Website and domain migrations

When you migrate your website, search engines reassess everything they know about it - so a small error can have substantial consequences.

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SEO migration mastered by our experience

Site migration is a bespoke and complex piece of work, and SEO should be embedded into the process from the very start.

Whether you’re redesigning your website, changing your domain, moving to HTTPS or a new server, successful migration is critical for continued visibility in search results.

A poorly executed migration can make search engines rethink the whole deal - resetting your website’s rankings and wiping years of SEO history overnight (yes, we have seen this happen). Even a small change can have a big impact, so you need SEO input throughout to ensure that everything goes smoothly.

That’s our cue. We’ll guide you through a successful migration, minimising the organic search risks and making sure everything’s in place for your audience to make their user journey with you. With the right guidance, your migration should be a positive experience for you and your customers.

How we help with your website migration

Involving SEO experts early helps to ensure that all aspects of your website’s design and construction cater to both search engines and users.

Even seemingly simple migrations create a large number of tasks that need to be completed to ensure everything goes as you hoped.

When executing an SEO-friendly website migration, you need to think about:

  • Site structure. Design your website’s architecture and navigation to make it easy for search engine crawlers and users.

  • Technology specifications such as JavaScript and CMS considerations.

  • Content marketing strategy. Move your existing content and identify any gaps that need to be filled.

  • User acceptance testing (UAT). Make sure there’s enough time to build in SEO requirements and deal with any build issues.

  • Benchmarking, objectives and KPIs. Ensure everything stays on track by setting benchmarks and KPIs for traffic and conversions.

  • Post-launch planning. Keep a close eye on your analytics and fix any teething issues as they arise.

Frequently asked questions about website migrations

 Click a question link to jump to the answer(s).

  1. Do you have shareable checklists relating to large web service migrations (e.g. user management) that don't involve a complete change of front-end/CMS?

  2. What are 301 redirects and when and how do you set them up?

  3. How do you register a new (same URL, new WordPress site) platform with Google?

  4. What metrics should I be using to measure site migration success?

  5. What can you/should you do to assess the likely impact on SEO before putting changes live?

  6. What should you do if you have a multi-brand website, that you're splitting into three different websites, one for each brand?

  7. How much time do you expect to have similar traffic as before migration?

  8. I've heard that when a new site is migrated, search visibility is likely to dip before it improves, is this true, and what exactly should I be saying to set realistic expectations for my internal stakeholders?

  9. Is it better to do everything at once, or are there ever circumstances in which you should migrate in stages to mitigate risk?

  10. We have very distinct product offerings. How do I decide whether it is better to house these on their own domains, subdomains, or a folder structure within our main domain?

  11. Our current agency messed up our redirects in our recent migration and our site has lost significant SEO visibility. How long will it take to sort out and regain the visibility we have lost?

  12. Is user testing during the build of a new site genuinely valuable? Or should we save our investment for solid post-live testing?

  13. What are the most common pitfalls to avoid when migrating a site?

  14. How do I work out whether it's OK to delete content from our site if there's not much traffic coming to those pages? How do I ensure I'm not removing anything that's valuable to search engines?

1. Do you have shareable checklists relating to large web service migrations (e.g. user management) that don't involve a complete change of front-end/CMS?

Please see our in-depth guide to the perfect website migration. While there are some consistent requirements, every project is different – in terms of technology, content, the scope of the project and the commercial requirements. Therefore, we recommend ensuring you have an experienced SEO involved in your project from day one to guide you through the many decisions that will be needed. 

2. What are 301 redirects and when and how do you set them up?

A 301 redirect is a server response code which tells browsers and search engines alike that a page has moved from one URL to another. Most people are familiar with a “404”, which is another type of server response code.

There are other types of redirect – the most common being 302. The difference is that this signifies a temporary change, whereas a 301 signifies a permanent switch. In a website migration or rebuild, we use the 301 redirect to ensure that search engines like Google understand where the content from a sites old URLs has moved to – whether that’s within the same domain or on a completely new one.

These redirects must be on a one-to-one basis – redirecting all old URLs to, for example, the new homepage might save time but will achieve little in protecting valuable SEO traffic. Think of it as a physical address change – it’s not enough to specify the new address as ‘London’. On a website, treat each URL as a separate address change. Many servers can accept pattern-based rules which make the process far more efficient but, if there are no patterns, it’s still important to devote the time to map each URL individually to its new location.

Redirect mapping is a vital step – without these redirects, search engines will treat new pages as precisely that, brand new. All the history and value from the old pages will be lost, like hitting a giant reset button on your SEO performance. Without them, traffic loss following the launch is almost inevitable.

3. How do you register a new (same URL, new WordPress site) platform with Google?

If the URLs have not changed, search engines will continue to crawl your site as before, and will automatically pick up any new content and code.

If URLs have changed, there is work to do – as described above, 301 redirects are essential to guide users and search engines from the old URLs to the new.

URL redirection will ensure that search engines pick up these changes over time, but there are ways to give them a helping hand and speed up the process. For example, using XML sitemaps and the likes of Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools.

4. What metrics should I be using to measure site migration success?

We highly recommend creating a measurement plan for any major migration project, for both commercial metrics like revenue and transactions, to channel and engagement metrics. The measurement plan will help provide a well-rounded view of the impact of the migration. 

For SEO, as well as sessions and users tracked by platforms like Google Analytics, we highly recommend using Google’s Search Console, and similar tools from other search engines, to understand how your website is performing in search results both before and after the launch. 

This data set will provide you with metrics like impressions – the number of times your site was shown in search results – along with the average position. You can view these metrics by keyword or URL, and filter by things like country and device type. We offer a data engineering service that can help you to automate collection and unification of data into a single platform for reporting such as Data Studio. 

5. What can you/should you do to assess the likely impact on SEO before putting changes live?

Conducting a risk assessment before starting a major migration project will show what you stand to lose after launch. Use the output to inform many of the decisions along the way and manage expectations among your stakeholders. 

Include data showing your current SEO traffic and visibility, your site’s backlink profile and, most importantly, any metrics which show the commercial impact - for example, conversion rate, revenue and so on. 

Page speed is another crucial factor that will need to be benchmarked – and not just for SEO. Launching a website that is significantly slower than the old one will likely result in lower engagement and conversion rates. 

If your site is moving to a domain that you recently purchased, it’s essential to understand that domain’s SEO history. For example, is there evidence that the domain has fallen foul of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines or could still be subject to a manual penalty that impacts performance? Makes these checks before making a final decision. 

With every project, there are unique circumstances that will need consideration – we would be delighted to talk to you about your project and help with any risk assessment. 

6. What should you do if you have a multi-brand website, that you're splitting into three different websites, one for each brand?

First, understand the potential impact (see above). Second, be prepared to make compromises. The primary purpose of the migration process for SEO is to maintain current SEO performance and lay the foundations for future growth. 

In this scenario, it may not be possible to have all three new websites perform as well as the single website you had previously. For example, an old page will only redirect to a single new location. If you are recreating content on all three sites, you will need to choose which one you redirect to. 

However, it’s also essential that you consider your users in this. Redirects affect them as well – so how will it affect them once they are in place? 

For a complex project like this, planning and preparation are critical. You may need to educate your existing customers on the coming changes well in advance so that they know what to expect. 

The split will change the way they use search engines to find your brands – so you need to be sure that the likes of Google will be able to quickly identify what pages they should show once the split has happened. 

With all of this, you will need experienced, expert SEO advice throughout the process. Make sure you have this from the earliest planning stages onwards, not following when all the decisions are in place, and you are nearly ready to launch. 

7. How much time do you expect to have similar traffic as before migration?

It can vary. There is almost always an adjustment period as search engines crawl your new website to understand the changes and update their rankings. Not every site or page is crawled at the same rate, so while your homepage is likely to be recrawled relatively quickly, you may have pages that are crawled every few months. Fortunately, there are ways to speed this process up. 

Assuming the migration has been correctly carried out for SEO, you may need to allow a few weeks for performance to settle back down. 

If it hasn’t and there are significant deficiencies with the new site, it becomes far harder to predict. Where remedial work is needed to fix major technical problems with your site’s code, this could take months or more. 

The best approach for website migration is on the prevention, rather than cure. Have SEO support involved in the project from the beginning to minimise the risk of disaster when your new site goes live.

Do you have a website migration project we can support you with?

8. I've heard that when a new site is migrated, search visibility is likely to dip before it improves, is this true, and what exactly should I be saying to set realistic expectations for my internal stakeholders?

A dip in website performance is often the case – and there is often an adjustment period of several weeks even when the website migration is flawless. No two projects are the same in this respect, so we recommend conducting a risk assessment at the start of the project so that you know exactly where you stand. 

While it can seem like having a new, well-designed website would guarantee better results, this is far from the case for SEO. Your internal stakeholders must be realistic about what a good outcome looks like in the early days of migration. Emerging from the initial period with SEO traffic at the same levels as your old site is a positive result. We recommend this as the immediate goal, with a view to long-term growth in future. 

In the short term, consider using PPC budget to offset losses in SEO if the risk assessment shows high-risk areas. 

It’s also important to remember that SEO does not finish when the new site goes live. There are times where elements are not migrated, perhaps due to time, resource or budget, and are due for integration after launch. Also, there is always content to improve or new content to create. 

9. Is it better to do everything at once, or are there ever circumstances in which you should migrate in stages to mitigate risk?

There are advantages to both options. Doing everything at once could be more efficient and cost-effective, especially where development is concerned. Depending on the nature of the project, SEO risk may be lower as well because the change is completed in one go.

However, complex projects where there is a high risk might benefit from a phased approach. For example, we have been involved in projects to merge multiple brands and websites into one, which often takes years rather than months.

Completing this in stages offers the opportunity to learn along the way and improve the later phases - for example, the ability to eliminate mistakes made in the first phase. Feedback from your users might provide insight into further changes that brings a better return on the overall investment. Also, you might be able to understand better the budget and effort required or find efficiencies that reap the rewards later on.

10. We have very distinct product offerings. How do I decide whether it is better to house these on their own domains, subdomains, or a folder structure within our main domain?

Start with your customers and users and consider their preferences and needs. Where SEO is concerned, the question of whether to house on one domain within subfolders or several subdomains is complicated to answer simply without context. Our recommendation is to make sure you consult with experienced SEOs who can help you to navigate the decision-making process.  

11. Our current agency messed up our redirects in our recent migration and our site has lost significant SEO visibility. How long will it take to sort out and regain the visibility we have lost?

Unfortunately, the answer can vary. In some cases, adding redirects quickly after the launch can see traffic restored within a few weeks. In others, it can take months or even longer.

The good news is that the process of creating redirects does not change if the site has already launched, provided a complete list of the old URLs are available (or can be sourced).

In a worst-case scenario, a lengthy interim period and loss of historical data may mean than only a partial solution is possible. If this is the case, the only way to restore SEO performance is to rebuild it over time – through quality content combined with a solid marketing strategy.

12. Is user testing during the build of a new site genuinely valuable? Or should we save our investment for solid post-live testing?

If the changes you are planning to make are significant, user testing can help to inform these decisions. A full branding change and redesign of the user experience would undoubtedly benefit from additional research.

The question to consider is what problems user testing will help to solve. It’s beneficial and reassuring to know in advance if the proposed new designs will be well received. Conversely, early warning of potential problems might cause you to reassess; even if this means a delay to launch, it could save you from significant sums of lost revenue later on.

13. What are the most common pitfalls to avoid when migrating a site?

In our experience, there are several common red flags when we speak to companies about their migrations. If the project is already well underway, overlooking SEO involvement (and SEO requirements), it often a situation that occurs, and this can result in work already completed requiring technical assessment and sometimes reworking.

Avoid making technology choices without first doing due-diligence to identify any problems that need to be avoided or managed.

Resist the urge to take shortcuts on mapping your URLs from old to new – such as redirecting everything to the homepage.

Remember that search engines cannot interact with your site in the same way that users can. If your developers do not know how to build for a search engine, problems may arise – especially if they are using JavaScript to control the delivery of and access to your content.

Another common problem arises from budget and deadline pressure eating into any provisions made for quality assurance. Cutting corners will prove to be a false economy if it results in undetected SEO issues impacting revenue after launch.

Strong communication between all parties, and strong project management, are essential. Your SEOs will need to be able to speak to your designers, developers or content writers directly and have a constructive relationship with them. The feedback and advice that SEOs often have to provide during the project will not be useful if there is no trust between the parties involved.

14. How do I work out whether it's OK to delete content from our site if there's not much traffic coming to those pages? How do I ensure I'm not removing anything that's valuable to search engines?

There are other metrics you can consider, such as backlinks, to establish the quantitative value content may have. Rather than contemplating what content is important to search engines, know what content is essential to your users.

Does the content have low traffic because of other problems? For instance, is the content of low quality, or are there technical problems which prevent it from reaching its potential?

If you have an understanding of what’s relevant to your customers, it will be easier to make decisions about content. Conducting user research will help you understand what they need, what problems they need help with, how users like to engage with your content and how they use search engines to try to find it.

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