A site migration is an umbrella term that can be used to describe several different major changes to a website.
Changes to a website’s structure, location, or platform, may all be referred to as site migrations.
We’re now spoilt for choice when it comes to content management systems (CMS), so it’s inevitable that website owners will at some point decide that it’s time to migrate their website from one platform to another. If you’re on the verge of doing just this, we advise you proceed with caution.
Whilst site migrations are common processes, they can still be extremely complex, and failure to plan carefully for one could have catastrophic results. At best, a badly planned site migration could lose you a few visitors, at worst your website could completely disappear from search engines or stop functioning correctly.
Luckily, we’re here to help guide you through the best process for achieving a safe and successful site migration. Over the years topflight has developed several SEO site migrations and it’s now time to share some of the most critical insights.
But before we let you in on the details, I think it’s worth explaining some basic concepts:
What is a redirect?
Web redirecting is the process of temporarily or permanently forwarding people visiting one URL to a different URL.
In most cases, the user won’t notice the change in URL, which makes this process useful when there’s a content change from page A to page B.
A redirect can point to any URL and it doesn’t necessarily need to point to the same website (internal redirect). If you need to move a URL to a page outside of your domain, creating a redirection is the perfect way to transfer the page’s authority and traffic without losing any “SEO juice”. These external redirections are usually called cross-domain redirects.
There are two different types of redirects, these are:
- Server-side redirects – a type of redirect performed directly on the server. Server-side redirects can either be permanent or temporary.
- Client-side redirects – a redirect that is performed within the browser. Client-side redirects tend to be slower than server-side redirects.
Permanent redirects are used to permanently move one URL to another URL, usually because an old page has been replaced or to fix any internal SEO issue identified.
Temporary redirects are used to send visitors to an alternative page whilst a page is being updated or is momentarily unavailable.
What is web hosting?
Web hosting is an online service that provides users with a platform to publish a website or web application online, including all their multimedia files.
What is a site migration?
A site migration, AKA web migration, is the process of moving a website and all its internal elements from one provider to another. This means that your website will remain the same, but the place where it is hosted will change.
When carrying out a site migration, you can keep the same domain structure, change the name of the domain, and even modify the taxonomy of the URLs.
It is also possible to switch the web hosting provider and keep the domain with the previous company, although this is not highly recommended.
When is a site migration necessary?
There are many reasons why people decide to migrate from one hosting provider to another, these include:
- CMS: If you have outgrown your current hosting provider’s CMS system you may be searching for a system that offers a higher degree of control. This is particularly common when businesses start out with a hosting provider that offers a drag-and-drop CMS like Wix, Webnode or Squarespace.
- Performance: All hosting providers offer a variety of different packages. You may need to migrate your website to a different hosting provider to get a better deal and improve your website’s speed or performance.
- Internal migration: Not all migrations mean changing hosting provider. It is also possible to migrate a website within the same provider to obtain a better package.
Types of website migration
The type of site migration you need to perform will depend on what it is you wish to achieve. Here are some of the commonest types of website migration.
A) Domain migration – Changing a website’s domain name is very common nowadays. There are several reasons why you may wish to change your domain, including:
- Branding – if you change your brand name, it makes sense to also change your domain.
- To target different audiences – Imagine that your domain is using a ccTLD domain (.co.uk or .es) but your company now wants to also reach international audiences. Then it’s a smart idea to change your domain to a TLD version (.com or .net).
B) HTTP to HTTPS migration – This type of site migration has been common ever since Google started requiring websites to be secured by SSL protocol. Having a non-secured website can damage your rankings, so if you’re still using HTTP, now may be the right time to migrate your website to HTTPS.
C) Subdomains to directories and vice versa – Some websites use different subdomains to separate versions of their site (for example, grocery.morrisons.com, my.morrisons.com & morrisons.com). This can be a good way to separate content so that you can use different SEO strategies for different types of content or services. However, if these subdomains are unified in directories (morrisons.com/grocery/ & morrisons.com/my-account/) a site migration would be necessary to transfer all the traffic and authority to the new URLs.
D) Switching hosting providers – If you’ve outgrown your hosting provider, a site migration can move your website from one platform to another. For this process, redirects are not usually required as you simply need to change the DNS records to point from provider 1 to provider 2.
E) Full website migration – Finally, a full migration may be required if your website is being rebuilt or revamped and moved to a new website. If this is the case, you must plan and prepare for the site migration very carefully to minimise damage to your website’s ranking.
Whatever your reasons for considering a site migration, you should evaluate the pros and cons of doing so before you start. Migrations are extremely delicate processes that can jeopardise the work of months or years if they are not carried out successfully.
How do you migrate a website?
Ok, so now that we’re clear on the basics, here’s the bit you’ve been waiting for.
How exactly do you go about carrying out a web migration without playing havoc with your website and your SEO ranking?
Each web hosting migration is different and will require its own unique process and plan to be successful. As a starting point, our technical SEO team here at topflight have created an excellent web migration checklist for you.
Our checklist describes the most common migration processes step-by-step, including those necessary to look after your website’s SEO.
Planning for a successful SEO site migration: step-by-step
1) Perform an initial audit of the website
2) Address the identified issues
Any issues identified by the audit should now be fixed to prevent them from being transferred over to the new platform. Keep the audit report so that you can compare results once the domain has been migrated.
3) Create an initial sitemap
Creating a sitemap will help you to understand the structure of the website so that you can build the redirection map.
4) Identify unnecessary pages and save the content
We always recommend saving all old content, even if it seems completely irrelevant, you will be surprised what ends up being useful!
5) Analyse the website
This point is extremely important. Gather as much information as you can about your website’s existing vital stats including keywords, traffic, competition, and link profile. All the information you can gather from the original domain will be extremely useful when designing the new website, creating content, and comparing results once the migration has been completed.
6) Design the new website’s sitemap
Next you should create a sitemap for the new website to determine where the redirects should point.
7) Map out the redirects
At this stage you should already have the URLs ready to be moved, the sitemaps for both websites, and the structure of the URLs, so it is time to design the redirection map.
It is worth mentioning that this point can determine the result of the migration, so take your time and pay attention to every detail. If a web designer is creating the website for you, you will need to send them this map so they can create the redirects for you.
8) Create a backup and save it
I cannot stress how important it is to always have a current backup of absolutely everything to do with your website. If something goes horribly wrong, having a backup is a lifesaver. I’d suggest that you save your files in the cloud (GDrive, Onedrive, Dropbox, etc.) to avoid losing your data and to be able to access them remotely if needed.
9) Update DNS records
This tells Google which is the new web host for the domain. This is done through the cPanel of your new hosting provider. If you don’t know how to do this, you can consult their technical department and they may be able to do it for you.
10) Redirect all the relevant URLs using the redirection map
Once everything is ready to go, you will need to redirect all relevant old URLs to the corresponding URLs in the new domain. This is where the redirect map becomes important to avoid making mistakes.
Although this is not a solution we usually recommend, if you use WordPress there are plugins that execute the redirects, like Redirection. If, on the other hand, you use a CMS like Wix, you will probably have to ask them to execute the redirects for you.
11) Update all the internal elements
Once you have started the migration process you will need to update all internal elements such as canonical tags, internal links, Google Analytics code, etc.
12) Re-audit the website once the migration has been completed
This will allow you to discover any post-migration issues before the search engines find them. Once detected, the next logical step will be to correct the issues, starting with the most serious.
Do you want to know how to execute a technical SEO audit of your site? Have a look at our article: What is a technical SEO audit? (And tips for performing one).
13) Resubmit your website to Google
14) Resubmit the sitemap via Google Search Console
Resubmitting your sitemap will help Google understand the structure of the new website better.
15) Update the information in Google My Business
If you have an account with Google My Business, it is important to update the web address with your new domain.
* Of course, this step only applies to cases where the domain has been changed.
16) Make an annotation on Google Analytics
This will help you to identify any changes in traffic that could have been caused by the migration.
17) Monitor traffic and analyse user behaviour pattern
Now we need to let the website stabilise and receive all the backlinks from the old domain.
Whilst this is happening, keep a close eye on traffic and user behaviour patterns to detect any errors on the new website.
18) Before vs after
The last step of the process is to create a report to compare your website’s post-migration stats with the stats collected before migrating the old website. This data can then be used to assess the success of the migration and identify any areas of the website that have either suffered or benefited from it.
+1) SEO TIP 1
Wherever possible, try to update any existing backlinks so they point to the new domain (only if you have changed it). As you may know, a backlink loses link juice every time it is redirected, so if all backlinks are going to be redirected, it is likely that your new domain will lose authority. To do this, you can contact the webmasters that are linking to your website and ask them to update the backlinks.
+2) SEO TIP 2
Post articles on social media using the new domain to speed up the reindexing process.
As you can see, web migrations can be long and complex, so it is worth following a checklist to ensure the migration goes smoothly. If you don’t have your own web migration checklist, we’ve created a website migration template for you to use – for free! You can find it here.
How long does it take to migrate a website?
The length of time it takes to migrate your website will depend on the size of the website and the type of site migration required.
If you’re just moving your domain from one provider to another, or changing your domain name, it should only take a few days.
However, if you’re moving your entire site and changing the URL structure, it could easily take a month to evaluate the risks and prepare the checklist described above.
The same applies to the size of your website. The more pages, categories, articles, or products you have; the more time you will need to spend preparing for the migration.
So, there you have it. Migrating your website can offer huge benefits, but it’s a process that doesn’t come without its risks and should be approached carefully and methodically with plenty of pre-planning.
Before taking the plunge, you should be 120% clear about the process you need to follow to migrate your website successfully. If you don’t feel confident doing the migration yourself, or don’t have time for all the work involved, feel free to contact our team here at topflight for help and advice, or to get the job done by the experts.
If you think I’ve missed out any important points, don’t forget to let me know in the comments below, and please share this article if you found it useful, I hope so!