Site migrations are one of the scariest and most burdensome tasks for anyone to undertake, whether you’re a developer, SEO, advertiser, or site owner. It goes without saying that almost every migration is going to have its hiccups. Below, I’ve outlined nine SEO tips below that will hopefully save you time and prevent potential headaches.
1) Create a Redirect Matrix
Undergoing a site migration is like moving apartments. Your old apartment is full of all the things you’ve collected over the years (your site content). The end goal is to find a spot in the new apartment for everything that you want to keep. But maybe the old apartment had four rooms, and the new one has three. Maybe you stopped using certain items and need to throw a bunch of stuff out.
So how do you prioritize? Like moving, the first step in site migration is to inventory everything so you know what’s available and important. There are a few ways to discover content.
If you’re not the client/brand/site owner, the easiest way would be to simply ask the webmaster for a list. This won’t always work (since sites go through many iterations and development agencies can change frequently over time). Luckily, there are alternatives.
You can leverage sitemaps (XML or HTML). If they were maintained properly, they should list all major pages. But if a site has an extensive history, these sitemaps will probably not be wholly inclusive. Performing a Google “site:” report is a good way to determine which pages search engines still have in their indexes. I typically place a high priority on this list, as 404 errors will negatively affect these the most. You can also use other site crawling tools like Xenu, Deepcrawl or Screaming Frog, which will provide a more comprehensive view of discoverable content.
The second step is to prioritize content. It’s best to look at both on-site and off-site metrics. Which pages perform the best (in terms of engagement or actions)? Which pages rank well for target keywords? Which have the most inbound links or social mentions? To discover the latter, there are many backlink analysis tools available, including Open Site Explorer or Majestic.
2) Implement the Redirects
If you’re moving domains entirely, you’ll need to keep possession of the old site in order to maintain server-side code. This includes all redirects and redirect rules.
As a general rule of thumb, one-to-one redirects are best for SEO. That means a page from the old site should 301 redirect to a page on the new site. Avoid redirect chains and mixing different types of redirects.
If the web property includes hundreds of pages, sometimes it makes sense to create redirect rules. This is especially important for eCommerce or news sites, where content is constantly changing. In these cases, it may serve you better to redirect all former products or news articles to a section landing page instead. For instance, you may want to redirect all old winter jacket pages to the new outerwear landing page on the new site. That way, when it’s spring and the winter jackets section goes away, you won’t need to revise the old redirects.
3) Set Up Tracking
Without a doubt, proper tracking is vital in determining how users interact with the new site. If you’re changing templates or domains, you have to consider whether you want to maintain separate analytics accounts or roll everything into one.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both. One of the main advantages of consolidation is the ability to keep all data in one place. This will allow you to compare date ranges more easily in the Analytics UI and export data as is. However, a big disadvantage is that the data itself may become muddled. If you’re not leveraging content grouping, you’ll have to remember which old pages correspond to which new pages.
That said, if you’re moving domains and want to combine account data, setting up cross-domain tracking will be your best bet.
4) Use Canonical Tags
Canonical tags are a must for any site, especially for a new one. Google will only crawl a finite number of pages of your site at a time, so it’s best to prevent duplicates.
Remember to implement redirect rules for www vs. non-www. You should be consistent throughout your site in terms of referencing www/non-www in canonical tags and internal linking. Google Webmaster Tools also allows you to choose how you want your website to be displayed.
The same goes for http vs https. Whichever one you choose for a particular page, that should be the version listed in the canonical.
5) Update Your Ad Campaign URLs
Most of the time, redirects will strip UTM/proprietary tracking off of URLs, so make sure all ads are driving traffic to the latest destination URLs. In other words, the URL that’s inputted into your ad trafficking platform (with UTM tracking) should produce a 200 OK header response.
If you don’t do this, paid search clicks may be attributed to organic. And you’ll likely lose campaign-level tracking data for display, social, newsletters, etc.
6) Track 404 Errors!
Launching the site is just half the battle. Afterwards, you’ll have to maintain the site’s health. 404 errors are signals to Google that your site is poorly kept. Therefore, it’s important to fix any additional errors that you encounter.
Google Webmaster Tools provides a lot of great insights into how Google views your site. The Crawl Errors section should help you prioritize which errors to fix.
Alternatively, you can also run through server logs to see how a user reached a 404 page.
The point is to never stop tracking these errors. One thing I’ve learned from years of experience is to never underestimate users’ ability to break your site.
7) Create a Useful 404 Page
Of course, you won’t catch every possible 404 error, so it’s best to create an error page that’s useful for visitors. Include a search box or suggestions for pages that the user might be trying to reach.
8) Create an XML sitemap
Update your sitemaps. If you’re restarting sitemaps from scratch, consider creating a sitemap index. It’s much easier to maintain XML sitemaps for large sites if they’re organized logically.
Reference either your sitemap index or individual sitemaps in your robots.txt, and submit them to Google Webmaster Tools to spot-check for syntax or crawl errors.
9) Tell Google That You’ve Moved!
Back to the apartment analogy—you’ll need a mail forwarding address. Consider Google as the postal service (albeit a smarter one). Google will eventually find your new site if you have redirects and sitemaps in place, but you should also inform them of your change of address directly via Webmaster Tools.
This is by no means a comprehensive migration checklist, but it outlines some precautions and steps that people often forget amid all the chaos of moving.
Are there any other steps you’ve undertaken to ensure a smooth migration? Share them with us in the comments.