SEO Best Practice for Migrating Your Site

When planning to migrate a website to a new look and feel, a responsive design or new Content Management System (CMS), it is important to approach it keeping the website goals in mind, and manage the risks to their website performance.

A rebranding exercise can easily have a negative effect on a website’s performance and it is critical that you do not lose the SEO value that a site may have built up during its lifetime. By following these steps, you can minimise the potential fallout from developing a new website.

1. Site Audit

Knowing the full content of the existing site is an important part of any website manager’s role. It can be surprising and alarming sometimes the content that is on the site that you either don’t know or have forgotten about. The older the site, the more potential there is for outdated, incorrect or inappropriate content to exist on a site.

Doing a complete audit of a site can help in removing out of date content in your site migration as well as gaining a better understanding of the content when working out whether to update the information architecture (IA) in the site migration.

The resulting URL list is also a great starting point for the redirect solution you need to set up in Step 4!

2. Benchmark SEO Performance

To enable you to best assess the performance of the new site for the defined goals or KPIs you have set, it is best to benchmark the existing site for these prior to the migration. After all, understanding if the new website is converting leads rather than just being visually attractive should be the most important measure of success. Some key indicators you should have a benchmark for are traffic and rankings. It’s also a good idea to understand if any sites are linking to the existing site and where they are linking to on the site.

3. Back up Old Site

A critical step that should not be overlooked in any website migration – just in case!

4. Publish but Block the New Staging Site

Once the new site is built and ready to go, make the website live and fully functional (ie a staging site) but block it from search engines using the robots.txt file. This way your team can test the site in its entirety on a production platform and reduce the risk of last minute surprises.

5. 301 Redirects

To reduce poor user experience of seeing page not found errors, make sure that a permanent redirect (301) is set up for every page on the old site to an equivalent page, or if none exists, the new homepage or sitemap at the very least. Of course, this is only necessary if the URL structures and pages have changed.

If the site’s URL structures and/or domains are changing, then you will need to use the .htaccess file (Apache web servers) to let browsers know where viewers should be redirected to. If your site is hosted on a server running other software, check with the web host for more details.

6. Deploy

Time to upload the .htaccess file to the old domain hosting. The redirecting will happen immediately, so make sure testing shows that it is all working as you expect – ie type in some old URLs to the browser, making sure they are redirecting.

If the testing all goes well, it’s time to remove the robots.txt command that hides the staging site.

It’s a good idea to leave the old site up for a little while if it is on a different domain. You can use your analytics software to make sure you have added all the old site’s pages to your .htaccess (or similar) file. That way you can add any pages you have missed and avoid customers seeing the old site, or getting a 404 error.

7. Update Google Webmaster and Google Analytics

Now it’s time to alert Google to your new site. Google Webmasters have a handy change of address feature accessed under Settings from the old site’s profile. You’ll need to select the new site form within your Webmasters account and go through a couple of verification steps.

Next it’s time for Google Analytics. You do this under Admin > Property Settings. If the site has undergone a complete rebrand, update the Account Name in Account Settings at this point as well.

Now is also a good time to upload the new sitemap.xml and robots.txt files through Google Webmasters.

8. Follow up and monitor

Keep an eye on Google Webmasters for any crawl errors or 404s. It’s unlikely you will have covered everything.
Start comparing the new site’s performance on a regular basis to the old site’s performance using the tracking from Step 2.

Be aware that even after completing these steps, you still might experience a dip in website traffic for a month or two while all the updates are indexed by search engines. By following these steps and keeping on top of monitoring and doing any tweaking required, any negative impact on traffic should only be temporary.

If you do all of that well, a rebranded or updated site could actually end up with even more traffic and visibility once the dust settles.