lose search engine rankings. A new website or company rebrand could be very much needed but if you don’t plan the website migration properly you could do more harm than good. Keep all the above in mind.