Migrating your website to a new host, domain, or platform carries inherent risk of downtime, technical issues, and search ranking impacts if not executed carefully. But following a structured migration process minimizes disruption.
In this comprehensive guide, I outline what's involved in a website migration and provide a step-by-step checklist of critical factors to address before, during, and after migrating. My goal is to equip you with deep knowledge of how to safely transfer your website while avoiding pitfalls that commonly sabotage migrations.
Whether you are migrating hosts, platforms, servers, or domains, this guide will walk through key technical, SEO, and UX considerations. I offer actionable advice on:
- Selecting the optimal migration method for your situation
- Preventing downtime through proper domain configuration
- Redirecting traffic seamlessly using 301 redirects
- Maintaining search rankings by managing URL changes
- Verifying website functionality and performance post-migration
- Submitting change of address notifications and sitemaps
And more. By following these best practices for pre-migration audits, execution, and cleanup, you can achieve a successful website transition with minimal interruptions for visitors and search engines. Let's get started.
What Is Website Migration?
Website migration refers to significantly transitioning a site to a new domain, host, server, or platform. It requires comprehensively moving the full site architecture and content to the new environment.
Some common website migration scenarios include:
- Switching domain registrars and changing site domains
- Moving hosting providers and transferring sites to new servers
- Shifting platforms from say WordPress.org to Shopify
- Altering site architectures through complete URL restructuring
- Transitioning from HTTP to HTTPS across the entire site
While sometimes necessary, website migrations carry substantial risk if not executed carefully. Major pitfalls include:
- Prolonged downtime and site errors during transition
- Drastic drops in organic traffic due to indexing issues
- Technical headaches from outdated or conflicting site components
- Loss of brand awareness if the switch is not properly communicated
However, ample planning and following proven methods can significantly control the risks. Migrating successfully requires treating the project with care and allocating the appropriate resources.
But once completed, the benefits like improved performance, lower costs, and better infrastructure can outweigh short-term migration issues. Just be sure to set proper expectations around temporary disruptions.
Website Migration Checklist
- Clearly define the goals and reasons for migrating
- Establish key performance indicators to track success
- Build a realistic budget accounting for all costs
- Create a detailed project timeline with milestones
- Assemble a qualified technical and marketing team
- Develop pre-launch and post-launch promotion plans
- Institute a content freeze 2-4 weeks prior to cutover
- Crawl the existing site to catalog all pages and assets
- Set up new hosting, domain, and platforms for the future site
- Map old URLs to new URLs and configure 301 redirects
- Design an optimal information architecture for the new site
- Develop the new site locally and get stakeholder signoffs
- Thoroughly test site performance and redirects in a staging environment
- Verify all former pages redirect properly after launch
- Confirm site functionality and speed meet standards
- Monitor traffic daily across all channels to quickly catch problems
- Check organic rankings in Search Console to validate no major losses
- Submit XML sitemaps and change of address signals to search engines
- Run monthly performance reports for 6-12 months to identify areas of improvement
With ample planning across these key phases, website migrations can succeed with minimal disruption. But never underestimate the potential risks - advanced preparation is key.
How To Do A Website Migration
The first step is clearly identifying your motivations for migrating and the specific outcomes you want to achieve. Some common triggers for website migrations include:
- Transitioning to HTTPS for improved security
- Moving to a new domain extension like .com for broader appeal
- Changing platforms seeking better functionality or lower costs
- Rebranding through a new domain name and web design
- Restructuring site architecture for performance and SEO
Given your reasons for migrating, define tangible target objectives like:
- Retain 90% of current organic traffic volume after changing domains
- Reduce hosting costs by 20% by switching providers
- Decrease site load times by 500ms after optimizing architecture
- Increase lead conversion rate by 10% on the new site
- Rank #1 for 5 new keywords within 6 months of migrating platforms
Whatever your goals - framed around traffic, cost, revenue, conversions or other KPIs - make them S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound). This focuses efforts and enables tracking success.
Additionally, document the current baseline for key metrics before migrating. This allows assessing performance against a starting benchmark during and after transitioning.
Set realistic expectations around likely temporary dips during migration. But the clearly defined end goals and baselines will steer efforts to get back on track after launch.
Auditing Current Pages and URLs
Before executing a website migration, you need a comprehensive audit of all existing URLs on the current site. This content inventory serves several purposes:
- Identifies every page that will need to redirect or have its URL changed during migration. Missing pages may be orphaned.
- Allows intelligently mapping old URLs to new URLs in a redirect plan.
- Highlights technical issues like errors or broken pages for cleanup pre-migration.
- Provides baseline site architecture analysis to improve upon in the new site.
There are two main approaches to extracting a full catalog of current site pages and URLs:
Web Crawler Software
Web crawling tools like Screaming Frog SEO Spider efficiently extract all pages by recursively following links and sitemaps. This produces a clean list of URLs along with flags for errors and issues. Screaming Frog also enables applying advanced filters to customize the crawl scope and reporting.
Search Engine Index
Alternatively, you can leverage Google's existing index of your site through the Search Console Coverage Report. While this may miss some pages Google has not crawled recently, it provides a quick method to download your URLs at scale.
Ideally utilize both methods to get the most comprehensive audit. The site crawl validation also helps verify that Google has properly indexed your URLs with no major gaps.
With a thorough content inventory in hand, you gain crucial information to optimize and safeguard your migration process. Understanding exactly what pages exist allows smarter URL mapping and redirects to maintain findability.
Mapping 301 Redirects from Old to New URLs
The most pivotal technical task in a website migration is carefully mapping 301 redirects from old URLs to new URLs. This preserves SEO equity and ensures visitors land in the right place.
Audit and Prioritize URLs
Building on your content inventory, audit all URLs to determine:
- Which need to redirect to a new location
- Which can simply be left as is on the new site
- Which no longer need to exist and can be removed
Prioritize mapping redirects for high-value pages driving conversions, revenue, and traffic. Attempting comprehensive redirects across thousands of pages on large sites may be unrealistic.
Map Logical Redirects
- Identify the most relevant new URL that each old page should logically redirect to, ideally with shared topical relevance.
- Avoid chaining multiple redirects. Redirect directly from old to new location.
- Never mass redirect everything to the new homepage. Create new content matching old pages where needed.
- Use 301 permanent redirects for all URL changes to properly transfer authority.
- Implement redirects on the server-level within the HTTP configuration files for scalability.
- Set up redirect monitoring to catch any errors sending visitors to dead ends.
Invest time upfront in meticulously mapping redirects from old to new site architecture. This protects your migration and content integrity as perceived by both visitors and search engines.
Rigorously Testing the Migration in Staging
Before launching any website migration, extensively test the transition and new site setup in a staging environment separate from production. Never go live before staging testing.
Set Up a Realistic Test Environment
- Clone the current live site database, codebase, assets, and server configuration for staging.
- Make staging publicly inaccessible to avoid search engine indexing during tests.
- Load staging with realistic user data, content samples, and traffic load for accurate performance checks.
Leverage a Cross-Functional Testing Team
- Assemble team members from development, SEO, design, marketing, and product teams for multifaceted testing.
- Appoint a lead for managing the overall testing roadmap and reporting.
- Utilize beta testers that mirror your actual customers for real-world user feedback.
Check All Functionality and Experience
- Verify site architecture, URLs, migrations, redirects, and chain properly.
- Confirm intended design, branding, layout on all site pages.
- Check forms, filters, product displays, payments, and interactive elements work correctly.
- Validate speed and performance under load meet targets on desktop and mobile.
- Ensure site is indexed and searchable via internal and third-party search engines.
Ideally enable 1-2 months of extensive functionality, usability, and performance testing in staging before going fully live. This protects your migration integrity and avoids disruptive issues after launch.
Set Up a Process to Track Your Website Migration
To assess the success of your website migration, implement analytics tracking and establish benchmarks before launch. Ideally set up Google Analytics if you do not already have it implemented. Track key performance metrics like overall site traffic, conversions, top landing pages, and organic search rankings for 2-4 weeks prior to migration. This provides a baseline to compare against during and after migrating to quantify impact. Be sure to continue monitoring daily after launch to quickly catch any major changes in traffic or user behavior signaling problems. By diligently tracking analytics through the migration, you gain data-backed insights into how the transition affects your key site KPIs. Regularly review reports for at least 6-12 months post-migration to fine-tune issues and optimize the new site.
Execute the Website Migration
When you have finished extensive planning and testing, it is time to execute the actual migration. Speed is essential - take the site offline and migrate to the new environment as rapidly as possible to minimize downtime. Avoid leaving the site non-operational for more than a few hours if at all possible. Immediately after migrating, verify your robots.txt allows search engine crawling, test high-priority redirects, and submit an updated XML sitemap in Search Console. The quicker you can complete the transition while the site is down, the lower the risk of major disruptions in organic traffic and rankings.
Should I migrate my site all at once or in phases?
For large, complex sites, a phased migration often reduces risk. For example, you may transition categories one-by-one over several months. But minimise transition periods to avoid indexing issues.
What are signs of a botched migration?
Major drops in organic traffic and rankings that persist after 2-4 weeks typically signal migration issues. Noticeable ongoing declines in revenue and conversions are also red flags.
How can I reduce migration downtime and errors?
Meticulous staging testing, swift execution, pre-generated caches, putting up a maintenance page, and having rollback plans in place are some ways to minimize migration downtime.
What precautions should I take regarding my domain name?
Avoid letting your current domain registration lapse during the transition causing it to go offline. Also be sure to set up the new domain ahead of time on new hosting.
How do I communicate a migration to site visitors?
Avoid abruptly redirecting visitors without notice. Use a pre-launch page detailing the upcoming change. Post-launch, add site-wide announcements about the transition for context.
Will my site's history and age reset after migrating?
No, your site's existing search performance does not reset after a migration. Search engines will recrawl the redirected pages and apply the original domain's history and trust.
While website migrations require extensive planning and diligent execution, companies should not shy away from making necessary transitions that support their goals. By methodically following proven best practices around auditing, redirect mapping, staging testing, launch, and post-migration optimization, companies can migrate successfully with minimal SEO disruption. Though complex, migrations done right keep your website positioned for ongoing growth and innovation rather than stagnation.
The key is allocating sufficient resources and expertise to the website migration project. Attempting transitions haphazardly only heightens risk. But the detailed pre-launch and post-launch checklist provided in this guide arms brands with the knowledge to avoid major pitfalls. Partnering with experienced web development and SEO teams is also advised to supplement internal skills.
If your website has outgrown its current platform, design, or domain, view migration as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. With ample preparation and care, your website can migrate smoothly into an improved future state. Just be sure to meticulously plan, test, execute, and refine based on real data. By following the methodology outlined, brands can migrate successfully and expand their digital presence.