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Written by Caroline Cox on Jan 7

New year, new URL? Here’s how to successfully pull off migrating your site.

Here, you’ll find:

  • Different types of site migrations
  • How to plan a site migration
  • What to do during a site migration
  • Common migration missteps to avoid

Whether you’re opting for a more secure site, getting a design refresh, or moving to a new CMS, there are plenty of reasons to take on a site migration. But this project is one that shouldn’t be taken on lightly.

Migrating your site is a technical, multi-step process — and a misstep can result in broken links, a poor mobile experience, and loss of significant SEO you’ve worked hard to build.

But before you break into a cold sweat, keep reading! Jessica Weber, one of HawkSEM’s SEO & SEM managers, is here to help us break down just a few of the big steps to take before, during, and after a site migration.

There are different types of site migrations

First things first: It’s important to acknowledge that site migration comes in many different forms. For example, a migration from an http to https URL is completely different from a redesign, which is different from a domain migration. 

The nature of a site migration is often a wildly complicated and technical process. Because of this, it’s crucial to have a plan for how to tackle this project before, during, and after the migration itself.

Other types of site migrations include:

  • Moving to a new domain
  • Changing URLs
  • Updating navigation or architecture
  • Adding mobile functionality  
  • Migrating part of a website
  • Moving to a new host or server
  • Moving to a new CMS or framework
  • Website redesign or template change
HawkSEM: How to Successfully Perform a Site Migration

When you’re working on a site migration, you always want to execute and test everything in a staging environment before it goes live on your actual website. (Image via Unsplash)

Before the site migration

According to Jessica, the “before” stage is the most important phase of a site migration. That’s why our #1 advice for site migration is to plan ahead

One of the first steps you take should be to create a site mapping document. This includes a list of your URL redirects — it works from the old site to the new site to make sure you’re passing all of your site equity onto the new site vs. losing it.

Essentially, this makes sure that your new URLs (if applicable) reroute from your old URLs so no pages are lost or dead-end with a 404 error. Equity refers to the fact that your old URLS have been around longer and thus have had more time to drum up page authority and traffic. You don’t want to lose that when you migrate your site. 

Pro tip: When you’re working on a site migration, you always want to execute and test everything in a staging environment before it goes live on your actual website. Sites like WordPress can walk you through the creation of production, staging and development environments.

During the site migration

As you’re migrating your site, you want to implement your comprehensive list of 301 redirects. Moz explains that, when the new site URLs are different from the old site URLs, 301 redirects “tell search engines to index the new URLs as well as forward any ranking signals from the old URLs to the new ones.”

You need to use permanent 301 redirects if your site migration entails:

  • Moving to or from another domain or subdomain
  • Switching from http to https
  • Parts of the site being restructured in some way

Next, you’ll want to update all of the canonical tags on your new, old, and other sites, if applicable. If your site has a page that can be accessed via multiple URLs, Google will view this as duplicate content — that’s where canonical tags come in. 

As the search engine explains, “Google will choose one URL as the canonical version and crawl that, and all other URLs will be considered duplicate URLs and crawled less often.” So make sure the canonical URL you’re directing to is the one that already has the most site equity.

Pro tip: Google recently launched a Change of Address Tool for sites migrating from one domain or subdomain to another. However, this isn’t the tool to use for changing from http to https, redirecting pages on your site, removing www from your domain, or moving without making user-visible URL changes. 

Additional steps to take during the migration process

Along with the above, don’t forget to check these to-dos off your list:

  • Updating all of the internal links on your sites so that they point to the new URLs
  • Updating all of your tracking codes
  • Setting up Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools for your new site (if applicable)
  • Updating your XML sitemap (if you don’t have a plug-in that will create it automatically) and submitting it to Google and Bing
  • If you have any high-value backlinks, reach out to the owners or editors and ask them to update the link
  • Updating outside links you control, such as Google My Business, social profiles, analytics, and anywhere there are citations, NAP (name, address, phone number), or links back to your site, so they point to the new URLs 

Pro tip: Launch your new site during an “off” or slow period of time, if you can. That way, your team can test out all the live links and address any issues quickly before customers and prospects see them.

HawkSEM: How to Successfully Perform a Site Migration

There are endless reasons why site owners may see SEO changes after migrating a site, regardless of the type of migration. (Image via Unsplash)

After the site migration

Finally, the finish line! Once you’ve successfully moved over your site content, tweaked it all in a staging environment, and followed the steps above, it’s time to launch. 

After your new site is up and running, it’s a good idea to continue monitoring 404s and Google Search Console to make sure everything is tracking properly. You also want to monitor your rankings — if you migrated and, after a few weeks, your rankings aren’t where they were (or better), it’s time to audit and see what might’ve gone awry.

Looking to up your SEO game? Check out our guide: 10 Quick Tips to Improve Your SEO Today.

How do avoid a drop in SEO after a migration

No matter how thorough you are with your site migration, it’s still possible to see a dip in your SEO performance. There are endless reasons why site owners may see changes after migrating a site, Jessica explains, regardless of the type of migration. 

A big part of this is because the Google algorithm is wary of bit site changes, so you’ll almost always see a dip after migrating while Google reassesses. If you’re migrating to new URLs, you may lose some equity through redirection. 

To ensure your SEO suffers as little as possible, avoid these common site migration mistakes:

  • Waiting too long to start the site migration process
  • Launching before you’re ready
  • Not comprehensively redirecting the proper way
  • Not updating canonical tags
  • Deciding to launch new sites that are not as well optimized as the old sites
  • Not making a copy of the old site
  • Failing to transfer your disavow file that tells Google which of your backlinks should be ignored
  • Not completing and saving a crawl for reference (you can crawl your site with a tool like Screaming Frog or Sitebulb)

Website crawler tools allow you to crawl your websites’ URLs to better analyze and audit your technical and onsite SEO. 

Don’t be afraid to consult a professional

It’s natural to be overwhelmed by the idea of a site migration — it’s an involved project with a lot of moving parts. While we’ve laid out the main elements of a site migration, much more goes into it along with the above.

If it seems like too much to take on, we suggest consulting an experienced professional who can ensure your migration goes smoothly.

The takeaway

Planning and preparation are the most important phases of a successful site migration. Along with this, it’s key to remember that SEO is part of every page, and it should be one of the first things you consider during a migration. 

Give yourself peace of mind during a site migration by following every step necessary to ensure you don’t look site equity, and keep a record of everything you do and need to do during the process. (Or, better yet, consider giving the job to a pro who can work with you to ensure the migration is a success.) Happy launching!

Caroline Cox

Caroline Cox

Caroline is HawkSEM's content marketing manager. She uses her nearly 10 years of professional writing and editing experience to create SEO-friendly articles, educational thought leadership pieces, and savvy social media content to help market leaders create successful digital marketing strategies. She's a fan of seltzer water, print magazines, and huskies.

Questions or comments? Join the conversation here!

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