Site migrations are necessary for many reasons – from rebranding to simply requiring a ‘bit of a refresh’ to updating an outdated website. Or it could simply be to switch from unsecured http to https – which is important for visitor security and is a ranking factor.
However, one thing that often gets overlooked when a site is being redesigned is the SEO. So many websites chuck the baby out with the bathwater on this – so, so many!
Different types of website migrations
There are different types of site migrations, this list explains the definitions.
- Changing from http to https is a Protocol Migration.
- Moving some of your content to a subdomain – for example from yourwebsite.co.uk to subdomain.yourwebsite.co.uk – is a Subdomain Migration
- Changing your website URL – for example from oldwebsite.co.uk to newwebsite.co.uk – is a Domain Migration.
- Changing your website URL from a .co.uk or .ca to a .org or .com, etc is a Top-Level Domain Migration.
- Moving a website from one content management system (CMS) to another – for example moving from WordPress to Umbraco – is a CMS Migration
- Updating the website design is a Redesign Migration
- Updating the website architecture is a Structural Migration
These can of course be mixed and matched as well (a hybrid migration) – you may want to redesign the site, but at the same time switch the CMS, update the site architecture, and implement an SSL certificate. In this scenario the migration would include redesign, CMS, Structure and Protocol migrations in one project.
How to migrate a website
If you want a step-by-step guide, this is not the right article for you. There are so many different factors in play when you migrate a website, and many are specific to you and your business. Your business is unique, your website is unique and therefore your website migration should be tailored to your specific unique needs and goals too.
What are the risks to SEO when migrating a website?
The biggest risk with website migrations is a loss of organic traffic.
Let’s go back to basics on this one to explain why sites that change their URLs might lose organic traffic – that way, you can begin to understand exactly why we will be banging on about redirects, sitemaps, URL structure, site architecture and all that gubbins, because if you engage us for website migration services, we will.
Google and other search engines crawl websites to find new pages and content. How frequently this happens depends on the site in question, how often it gets updated but also how easy (or difficult) it is for Google to crawl. Once Google has crawled your site, it will index the site (or some of it) and only then will it be eligible to appear in the search results. You can attempt to speed this up by submitting an XML sitemap to Google via Search Console, but this does not guarantee anything (but is still worth doing).
Once Google has your site in its index, it will recrawl the site regularly to discover new content on your site. However, if Google starts crawling the indexed version and ends up on 404 error pages (the dreaded ‘Page not Found’ error), rankings will begin to drop as those pages are removed from the index. If this happens to every page, you can begin to see how a massive loss of organic traffic can occur. To further compound this issue – sites with a lot of errors, like 404 errors, are crawled less frequently, meaning that if an issue like this happens to your site, it could take a lot longer to recover from, and traffic loss is likely to last for longer.
Website migration process & organic traffic losses
It should be pointed out that, even when the site migration process is handled correctly, a site migration is likely to result in an initial loss of traffic, sometimes as much as 30% (we typically see between 10% and 30% drop in traffic in the first month after a migration).
If this traffic is super important for the running of the business, and we would advise all ecommerce clients to do this, a temporary solution such as a paid search campaign could be beneficial, and a budget for this should be included in the site migration budget.
With ecommerce websites, the loss of organic traffic after migrating a website can make a massive difference to sales and revenue, impacting the bottom line immensely. For lead generation websites and businesses, there is often a lead pipeline built up, meaning the impact can be more easily managed. But for ecommerce websites, you won’t have that pipeline to fall back on.
Why does organic traffic get negatively impacted by a website migration?
This drop in traffic happens because Google will need to recrawl the new pages on the new URLs, index them and rank them. However, this takes time, and this is the most brilliant part of a site migration project – once those pages have been indexed, they will begin to rank again, and (assuming you have followed best practice for on-page SEO and content optimisation) often in better positions than the previous versions of those pages did. This process can take anywhere from one month to three months to be finished, and after that initial three months have passed, when handled correctly, a site migration will begin to pay off.
If you do run a paid search campaign while Google is recrawling and reindexing your new pages, then you’ll have all that data to work with as well. You can begin to understand the paid keywords that convert best, which might give you a focus for the initial organic keyword strategy for the new site.
How do you mitigate this loss of traffic risk?
With any site migration, it is prudent to get an SEO agency, like Fountain, involved as soon as the project begins. This is because we can help you with all manner of things to reduce this risk of traffic losses which is inevitable but, with our involvement, could be limited to the bare minimum.
We can help you develop an SEO-friendly site architecture plan that lends itself to growth and has content hubs baked into it. By involving us at the start of the project, you can avoid launching a site that may require additional redevelopments post-migration (e.g., to develop content hubs), or avoid having a sub-optimal site structure at all. Often, we will be asked to get involved with a site migration after the site architecture has been signed off, which sometimes means there will be compromises that have to be made with the SEO. This can be avoided by getting an SEO agency involved at the very start.
Even if we’re not involved from the start and compromises do have to be made, we can still help reduce traffic losses, so it’s never too late, but the sooner we can get involved, the better.
Where do we start?
Fountain will typically begin by developing a unique website migration plan for you.
It all begins with finding out why you are planning a website migration.
We will usually start with an information gathering exercise. We will want to know why you are doing the site migration in the first place, and what you hope to achieve from doing it. This is to help us understand what your goals are and how we can help you achieve them.
Once we’ve quizzed you for all this information, we will start to develop the SEO website migration plan for you, and this will be tailored to your specific needs and goals.
A thorough content audit
One of the things we will be looking to understand with your existing website is:
- What is currently working well for you?
- What is not working for you?
This will typically be discovered by a content audit. We will look in detail at the content on your site and will identify the top performing pages for traffic and for conversions. We will use Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and other tools to help us to understand the following:
- Which pages help the site visitor to take the next step – whatever this is, it could be a micro conversion such as downloading a whitepaper or it could be an actual conversion such as buying a product or filling in a lead gen form. There may be many ‘steps’ users need to take in order to convert into customers. We will look at all these steps to ascertain whether they can be:
- Further optimised – for example if your current site users typically visit six specific pages before completing a conversion, what is on those pages that convinces them to take the next step? Could these journeys be shortened, so the user only needs to visit three pages before converting?
- Protected from being deleted – Using the same example above, if your users typically need to visit and consume six specific pages before they typically convert, it would be a massive inconvenience to you if one or more of those six pages were deleted, breaking that user journey.
- Replicated across other user journeys on your site that are less effective currently.
- Which pages already rank well in organic search, and the keyword queries they rank for.
- Which pages have backlinks pointing to them.
Define your KPIs & benchmark the current site.
We typically always use organic impressions, CTR and keyword ranking as KPIs for SEO clients, alongside conversion and micro conversion data, specific to the client, to understand the impact of our work. For an SEO website migration, we may also identify a number of other KPIs in addition to the ‘standard’ ones described above, that can help us understand the impact of the site migration itself. These will be unique to your site, but may include the following:
- User engagement
- Visit duration
- Organic landing page traffic and engagement metrics
- Site speed and UX metrics such as Core Web Vitals
By tracking how the current site performs against these metrics we can understand how successful (or not) the site migration has been for you. However, do remember that it will take a couple of months to get the full picture, typically we will check the new site’s metrics against the benchmark metrics on the following schedule:
- One week after you launch the new site – this will tell us if something catastrophic has happened, such as someone forgetting to remove a noindex tag from a page (we check for this on launch day too, it is extremely rare that such a thing would get past us, but we do like to be thorough)
- One month after the launch – this will give us a much stronger idea of how successful the site migration has been, and again, will help us to identify issues with Core Web Vitals – it is more likely that you may have some field data to work with on the new pages by this time – field data is gathered from real users using your site. This isn’t available on staging sites (as they generally, and correctly block users without authorisation whilst it’s in development) so we need time to get this data.
- Three months after the launch – this will give us the clearest picture of how well the website migration and SEO has worked for you and will be able to advise on the next steps to maintain or increase traffic to the website.
Fix SEO issues on the existing site.
Sometimes it can be beneficial to fix technical errors or update the current site before migrating to the new one. This may entail:
- the removal of old pages, and a general tidying up of the content.
- fix issues with redirects, in particular breaking redirect chains (when a page is redirected to another page, which in turn is redirected somewhere else).
- fix broken links.
The removal of old content that will not be moved to the new website – for example, if you have a News section, does anyone need to know what the Christmas opening hours were in 2016? Those old News articles can go!
This process is to help improve the crawlability of the current site, so that when the new version is put live, Google is more likely to find the new pages quickly.
By breaking any redirect chains on the current site, we are limiting the impact that creating new redirects will have on the site speed because redirects do slow sites down, and the old adage ‘less is more’ can definitely be applied to redirects.
If part of the need for the site migration is because you have made some changes to what you offer (e.g., replaced one service or product line with another), then it’s important to understand how this will impact traffic, especially if you are removing pages that generate a lot of traffic.
What does migrating an ecommerce website entail?
We have already hinted that when you are planning a site migration of an ecommerce site, it might be prudent to include a budget for a paid search campaign to replace the lost traffic from organic search while Google does its thing with crawling, indexing and ultimately ranking your new pages. Is there anything else you should know before going through an ecommerce website migration process?
Yes, quite a lot!
Like other website migrations, when undergoing an ecommerce replatforming process, you will get a tailored SEO website migration plan, specific to your website and to your business goals.
The reason for your ecommerce platform migration may be one of the following:
- Moving to a more secure ecommerce platform
- To improve your visitors’ experience by implementing personalisation
- To improve the site’s performance by moving to a faster-loading ecommerce solution
- To facilitate better digital marketing for your ecommerce store, such as improving the technical SEO foundations of the site, by moving to a more ‘SEO-friendly’ ecommerce platform.
- To compete better globally, by introducing pages for specific countries and/or languages (if this is the case then you need an SEO expert on your side, because international SEO can be a tricky beast to get right)
Where does technical SEO fit into this?
As I’ve already said in my first Technical SEO Knowledge Article, technical SEO is all the ‘bits and bobs’ under the hood of the site that can help (or hinder) the search engine crawlers. I consider it the foundations of a website’s SEO and, as I said in that first article, if the foundations are poorly built, sooner or later, the building will fall down – the same applies to technical SEO on a website – sooner or later (if it’s implemented poorly), the website’s SEO will ‘fall down’.
A site migration does include on-site SEO and content optimisation as well as technical SEO, so it isn’t 100% technical, but the technical elements will impact the success of the migration in a way that other kinds of SEO do not.
From a technical standpoint, the most important thing to get right is the redirect strategy. The entire project kind of hinges on this, so it’s well worth getting someone who knows what they’re doing on board to ensure this is done correctly.
How do you know if your site migration has been successful?
Given that you will expect to lose some traffic initially (as explained above, this is unfortunately inevitable, and anyone who tells you otherwise is pulling your leg), how do you ascertain whether the site migration is successful?
When we start a site migration project, we will typically gather the data from the current site in order to benchmark this against the new site’s data. Whilst traffic is likely to be lower, post-migration, and expected, we can look at other engagement metrics to understand how users are interacting with the new website.
Another thing we will typically do after a site migration is our post-migration checks – we have a great long SEO site migration checklist to go through, and we usually do many of these checks the day the site launches.
If after three months, post-migration, your traffic has not started to get back up or surpass what it was before, there may be some issues. However, it’s important to understand why the traffic has dropped, and it could all be down to something super simple, such as the removal of pages that had high-traffic volumes on the old site. Sometimes, this is necessary – for example, if you have stopped offering a product range or type of service.
Most of the time this could have been avoided if the data gathering exercise at the start of the project had been carried out successfully. The benchmark data, the content audit, and all that work put in at the start of the project will help us and you (and other stakeholders in your business) to understand the reasons for changes in traffic volumes. Simply, if you remove something that helps send visitors to your site, it should not be a huge shock to learn that you’ve got fewer visitors.
If the data suggests that removing a specific page or section of the site will impact traffic volumes significantly, this can be flagged to you and other stakeholders so that everyone understands the ramifications of such a removal. Yes, I have worked on sites where the client (or in one case a previous SEO agency the client had worked with) had removed all the content that sent a lot of organic traffic, and wondered why traffic had dropped – you removed the thing they went there for, what did you expect!? Usually, there are simple explanations for these things. And usually, if the data gathering at the start has been done correctly, avoided, or taken on as a ‘known risk.’
How long does it take for traffic to recover?
As I said, it might take as many as three months for traffic to return to ‘normal,’ but for some site migrations I have worked on with clients, the traffic has ‘come back’ much sooner.
For one site migration in particular, the original site had been impacted negatively by an algorithm update a good two years before we worked with the client and had not been able to recover. Once the new pages went live, with the removal of all the ‘thin content’ from the old site (one of the reasons they’d been impacted by the update) and we’d tightened up the technical SEO on the site, we started to see some real progress. After the first month, organic traffic was down by 23%, but after two months, it had increased by 76%, and after three months had increased by 230%. By six months, traffic had increased by 600%! Two years on and organic traffic to that site has increased by 1,700%, compared to the same time prior to the site migration. Now, these results are not entirely down to the site migration work we did – we’ve been working with this client on content optimisation and authority building too, but the success of our other work would not have been so impactful had they launched their new site without following a solid SEO-focused site migration plan.
This is just to demonstrate how an initial drop in traffic after month one does not necessarily mean the migration is unsuccessful – you just need to give it a little more time and be patient. We can’t rush Google, but we can make it more likely that the traffic returns in the long term. Having a budget to replace the initial traffic loss with paid search might be worth considering, especially if that loss of traffic will impact your bottom line and cause problems for you in the short term.
Don’t forget to update the following:
- Your Paid Ads
- Social Media profiles
- Google Business Profile
Don’t forget to check your tracking still works as expected as well. If you use Fountain as your SEO website migration agency partner for this, we do include a full tracking audit as part of the website migration process. It is one of the steps in our great long website migration checklist that we’ve developed over the years.
Website Migration SEO FAQs
Does website migration affect SEO?
Yes, migrating a website will affect the SEO of that site. How much it is affected depends on the changes made, and whether the old pages are redirected effectively or not (if you redirect everything to the homepage, expect to lose traffic – if you plan redirects page-to-page, then it is likely that the traffic will be regained after the site has been recrawled). Some changes from migrating website platform or CMS may be beneficial from a site speed perspective and you may see positive results from simply improving user experience and the site’s performance.
Will domain migration increase SEO?
Not initially, no. However, if you look at the long-term outcome of moving your site to a new domain, there should be no reason for a gloomy outlook. As explained in this article, expecting fantastic results within the first few weeks (or in some cases, even months), is unrealistic. Take a longer-term view of it, and remember the example I used in the article of my client that lost 23% of organic traffic in month one, but by month three the traffic had increased by 230%? If we’d taken the first month’s result as the outcome, we’d have called a successful website migration a failure! Giving yourself time is really important here. Time to plan the migration in the first place and then time for Google to recrawl and reindex the site. Make sure all the stakeholders involved in your site migration project are aware of this too – the last thing you need is someone breathing down your neck expecting results that just aren’t there simply because the time needed to determine ‘successes’ or ‘failure’ hasn’t yet accrued.
How can I migrate my website without losing SEO?
Migrating a website does carry a lot of risk, in terms of the potential for losing SEO traffic or authority. But, by conducting a thorough content audit prior to the migration, planning content improvements and ensuring the current (live) site is free of as many crawlability blockers as possible is a really positive and important part of the site migration process. A website migration plan, tailored to your website and your goals is one of the best things you can do when considering migrating your site. Particular attention should be put into the redirect strategy, as this is one of the most important elements of the site migration process.
To put this simply – plan, plan and plan some more. The time put in at this stage will not be wasted.
Is migrating a website hard?
Migrating a website isn’t hard in and of itself, but a lot can go wrong. Usually, the planning process prevents too many problems occurring though. There are some elements that are technical, and therefore would be ‘hard’ for someone without the technical knowledge or expertise to do. Following a clear plan and sticking to it is very likely to make the process easier for everyone involved.
How long does a website migration take?
The planning process before a site migration is integral to the outcome. Having as much time to plan as possible is advisable. The actual process of migrating from one site to another can be achieved very quickly, but if you don’t put a good solid plan in place ahead of time you may find the outcome is not as good as you expect. Plan, plan and plan some more! Knowing the potential impact of removing specific pages and understanding the user journeys your site visitors take before converting into customers is important to ensure that the site continues to be profitable for you. Gaining an understanding of the types of content that resonates with your customer base now will help you provide more of the ‘good stuff’ after the migration. Putting time into the redirect strategy (if you do nothing else: do this at least) will always pay off – the implementation of redirects is quick, but the planning of them is not. It is a manual process, and manual processes take time. It is time well spent though. That redirect strategy will shape the success or failure of the project – don’t skimp on it.
Does changing hosting affect SEO?
Google doesn’t care where your site is hosted, and the web hosting company you have chosen should not impact the SEO of your site. However, indirectly, web hosting can have an impact on your SEO. Web hosting can affect the speed, security, and reliability of websites. If this is a problem for you, then it may be worth considering switching your hosting account to a more reliable, faster and/or secure hosting arrangement. The process of switching to a new hosting company should not be detrimental to your business, but some downtime may be inevitable, so it is best to choose a day and time to ‘push the button’ on the switch when your site has fewer visitors, for example, this may be 3am on a Tuesday for you but 5pm on a Sunday for someone else. It really depends on the traffic you get. Look at your analytics to determine the best date and time to switch hosting to minimise impacting your business and customers too much.
Do you want to reduce the risk of your next website migration?
If you are considering a site migration and would like to get Fountain involved, get in touch – we’d love to work with you on your project and help you reach your long-term goals. Remember, the sooner we’re involved, the more we can help you. However, at the same token, it’s rarely ‘too late,’ so don’t worry if you’re already somewhere down that road.