Have you ever made updates to your website only to notice that your search engine rankings have suddenly plummeted? While it could be caused by a few factors, it’s often a direct result of insufficient search engine optimization (SEO) migration. Oftentimes, the excitement of updating web design or creating a newly structured site can put more technical SEO aspects in the shadows. Still, if you want to stay relevant and reap the benefits of successful site migration, you need to make it a priority.

Without an SEO migration plan in place, you fail to consider how the search engine will analyze and react to your new website. However, the process of creating a strategy isn’t always straightforward—especially if you don’t have an extensive background in search engine optimization. When you migrate a website, there are several things you need to do from the back end to help keep your current rankings or make them even better.

Website migration, especially with SEO in mind, is far from a simple task that can be completed overnight. It requires meticulous research, strategic planning, precise execution, and vigilant monitoring to ensure your website maintains (or enhances) its organic visibility post-launch. This includes collaboration between SEO, web development, and digital marketing teams. Still, for those curious about the process and what it entails, we’ve put together a comprehensive SEO migration checklist.

Understanding Website Migration

The primary objective of an SEO-focused website migration is to safeguard your website’s search engine rankings, traffic, and conversions. However, SEO website migration is more than just a facelift for your online presence; it involves making considerable changes to your site’s URL structure, content, user experience (UX), design, or platform. It’s a transformation that can range from simple updates to a complete overhaul, and its impact on your site’s performance is profound. Therefore, the first step is understanding the different types of SEO site migrations and what they entail.

SEO checklist

Different Types of Migration:

  • Protocol website migration: This involves changing your website’s protocol from HTTP to HTTPS, which is a crucial step in enhancing security. Moving your site to a new protocol may seem like a small change, but it’s still considered one of the different types of website migrations.
  • Subdomain website migration: This is when you shift your domain from something like “www.yourwebsite.com” to “newsubdomain.yourwebsite.com.” While not always necessary, adding to your migration strategy may be beneficial.
  • Domain website migration: Changing your website’s URL from one domain to another (e.g.,www.oldwebsitename.com to www.newwebsitename.com) requires careful planning to preserve SEO.
  • Top-level domain migration: Altering your website’s URL extension (e.g., .com to .org, .net) can be beneficial but demands precise execution.
  • Redesign website migration: Whether you’re making small aesthetic changes or completely revamping your site’s layout and code, a redesign should always include analyzing potential SEO implications.
  • Structural website migration: Changing the architecture or site structure, including user flow or URL structure, can impact how search engines perceive your content.
  • Content management system (CMS) migration: Moving from your current CMS (e.g., WordPress or HubSpot) to a new one, like Joomla, can improve functionality but requires specific attention to SEO details.
  • Hybrid or combination migration: The process of combining any of the above migration types.

What is an SEO migration?

An SEO migration strategy is a meticulous process that involves several moving parts. The goal is to help transfer and improve search engine rankings, domain authority, and indexing signals based on changes in your site or URL structure. It acts as your insurance policy against losing valuable search engine visibility, affecting rankings and organic traffic. SEO migration needs to go hand-in-hand with website migration to avoid losing previous results from your hard work.

Why SEO Matters in Website Migration

Over the years, you’ve probably put a lot of time and money into increasing your site’s online visibility. Maybe you’ve curated the perfect content plan to help you rank highly for competitive keywords and appear in searches made by your target audience. However, making any structural change to your site can change how search engines see and analyze things, thus affecting the metrics used to rank you. SEO allows you to mitigate potential losses in traffic and dips in organic search results during the website migration process.

Consequences of Neglecting SEO in Site Migration

The risk of ignoring SEO when conducting a website migration is clear. It results in losing search engine rankings, traffic, and leads, which is a scenario that no website owner wants to face. However, without a solid SEO strategy, it’s a reality for many.

*other site has a picture of a graph from a previous site migration with a noticeable drop off in traffic after the new site launch

How Long Does SEO Migration Take?

The time it takes to complete SEO migration will ultimately depend on the size of the website, the amount of content you’ll move, and the necessary audits implemented both before and after the migration. For example, if your website only has about 50 to 100 pages, it will take much less time than a site with 1,000 pages or more. All in all, the preparation and execution of an SEO migration can take anywhere from one month to three months, but established websites with thousands of pages could take longer.

The key is to allocate enough time for each step in the following SEO site migration guide for planning, setting up a staging site, conducting quality assurance and audits, and then implementing the migration. To avoid rushing through the process, three months is recommended. However, the actual timeframe will vary depending on the resources available and the capabilities of your team.

A Comprehensive Website Migration SEO Checklist

Operation Technology helps clients with everything from domain migration SEO to complete website migration, and with over 200 years of combined experience, we’ve put together a pretty comprehensive SEO migration guide. To help you better understand the steps involved and determine whether you have the time and understanding necessary to achieve your desired results, we’ve outlined our process below.

1) Take Time to Plan and Strategize

The journey to a successful website migration begins with meticulous planning. A website undergoes substantial back-end changes when you start to alter the structure and URLs, so you should be prepared for everything you need to do. You’ll want to determine the kind of migration you need, outline your goals, figure out which parts of your website will be affected, assemble a strong team of experts, and try to develop a detailed project timeline.

Ideally, this timeline should outline every step you’ll need to do throughout your site migration project. You’ll also need to communicate with all teams involved, from SEO experts to web developers, project managers, and content creators. All players need to be on the same page regarding their roles in the site migration process.

2) Be Strategic About the Migration Date

Selecting the right launch date is another crucial step, but try to be reasonable about your deadline. For example, if you have 10,000 pages that need to be migrated, don’t set a deadline for 30 days from your start date. You also want to consider factors such as project goal setting, design approval, development work, content creation and updates, SEO migration tasks, and day-of-launch activities before choosing a deadline.

To maximize your efforts, opt for a time when website traffic is low, ideally during regular working hours. This allows you to address any unexpected issues promptly. Do not schedule your site migration for a weekend, as you’ll need all hands on deck in case of any issues.

3) Backup Your Site Completely

Before making any changes, create a backup of your existing website. This acts as a safety net, allowing you to revert to the old site if anything goes wrong during the launch. Develop a comprehensive rollback plan in collaboration with your marketing and web development teams to tackle any issues in the event of any issues post-launch.

4) Set Up a Staging Website

Another preliminary step in the site migration checklist is to create a staging website. This is a replica of your new site that is essentially invisible to audiences online. It serves as a testing ground for changes and can help you see how moving your website features affects things. For example, you can assess content, site functionality and, most importantly, implement URL 301 redirects before the site goes live. This helps reduce the need for multiple URL updates in internal links and sitemaps of your website migration plan.

5) Consider Phased SEO Migration

If your project is complex and you’re trying to do much more than moving a website to a new domain, you may want to consider breaking the process down into steps. This is especially important for complex migrations that involve multiple properties, sections, or websites. Using a phased approach simplifies troubleshooting and reduces the risk of critical errors when your new site is live.

Ensuring SEO Continuity

The next stage of a successful migration revolves around ensuring continuity with your SEO efforts. This helps you understand how your site will perform once the migration is complete.

6) Check the Organic Health of the New Domain and Perform a Backlink Audit

If you’re migrating to a new domain, it’s essential that you check the organic health of the prospected domain before making any changes. Make sure to look at whether there have been any past issues—like penalties for spammy backlinks or content, and evaluate the quality of existing backlinks. Metrics like Moz’s Domain Authority can offer insights.

Additionally, consider exploring the historical context of the domain through tools like Wayback Machine to ensure relevance. Although not always plausible, switching to a domain with historically familiar content types can help with overall site migration success.

7) Crawl Your Website to Take Inventory

Several SEO tools are available to help you crawl your pages and take inventory across the website. One option for this is a tool called ScreamingFrog. The website crawl will generate a complete URL and content inventory before the new site goes live. This, in turn, helps you identify issues on the staging website and provide insight on how to map old URLs to new ones for 301 redirects. After you crawl the website, you can better prioritize content based on its value to search engines using a scoring system.

8) Redirect URLs with SEO

Next, create a list of every URL on the new site that will be live. Then, using tools like Google Analytics and SEMrush, you can weigh the value of your content based on search engine value. This will help you prioritize URLs to support a successful SEO migration.

Identify high-priority URLs using your scoring system so they can be properly accounted for in your redirect map. This step helps direct traffic to essential content and effectively address outdated or missing pieces. Make sure you prioritize high-performing URLs for the biggest impact on website visibility.

9) Carry Out 301 Redirects

Create a comprehensive 301 redirect map based on your prioritization system and apply it to your website. This ensures old URLs redirect seamlessly to their new counterparts and maintains the integrity of internal links. Before and after launch, validate the map to ensure no redirects are broken.

10) Update and Improve Internal Links

Once new URLs are established, update internal links within your test website to prevent internal redirects or broken pages. Tools like ScreamingFrog can help identify and manage internal links, including anchor text and placement.

11) Be Creative with Your 404 Page

Next, consider getting creative with your 404 error page. By developing something engaging, funny, and user-friendly, you can actually improve UX and SEO.

The page should still guide users to relevant content on your website or back to the homepage, but people may get less frustrated with the issue if their user experience remains high. Get creative and minimize the likelihood of visitors leaving the site due to broken links.

creative 404 page

12) Assess Google My Business and Bing Places

If you’ve changed your domain, you’ll also need to update your website link in Google My Business, Bing Places, and any other citation pages or local listings. Ensure consistency for multiple locations or offices, especially if they have unique URLs (i.e., www.yoursite.com/location). In doing so, you’ll help maximize your local SEO strategy while maintaining authority on Google and other search engines.

13) Improve Your XML Sitemap

An XML sitemap is a type of file that contains all of your website’s essential pages so that they can be crawled and indexed by Google. This can be attached to your website to help search engines like Google and Bing find important URLs on your site so they can be readily available to users in SERPs.

To do this, create a new XML sitemap containing all new URLs and submit it to Google Search Console. Try to make this an early step in your site migration strategy and check your sitemap for errors, as it will help boost organic traffic once the new site replaces the old one.

14) Notify Search Engines of the Domain Change

You’ll need to notify search engines if you change your domain name (i.e., during https site migration). In Google Search Console, this can be done with the Change of Address Tool. For Bing, you can use the Site Move Tool that’s featured in Bing Webmaster Tools.

Use the Change of Address feature in Google Search Console and the Site Move Tool in Bing Webmaster Tools to inform search engines about your domain change. Promptly notify them after launching the new site as soon as it’s live.

15) Optimize the Site for Mobile Responsiveness

Having a well-functioning mobile website is crucial for site visitors and UX. So, make sure your website is optimized for mobile devices and site speed is maximized. In fact, Google prioritizes mobile-first indexing, so responsive design is crucial for rankings and overall server response.

Use Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test tool to assess your site’s mobile compatibility. It will provide you with recommendations on enhancing the site performance on mobile devices with key tips on mobile UX. Then, make necessary improvements that will help keep your site high in organic rankings.

16) Migrate Schema or Add New Markups

Schema markup, provided by Schema.org, helps search engines understand the content and context of web pages. Although it’s not technically a direct ranking factor, implementing schema can lead to higher click-through rates and improved rankings. When migrating your website, ensure your existing schema is transferred correctly to the new site. You can do this through various methods, including copying and pasting code, using Google Tag Manager, or through another third-party plugin.

When using the copy/paste method, first determine if your Schema is in HTML or Javascript. Then, work with your team of web developers to determine your options. You may be able to simply copy/paste your Schema into your new site’s body content.

You can also use Google Tag Manager, but it’s recently been advised against by Google itself. Luckily, WordPress and other CMS platforms have several options for additional plugins to help with Schema. You can try options like Joomla, or research other plugins that can help.

17) Pay Attention to Your Robots.txt

Next, move on to updating your robotx.txt file. Your robots.txt file guides search engine crawlers on which pages or files they can or cannot request from your site. It directs search engines on what pages they can crawl and what they can’t.

Update this file to reflect any changes in your site’s structure or content. Also, include the new sitemap XML URL to help search engines find and index your site effectively. Don’t forget to submit the finished URL to Google Search Console when you’re done.

18) Check and Update Backlinks

Identify backlinks pointing to your old website, especially those leading to valuable location pages or documents, and try to update them. Reach out to the websites hosting these backlinks and ask if they can change them to point to the new URLs. This can be beneficial for both parties involved, so chances are that you shouldn’t receive a lot of blowback. However, updating site architecture and backlinks can take time, so maintain a record of everything so you can monitor the progress closely.

19) Consider Keeping Your Old Domain

You never know how things may change in the future, so consider maintaining ownership of your own domain. This prevents other people from taking it over, thus losing all of your backlinks. Keeping control ensures you maintain the backlink equity you’ve built up over the years.

20) Perform Pre- and Post-Launch SEO Audit

Conduct thorough SEO audits before and after the website migration to confirm that all pages, content, links, tags, and mobile elements are in place and functioning correctly. Essential audit steps include running a crawl, checking analytics, testing on mobile devices, verifying integrations, and updating social profiles. Audits can also be done by SEO professionals to help ensure you cover all of your tracks and that the health of the entire site is thoroughly analyzed. When comparing audits, double-check to ensure nothing was lost during the migration and no SEO and UX issues are present.

SEO audit

21) Analyze Post-Launch Performance

After the migration, closely monitor your website’s performance. Look out for key metrics such as organic traffic, rankings, and user engagement. Track the following:

  • Organic Traffic: Analyze your organic traffic using tools like Google Analytics. Check key aspects of your website, such as the homepage, product or service pages, and blog posts, to see if traffic is decreasing, maintaining, or increasing post-migration. Detailed technical SEO may be required if you notice any unexplainable issues.
  • SERP Ranking: Compare your site’s rankings for keywords and searches before and after migration. Identify any decreases from pages on the old site and take corrective actions. If the site migration goes well, you shouldn’t see a decline in the SERP ranking of the live site.
  • Site Crawl and Indexing: After you’ve moved your site to the new domain, use Google Search Console to keep an eye on how Google is crawling, indexing, and ranking your website. Regularly check crawl errors and indexing reports for any issues.
  • Backlinks: Audit your backlink profile to ensure all backlinks function correctly and don’t lead to broken or redirected pages. Regular audits should be conducted on the full site at least every quarter.
  • 404 Page Traffic: Check 404 page traffic using Google Analytics to identify any issues when the new site becomes available.

22) Track 404 Pages in Google Analytics

Finally, take the time to create and optimize a 404 error page to guide users who encounter broken links. To track 404 pages in Google Analytics, create a 404 page with a unique title and use advanced filters to identify URLs leading to 404 errors. Address these issues promptly to enhance user experience and reduce broken links.

A website transfer that focuses on SEO best practices is not a simple or small undertaking—it requires a lot of time, knowledge, and understanding. However, migration that doesn’t involve SEO is only going to harm your efforts. To make sure your current site is functioning at its best, partner with the team at Operation Technology. Our experienced site migration consultants can help you with a seamless transition, regardless of whether the migration involves 100 pages or 10,000. Contact us today to schedule a consultation or inquire about our process.

About the Author: Brad Fogel

Bradley Fogel is a professional web designer and SEO consultant. Bradley has been working in the digital marketing field for over 20 years and is the CEO of Operation Technology, a digital marketing agency based in Chicago, IL. Starting his own company was something he had always wanted to do. It has been very rewarding to him seeing the team at Operation Technology helping small local businesses to large national clients with their digital marketing needs. His passion is developing strong online strategies for clients while making new connections within the industry. Brad’s background also includes a PMP certification from the Project Management Institute. Learn more about Brad Fogel.