How to run an effective website migration (+ free checklist)

How to run an effective website migration (+ free checklist)

9 minute read

How to run an effective website migration (+ free checklist)

9 minute read

How to run an effective website migration (+ free checklist)

Afoma Umesi

GatherContent Contributor, Writer
Website migration is often a necessary evil for many organizations and e-commerce sites. Much like moving house or undertaking serious renovations on your own, migrating a site is hard, high-stakes work.

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If poorly executed, major changes to your site’s location or architecture can spell problems for your domain ranking and traffic. We’ll walk you through what website migration entails, share some common mistakes to avoid, and highlight some best practices from SEO experts.

What is website migration?

When most people think of website migration, they may naturally think of moving from one domain name to another.

While this is one form of website migration, there are several other site changes that count as website migration:

Site location changes

This is the most common (and perhaps obvious) form of website migration. It typically involves a change in the protocol, domain name, or URL path. For example:

  1. Changing from http://www.website.com to https://www.website.com (protocol change)
  2. Changing from https://www.website.com to https://www.newwebsite.com (domain change)
  3. Changing from https://www.website.com to https://www.website.net  (top-level domain change)
  4. Changing from https://www.website.com/about to https://www.website.com/about-us (URL path change)

Any changes to the URL structure signify a site location change. These changes usually occur with rebrands or changing to a purchased domain name with higher authority.

Web host changes

If you decide to move from one content management system (CMS) or website host to another, this would be a web host change. An example of this change would be migrating your site from Squarespace to WordPress or Webflow. You may also change your formerly WordPress-hosted site to a self-hosted one using website hosting providers like Bluehost or GoDaddy.

Unless you also decide to change your URLs or protocols, moving to a new web host will not affect your domain name. So while you’ve changed hosts on the backend, all front-end viewers will see the same website address you’ve always had.

Structural changes

Google only considers the first two examples of site moves as a website migration. However, many content and SEO experts count structural changes and the next two list items as site migrations.

Structural changes involve making significant changes to your site’s hierarchy. This could be re-categorizing blog posts, changing certain prominent pages to posts and vice-versa, or changing your site’s navigation menu completely.

The issue with structural changes is that search engines like Google or Bing typically have to re-learn your site’s new setup and possibly re-index some new pages. This break in transmission can cost you traffic or search engine result page (SERP) rankings in the meantime.

Content overhauls

Content overhauls refer to blog post refreshes, pillar page creation, and refreshes, adding a huge volume of new images, etc. These kinds of changes may seem small, but Hubspot reports increasing organic views on refreshed posts by an average of 106%.

Unfortunately, if you refresh the wrong post at the wrong time, you may get the opposite reaction from search engines.

Design changes

A crucial part of rebrands is site redesigns. It’s true that design changes can improve user experience and site functionality. Sometimes, however, designers can get a bit too design-happy and tamper with the site’s architecture or introduce buggy code that can have a negative impact on traffic. This makes site redesigns of near-equal impact to the traditional site migration.

For example, imagine a huge e-commerce site undergoing a massive re-design. If a web developer who doesn’t know the ins and outs of the site is tasked with combining pages or re-structuring their navigation menu to fit a new design, the site could end up with many 404 pages.

How to Avoid Bad Website Migrations

Now that we’ve seen what website migrations involve, what can you do to prevent a bad site migration? Here are 5 tips:

Back up your site

Because site migrations are risky (even with a professional onboard), it is wise to back up all your site information. Many CMS platforms like WordPress have plugins or similar services to do this. Another option is to first use a staging site before making your changes on the live site.

Keeping track of produced content is even easier if you start off using a content hub like GatherContent.

Good to Know: GatherContent automatically saves your content as you create. Better yet, you can migrate all your produced content from GatherContent to your new CMS.

Don’t change too much at once

With every migration-related change, search engines need to adjust to your new settings, register it, and then decide whether or not to rank your site’s content. That’s why it’s important to change one thing (or a few things) in one go.

It would be disastrous to change your domain name and make structural site changes in one fell swoop. Also, changing multiple things at once makes it harder to figure out the root of the problem if you run into search engine optimization (SEO) challenges afterward.

Set up redirects early

If you’re moving from one domain to another, it is crucial to set up a 301 redirect as soon as possible.

301 redirects tell Google and other search engines that your site has permanently moved to a new domain. So, whenever someone enters your old URL in their browser, they’ll be redirected to the new URL automatically.

Set up your redirect to the new domain at least a week before you migrate the site. The process of redirection can take up to 48 hours, so ensure you have enough time to set it up and test it before migrating.

Inform Google of your new domain

For domain name changes (not protocol changes), it’s important to let Google know that your site is changing addresses. You can do this with the Search Console Change of Address Tool. You will need to verify site ownership with Google first before you can do this.

Keep your old domain for a while

The last tip is to keep your old domain name for at least a year after migration, if possible. This allows search engines time to reindex your site and correct any temporary drops in page rankings. It also gives customers some time to adjust to your new URL and memorize or bookmark it as they did the old one.

What you need for a website migration

A website migration is not a one-person job, especially for bigger websites or e-commerce stores. Here are some must-haves for your to-do list if you’re embarking on the process:

Set your migration goals

A successful website migration begins with knowing your "why." Understanding the main objective of your site move will help you target the right goals. Want a higher domain authority? Then look into purchasing a domain with higher authority. Need a complete rebrand? Changing domain names may be unavoidable. But if you just need to change your site’s architecture, you might do better with only structural changes.

Curated vs automated migration

Depending on your content type, the size of your site, and whether or not you want to keep all your content; you may decide to automate your migration process. This means, simply choosing a tool and moving all your content to the new site. However, if you’re migrating because you want to fine-tune old content, curated migration–although more tasking–might be better for your team.

Content inventory

Before you migrate your content, it is critical to have basic information about all the content created for your site. This is your content inventory. In your content inventory, you’ll want to include the following information about each piece of content:

  • Post URL
  • Creation date
  • Post author
  • Content type or format
  • Internal links on each page
  • Whether or not you plan to refresh the content

A good way to create an inventory of your site is by using a crawler/crawling tool. These tools go through your site discovering new internal links which they then report to Google servers.

Technical specifications for the new website

If you’re working with web developers, you’ll need to collaborate with them to preserve as much of your site’s SEO specifications. Your technical specifications document should cover guidelines for everything from the site’s navigation menu, 301 redirects, metadata, headings, site structure, XML sitemaps, and more.

Efficient migration tool

Once you’re all set, it’s time to decide on a migration tool. If you’ve been working with GatherContent, we definitely recommend migrating with it. GatherContent has integrations with the most popular CMS’ and makes it easy to move from one host to another with at little error potential as possible.  

GatherContent integrations
GatherContent has integrations with the most popular CMS'.

Overview of the website migration process

Now, it’s showtime. We’ve taken you through some mistakes to avoid and essential tools to have on hand as you prepare to migrate. If you’re still feeling a bit overwhelmed, this section will help.

We’ll walk you through a step-by-step overview of website migration. But first, we recommend downloading our website migration checklist if you haven’t yet. The checklist provides guidance from pre-launch to post-migration.

1. Pre-Launch

In this phase, focus on the following steps:

  • Nail your site migration objectives and see how a site move can help you reach them
  • Plan by consulting stakeholders, reviewing your budget, and ensuring that all team members know their roles,
  • Set up benchmarks for site traffic and priority pages (top-ranking pages) so you can track any changes after the migration
  • Set up 301 redirects to signal a permanent site move
  • Implement a content freeze, i.e. stop creating any new content until the move is complete
  • Choose the right time to move–typically slow traffic seasons and times when Google isn’t changing algorithms are ideal

2. Launch Day

On the actual site migration date, the focus is to keep things on track. Monitor the migration and perform live testing to see if things are going well. Be sure to make your team aware of the website migration project, too.

3. Post-Launch

In this phase, check on the entire site using your content inventory. Ensure that posts, pages, images, and other site content are imported properly. On your new site, double-check that your robots.txt file is properly set up so the website can be crawled and indexed.

Once you’re up and running, be sure to let your audience know that your site has moved. This will keep them in the loop and maintain the traffic flow until your new domain finds its footing again.

Best Practices from SMEs

There’s much more to be said about site migration, and we asked several SEO experts who’ve migrated dozens of sites to share some more site migration best practices.

Set Canonical Tags

When you set a canonical tag or canonical URL, you’re telling search engines which site URL or domain name is your first choice. Calloway Cook, founder of Illuminate Labs, an eCommerce company recently had to migrate his site to a new domain. According to Cook, “setting canonical URLs for every page on your site is extremely important.”

Cook states, “If you're planning to migrate domains with a 301 redirect from the old domain to the new domain, you should set the canonical URL as the URL of the page on the new domain.” He credits setting canonical URLs during the domain migration process for the preservation of their site’s ranking throughout the process.

Maintain tracking scripts

One overlooked danger with site migration is potentially losing all past traffic reporting. Jeff Romero, founder of web design agency  Octive Digital reports that many migrated sites experience this issue.

To sidestep this problem, Romero recommends that teams “remember to include Google Tag Manager/Google Analytics information” while migrating. He says that “any tags in the header of a site should be pulled over to the new site as part of the migration process. This will ensure that in Google Analytics, tags found in Google Tag Manager and verification tags for Google Search Console will remain tracking properly.”

Keep monitoring performance

So, your new site is up and running, but is it back to business as usual? Steve Pogson, founder and e-commerce strategy lead at First Pier, doesn’t think so. Broken links are a massive issue for newly migrated sites. According to Pogson, it’s not usual for migrations to go off without a hitch, only for organic traffic to plummet a month later.

Pogson states that this typically happens “after Google discovered a couple of redirect loops in the internal linking structure.” He recommends monitoring performance for at least 6 months. “Keep an eye on the backlinks, keyword rankings, and organic traffic going into the old site, and set benchmarks for pages indexed. On the old site, all of those numbers should progressively drop to 0 and balance out as the new site climbs. Check all of those internal links, 301 redirects, and look for any server issues or poor indexation indicators in the search panel.”

Be Prepared for Website Migration

There’s only so much you can do during and after your website migration project. Other expert tips we received included having an expert on call and not panicking if your site experiences a brief traffic drop after the move. This will hopefully resolve in a few weeks.

Still, the best time to prepare for website migration is far before you’ll need to do it. The best way to prepare? Organize your content for success by using GatherContent as your content hub. Remember, your website is nothing without its content. Protecting your content by housing it in GatherContent ensures that you can migrate it with little to no losses.

Ready to give it a whirl? Start your GatherContent free trial.

If poorly executed, major changes to your site’s location or architecture can spell problems for your domain ranking and traffic. We’ll walk you through what website migration entails, share some common mistakes to avoid, and highlight some best practices from SEO experts.

What is website migration?

When most people think of website migration, they may naturally think of moving from one domain name to another.

While this is one form of website migration, there are several other site changes that count as website migration:

Site location changes

This is the most common (and perhaps obvious) form of website migration. It typically involves a change in the protocol, domain name, or URL path. For example:

  1. Changing from http://www.website.com to https://www.website.com (protocol change)
  2. Changing from https://www.website.com to https://www.newwebsite.com (domain change)
  3. Changing from https://www.website.com to https://www.website.net  (top-level domain change)
  4. Changing from https://www.website.com/about to https://www.website.com/about-us (URL path change)

Any changes to the URL structure signify a site location change. These changes usually occur with rebrands or changing to a purchased domain name with higher authority.

Web host changes

If you decide to move from one content management system (CMS) or website host to another, this would be a web host change. An example of this change would be migrating your site from Squarespace to WordPress or Webflow. You may also change your formerly WordPress-hosted site to a self-hosted one using website hosting providers like Bluehost or GoDaddy.

Unless you also decide to change your URLs or protocols, moving to a new web host will not affect your domain name. So while you’ve changed hosts on the backend, all front-end viewers will see the same website address you’ve always had.

Structural changes

Google only considers the first two examples of site moves as a website migration. However, many content and SEO experts count structural changes and the next two list items as site migrations.

Structural changes involve making significant changes to your site’s hierarchy. This could be re-categorizing blog posts, changing certain prominent pages to posts and vice-versa, or changing your site’s navigation menu completely.

The issue with structural changes is that search engines like Google or Bing typically have to re-learn your site’s new setup and possibly re-index some new pages. This break in transmission can cost you traffic or search engine result page (SERP) rankings in the meantime.

Content overhauls

Content overhauls refer to blog post refreshes, pillar page creation, and refreshes, adding a huge volume of new images, etc. These kinds of changes may seem small, but Hubspot reports increasing organic views on refreshed posts by an average of 106%.

Unfortunately, if you refresh the wrong post at the wrong time, you may get the opposite reaction from search engines.

Design changes

A crucial part of rebrands is site redesigns. It’s true that design changes can improve user experience and site functionality. Sometimes, however, designers can get a bit too design-happy and tamper with the site’s architecture or introduce buggy code that can have a negative impact on traffic. This makes site redesigns of near-equal impact to the traditional site migration.

For example, imagine a huge e-commerce site undergoing a massive re-design. If a web developer who doesn’t know the ins and outs of the site is tasked with combining pages or re-structuring their navigation menu to fit a new design, the site could end up with many 404 pages.

How to Avoid Bad Website Migrations

Now that we’ve seen what website migrations involve, what can you do to prevent a bad site migration? Here are 5 tips:

Back up your site

Because site migrations are risky (even with a professional onboard), it is wise to back up all your site information. Many CMS platforms like WordPress have plugins or similar services to do this. Another option is to first use a staging site before making your changes on the live site.

Keeping track of produced content is even easier if you start off using a content hub like GatherContent.

Good to Know: GatherContent automatically saves your content as you create. Better yet, you can migrate all your produced content from GatherContent to your new CMS.

Don’t change too much at once

With every migration-related change, search engines need to adjust to your new settings, register it, and then decide whether or not to rank your site’s content. That’s why it’s important to change one thing (or a few things) in one go.

It would be disastrous to change your domain name and make structural site changes in one fell swoop. Also, changing multiple things at once makes it harder to figure out the root of the problem if you run into search engine optimization (SEO) challenges afterward.

Set up redirects early

If you’re moving from one domain to another, it is crucial to set up a 301 redirect as soon as possible.

301 redirects tell Google and other search engines that your site has permanently moved to a new domain. So, whenever someone enters your old URL in their browser, they’ll be redirected to the new URL automatically.

Set up your redirect to the new domain at least a week before you migrate the site. The process of redirection can take up to 48 hours, so ensure you have enough time to set it up and test it before migrating.

Inform Google of your new domain

For domain name changes (not protocol changes), it’s important to let Google know that your site is changing addresses. You can do this with the Search Console Change of Address Tool. You will need to verify site ownership with Google first before you can do this.

Keep your old domain for a while

The last tip is to keep your old domain name for at least a year after migration, if possible. This allows search engines time to reindex your site and correct any temporary drops in page rankings. It also gives customers some time to adjust to your new URL and memorize or bookmark it as they did the old one.

What you need for a website migration

A website migration is not a one-person job, especially for bigger websites or e-commerce stores. Here are some must-haves for your to-do list if you’re embarking on the process:

Set your migration goals

A successful website migration begins with knowing your "why." Understanding the main objective of your site move will help you target the right goals. Want a higher domain authority? Then look into purchasing a domain with higher authority. Need a complete rebrand? Changing domain names may be unavoidable. But if you just need to change your site’s architecture, you might do better with only structural changes.

Curated vs automated migration

Depending on your content type, the size of your site, and whether or not you want to keep all your content; you may decide to automate your migration process. This means, simply choosing a tool and moving all your content to the new site. However, if you’re migrating because you want to fine-tune old content, curated migration–although more tasking–might be better for your team.

Content inventory

Before you migrate your content, it is critical to have basic information about all the content created for your site. This is your content inventory. In your content inventory, you’ll want to include the following information about each piece of content:

  • Post URL
  • Creation date
  • Post author
  • Content type or format
  • Internal links on each page
  • Whether or not you plan to refresh the content

A good way to create an inventory of your site is by using a crawler/crawling tool. These tools go through your site discovering new internal links which they then report to Google servers.

Technical specifications for the new website

If you’re working with web developers, you’ll need to collaborate with them to preserve as much of your site’s SEO specifications. Your technical specifications document should cover guidelines for everything from the site’s navigation menu, 301 redirects, metadata, headings, site structure, XML sitemaps, and more.

Efficient migration tool

Once you’re all set, it’s time to decide on a migration tool. If you’ve been working with GatherContent, we definitely recommend migrating with it. GatherContent has integrations with the most popular CMS’ and makes it easy to move from one host to another with at little error potential as possible.  

GatherContent integrations
GatherContent has integrations with the most popular CMS'.

Overview of the website migration process

Now, it’s showtime. We’ve taken you through some mistakes to avoid and essential tools to have on hand as you prepare to migrate. If you’re still feeling a bit overwhelmed, this section will help.

We’ll walk you through a step-by-step overview of website migration. But first, we recommend downloading our website migration checklist if you haven’t yet. The checklist provides guidance from pre-launch to post-migration.

1. Pre-Launch

In this phase, focus on the following steps:

  • Nail your site migration objectives and see how a site move can help you reach them
  • Plan by consulting stakeholders, reviewing your budget, and ensuring that all team members know their roles,
  • Set up benchmarks for site traffic and priority pages (top-ranking pages) so you can track any changes after the migration
  • Set up 301 redirects to signal a permanent site move
  • Implement a content freeze, i.e. stop creating any new content until the move is complete
  • Choose the right time to move–typically slow traffic seasons and times when Google isn’t changing algorithms are ideal

2. Launch Day

On the actual site migration date, the focus is to keep things on track. Monitor the migration and perform live testing to see if things are going well. Be sure to make your team aware of the website migration project, too.

3. Post-Launch

In this phase, check on the entire site using your content inventory. Ensure that posts, pages, images, and other site content are imported properly. On your new site, double-check that your robots.txt file is properly set up so the website can be crawled and indexed.

Once you’re up and running, be sure to let your audience know that your site has moved. This will keep them in the loop and maintain the traffic flow until your new domain finds its footing again.

Best Practices from SMEs

There’s much more to be said about site migration, and we asked several SEO experts who’ve migrated dozens of sites to share some more site migration best practices.

Set Canonical Tags

When you set a canonical tag or canonical URL, you’re telling search engines which site URL or domain name is your first choice. Calloway Cook, founder of Illuminate Labs, an eCommerce company recently had to migrate his site to a new domain. According to Cook, “setting canonical URLs for every page on your site is extremely important.”

Cook states, “If you're planning to migrate domains with a 301 redirect from the old domain to the new domain, you should set the canonical URL as the URL of the page on the new domain.” He credits setting canonical URLs during the domain migration process for the preservation of their site’s ranking throughout the process.

Maintain tracking scripts

One overlooked danger with site migration is potentially losing all past traffic reporting. Jeff Romero, founder of web design agency  Octive Digital reports that many migrated sites experience this issue.

To sidestep this problem, Romero recommends that teams “remember to include Google Tag Manager/Google Analytics information” while migrating. He says that “any tags in the header of a site should be pulled over to the new site as part of the migration process. This will ensure that in Google Analytics, tags found in Google Tag Manager and verification tags for Google Search Console will remain tracking properly.”

Keep monitoring performance

So, your new site is up and running, but is it back to business as usual? Steve Pogson, founder and e-commerce strategy lead at First Pier, doesn’t think so. Broken links are a massive issue for newly migrated sites. According to Pogson, it’s not usual for migrations to go off without a hitch, only for organic traffic to plummet a month later.

Pogson states that this typically happens “after Google discovered a couple of redirect loops in the internal linking structure.” He recommends monitoring performance for at least 6 months. “Keep an eye on the backlinks, keyword rankings, and organic traffic going into the old site, and set benchmarks for pages indexed. On the old site, all of those numbers should progressively drop to 0 and balance out as the new site climbs. Check all of those internal links, 301 redirects, and look for any server issues or poor indexation indicators in the search panel.”

Be Prepared for Website Migration

There’s only so much you can do during and after your website migration project. Other expert tips we received included having an expert on call and not panicking if your site experiences a brief traffic drop after the move. This will hopefully resolve in a few weeks.

Still, the best time to prepare for website migration is far before you’ll need to do it. The best way to prepare? Organize your content for success by using GatherContent as your content hub. Remember, your website is nothing without its content. Protecting your content by housing it in GatherContent ensures that you can migrate it with little to no losses.

Ready to give it a whirl? Start your GatherContent free trial.

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