Steps to mastering website migrations

Last week, as part of our ongoing Croud Academy Live series, we shared the keys steps to mastering site migrations. 

The session, which was hosted by Croud’s Digital Account Director, Laura Green, and Senior SEO Account Manager, Tom Trimmer, explored the different types of website migrations, the top five things that can go wrong with a site migration (and how to avoid them), and why SEO is one of the most important factors to take into consideration when undertaking a site migration.

Below is a summary of the session:

The basics

What is a website migration?

A site migration is a broad term used to describe any significant move of all, or part, of a website to a new domain, platform or combination thereof. There are many different types of migration, which we roughly broke down into three categories; CMS, domain, and a blend of both.

Types of migration

There are three categories, starting with CMS migrations, which tend to be more of an internal migration, with URL structure remaining relatively stable and a lot of development time going to the back end.

We then moved to the other side of the spectrum with domain migrations. These tend to be more external-facing, represent a large change in URL structure, and are focused on site architecture and redirects.

More of a catch-all for types of migrations that aren’t thought of as such, the third category – affectionately dubbed ‘Combo’ for the webinar – is perhaps the most common and contains elements of both CMS and domain migrations. Examples include moving a blog from a subdomain to a subdirectory, or purchasing a competitor site and redirecting it to your established domain.

Whichever type of migration you’re considering, its important to understand the potential impact it could have on your traffic. Likewise, it’s important to properly plan and execute a migration to mitigate negative impact.

Anatomy of a migration

During the webinar, we discussed the merits of planning migrations at least 3-6 months out, allowing plenty of time for scheduling changes, feature requests and generally unplanned events. Croud’s high-level recommendation for timeline includes:

The planning phase, starting 3-6 months before the suggested migration date. This included planning, metric benchmarking, identifying stakeholders in the migration and finalizing a move date.

Build up, 1-2 months out from the migration date. During this time, teams should be collaborating on a regular basis, meeting to share information an updates, and identifying major pitfalls. Most importantly, this is when all stakeholders should agree on a no-change date, at which the migration will go through no matter what.

Pre-migration, about a month out, seems a little odd to name a step that had already had two before it, but it’s perhaps the most important. During the pre-migration phase, you should crawl your site multiple times, work on URL inventory, and begin redirect mapping.

Post-migration is an ongoing process following your migration and is focused on mitigating the negative impact of migration. It includes broken link checking, traffic monitoring, and any quick fixes that the dev team should be aware of.

You can see these stages broken down in the table below:

Reasons for migration

Whilst there are many reasons for a website migration, in the webinar, we focused on the three key reasons the Croud team tends to experience. They are:

1. Rebranding

The company name is changing, or dropping a word, or trying to focus (or broaden) their scope.

2. Moving to a better CMS

Perhaps the old CMS is outdated, the site has outgrown it, or the contract is up and a different partner is in the mix.

3. Site absorption

A site has purchased a competitor or is moving their blog from subdomain to subdirectory.

Failure to prepare is preparing to fail – this adage is true for website migrations. Before you start your journey, one of the key questions you should ask yourself is the reason for the migration – is it something you need to do? Consider carefully, as a botched migration can significantly impact your traffic. A fourth category we touched on is migration recovery – in some instances, clients have come to us following 25% loss in organic search traffic that hasn’t bounced back.

The pitfalls

We discussed five big pitfalls of a website migration, and ways to address them:

1. Failing to take a complete site inventory

If you have a large site, this can feel like an odious task, but it’s a must. Most types of migrations will impact every part of your site and can reveal previously-unearthed sections that can have deep, long-lasting consequences for your site. There are many platforms which you can take stock of your site inventory including but not limited to:

  • Crawlers (Screaming Frog, SEMRush, Serpico)
  • Google Search Console
  • Google Analytics
  • XML Sitemap

2. Trying to do everything at once

Developers deal with scope creep constantly, and the same is true for migrations. During the planning phase, you may encounter stakeholders asking for new features to be added, or backlogged upgrades to be implemented during the migration. However, the move should be your central focus. Although you may want to play other fixes and updates, don’t do more than one section at a time, instead focus your energy on the task at hand.

3. (Dis)regarding redirects

Pop quiz – what are the five most important landing pages on your site for organic traffic? examine your top-performing pages across multiple channels like organic and PPC, and make a priority list that you’ll check frequently before and after the migration. Remember when applying redirects, factors such as internal linking and the preferred canonical tag can be affected, so it is important to make sure they are considered too in order to not affect the indexable pages.

Also, a few broken links do matter

Key considerations:

  • Top converting across all channels
  • Top organic entrances & clicks
  • Top pages linked to externally
  • Key PPC performers

4. Delaying the migration

Once you set a date, stick to your schedule! Depending on the type of site you own, a delay of a site move by more than a couple of weeks could add hundreds or thousands of new URLs to the project. A final snapshot of a website can take up to 30 hours to compile – you don’t want to have to repeat it.

5. Missing the post-migration

Make a list of priorities for your post-migration. Some problems – like noindex tags or broken ads – should be prioritized over previously acknowledged drops in traffic. The first 48 hours after a migration are crucial to its success. As such, Croud recommends avoiding running your migration on a Friday night.

The takeaways

Finally, it is important to have some takeaways from any meeting, event or webinar, and these are three key points to help you kick your SEO migration plan off correctly:

  1. Ask an SEO or have them run the migration. A good technical SEO will have an extensive knowledge of how your sites work together.
  2. Crawl your site (3x at least) – How big is your site? What is your internal structure like? The answers to these questions will help determine your timeline and resource.
  3. Map your URLs, all of them – Make sure you map out where all of your old URLs will be redirected to on the migrated site. Even if the page doesn’t exist anymore, you still want to point to the most appropriate page.

The biggest piece of advice we can give is; think of your web users as the search engine themselves and vice versa. If your users struggle to find your new pages, what do you think this will mean for the Googlebot crawler when crawling and indexing the site?

Organic traffic is essentially ‘free’ traffic to your website. A loss of this can impact how much resource you’ll need to put into paid alternatives such as pay per click. Planning a site migration to be SEO focused is essential in order to alleviate making up the difference in other mediums, or losing the traffic altogether.

You can watch the recording of the session here:

If you need help with your migration or want to talk about any of the points mentioned with Laura and Tom, contact us.

by Tom Trimmer
12 June 2020



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