What to Know Before Migrating Your Website | Website Moving Guide

by on December 8, 2017

What to Know Before Migrating a Website - Website Moving Guide - VitalStorm Digital Marketing

Migrating or moving websites to a new server or agency is a common and sometimes necessary change for your business. Upgrading your website, domain name, hosting service, and other main features of your website can be a smart business move, but it’s important to know about the possible complications before proceeding.

Sometimes big website changes can severely impact your search engine rankings for the worse. Make sure you are making a wise business move with this website migration checklist.

  1. Should you really be moving your website?

The first question you should ask yourself is whether or not moving or migrating your website is a wise choice. Changing hosting platforms, website design, and domain names can make or break your business.

For instance, if you don’t set up your site migration correctly and end up with a lot of 404 errors and missed redirects, you could end up starting over from ground zero. In some cases, however, you may want to do this (for instance, if you have lots of accrued Google penalties).

In the ideal scenario, Google will treat the new site as if it were the original site all along. A professional site migration shouldn’t lose any website traffic and any traffic fluctuations that may occur will be minimal.

Usually, a site migration won’t affect your SEO rankings in any significant way. When you migrate a site properly, you want to make sure to set up redirects properly so people and search engines know where to find you. When you do this, you are basically telling people and algorithms that you are the exact same company, just with a new domain/website.

Keep in mind that this will bring along all of your search engine rankings and Google penalties (if you have them.)

Many people believe that by changing and moving their website, they may be able to escape Google penalties that have accrued over the years such as suspicious backlinks, keyword stuffing, cloaking, ads, and link spam (read more about outdated SEO tactics that may get your site penalized). Unless you are specific about your intents, Google will know that you are the same company and carry over their flags and penalties for your new site.

When deciding whether or not you should migrate your website, ask yourself a couple basic questions?

  • Do you like your website?
  • Are you rebranding?
  • Are you happy with your web programmer/designer?
  • Are you happy with your hosting service?
  • Are you trying to make your digital marketing more efficient?
  • Do you need faster site changes, heightened security, or mobile-friendly (responsive) changes?

Basically, if you are business that relies on a website host/programmer/designer and you are not happy with the service/response time, you probably want to make the move.

  1. Should you redirect a penalized site to your new site?

For most sites, you will want to properly set up redirects and convince people and search engines that you are the same company, just with a new location. If you are trying to escape penalties and bad signals, speak with a professional first.

If one of your goals is to get away from Google penalties, you probably don’t want to redirect your penalized domain to the new, unpenalized one.

We get this question a lot and it really depends on the severity of your algorithmic or manual penalty. You want to weight the costs and benefits of redirecting a penalized site to a new domain. In addition to the rankings and redirects that carry over, the penalties will also follow. In most cases, it’s better to start over from scratch with an unpenalized domain.

Unfortunately, you won’t be able to fool Google if you simply set up a new domain with the exact same site design, content, resources, etc. If you simply want to get away from the penalties while keeping the exact same site, most likely, Google will be able to tell and continue to pass along the penalties and bad signals.

Google will re-crawl your new domain and see that it is the same site. The only way to get away from an old spammy domain that has been tacked with penalties is by getting a complete new site design and fresh content. This will take more time, but at least you won’t be wasting your time by continuing with a strategy that won’t fool Google.

Plus, your new site redesign and content will probably be a lot better than the old site.

Recovering from Google penalties is difficult and time-consuming, which is why we highly recommend hiring a reputable web design and marketing company to help you with your site migration.

As Google continues to safeguard their search engine results from quick-fix SEO methods—so-called “black-hat” techniques—the internet has become a better place. Nevertheless, many businesses may have received the short end of the stick by hiring a “black-hat” SEO company that participated in these extinct SEO tactics.

While there is a lot of debate among SEO professionals as to whether it’s better to fix the old, penalized site or migrate to a new site, it’s best to speak with a professional about the specific website in question. Sometimes, the penalties aren’t so bad and it may be a better to fix rather than replace. Other times, it’s a lot faster and easier to replace rather than to fix.

For a website and SEO consultation, give us a call or fill out our online form.

  1. Will a site migration help your search engine rankings (SEO)?

A site migration, in itself, won’t help with search engine rankings. It won’t eliminate search engine penalties either (unless you start from scratch and eliminate all redirects).

Having said that, many people take advantage of a site migration to make major improvements to their website theme, structure, content, UX and more. Often, site migrations do result in better search engine rankings because the changes create an enhanced experience for the user (better site structure, user experience, fixed 404s, broken links, similar content consolidation, improved content, and more).

Another reason why you may get a boost in search engine rankings is if you improve your website security. Back in 2014, Google announced that they would be giving sites with HTTPS and SSL encryption a slight boost in their rankings. While it’s currently a very small ranking signal (“affecting fewer than 1% of global queries”), Google says that it will most likely strengthen over time, “because we’d like to encourage all website owners to switch from HTTP to HTTPS to keep everyone safe on the web.” You can test your website’s security configurations using the online Qualys Lab tool.

After deciding whether or not a site migration is right for you, make sure you are aware of the following:

  1. Use a staging site (sandbox)

When moving redesigning your website, you want to make sure everything is working and checked before launching. It’s almost like opening a brick and mortar business. You want to make sure the utilities are working, the design works, and nothing is going to fall apart while your customers are inside. You want your website to be in pristine condition before the redirects go live, signaling that your site has migrated.

Staging sites (aka sandboxes) are set up on a private test server so you can make edits and changes to the site before it goes live. This gives you the confidence and security to mess around with the site without having to worry about it messing with your current website or brand. You should verify all redirects work properly (no redirect chains, etc.) and go through your website launch checklist.

After you approve the final product for launch, you can easily sync the test site with the live website for a seamless launch with a website you know works. Even if you are the best web programmer in the world, never attempt to launch all at once without testing.

  1. Move your website during a lull-period

While your new website should help your search engine ranking, there is normally a small dip in rankings during the migration. This is because it takes the search engines some time to crawl the website.

Make sure you schedule your launch for a not-so-busy time of the year. Scheduling a website launch around the holidays and other busy time periods is not a good idea. To avoid business losses, choose a time of year when your business isn’t experiencing a lot of business (assuming this applies to your website).

  1. Test crawl your website

You can use an online tool such as Screaming Frog to crawl your website before launch.

Since broken links and redirect errors are so common, it’s a good idea to identify crawl errors beforehand. A web crawl before launch will allow you to:

  • Remove/replace any 404 links.
  • Update redirects to the proper final page.
  • Link/remove any orphan pages (pages that are not linked to and thus cannot be reached).

You can also identify pages with crawl errors and redirects in your Google Analytics data or a site explorer such as Ahrefs. When running your website through a tool like Ahrefs, take note of your most popular pages (top linked-to pages) and pay special attention to these pages. You want to take extra care to properly redirect these pages to the appropriate page on your new site.

  1. Download Google Analytics data

Before you migrate your site, you’ll want to export your old Analytics data. This will allow you to compare the Analytics data from your new and old sites in order to see if any traffic has been lost and if so, for what reason.

Many times, traffic loss will occur for individual pages rather than for the entire site. Pay close attention to the pages of your website that receive the most traffic. If there is a significant loss of traffic to your new site, it will mostly come from the top-linked-to pages of your old website.

  1. Create list of all old URLs and make sure they match the correct new URLs

In order to properly redirect your old URLs, you should create a spreadsheet of the old URLs with the new URL it links to.

In an ideal site migration, all of your old URLs should redirect to the appropriate page on the new site. By removing the page, you’ll end up getting rid of any search engine traffic that the old page received. Also, if you remove too many pages, Google may think that your new site is a completely different site from the old one, resulting in a significant loss of traffic.

Another way that Google may see your site as a completely new site is if you significantly change the website’s architecture. Ideally, you will want to keep the same or similar architecture for the new site, enabling you to easily redirect the old pages. If the site architecture stays the same, you can use ReGex expression in your .htaccess file. This is a lot faster and less demanding than listing your redirects individually.

Don’t forget to redirect all of your individual links. The best way to do this is by doing a search and replace function in your database so all the old internal links are properly linking to the new site. This will rewrite all of the links to the proper domain name (only if you are maintaining the same site structure).

  1. Point all rel=canonical tags to new site, not the old one

Update all of your canonical tags to the new site. If you leave the canonicalization tags unchanged, Google may not reindex the new site. Canonicalizing to the new URLs helps Google know which page should be used to rank. We highly recommend self-canonicalizing all of your pages to the new site.

  1. Review content, remove all duplicate content, and consider consolidating similar pages

Many websites get penalized for duplicate content issues. When migrating your website, it is important to make sure you don’t run into duplicate content issues. Assess the content on your old website before automatically using it on the new site.

We recommend hiring a writer to check for content issues, such as plagiarized/duplicate content and low-quality pages. A good writer will be able to improve your headlines, paragraphs, grammar, voice, features, benefits, and scannability. Keyword stuffed pages and other spammy indicators will be removed and your rankings will benefit as a result.

Google continues to make algorithm updates to penalize duplicate and plagiarized content on the web. The most recent update, Phantom 2, targeted low-quality content, including click-bait articles, duplicate content, hard-to-read design, ad-heavy pages, and other weak content issues.

  • Make sure you have one main page for each of your services/products. Consolidate similar pages if necessary.
  • If you have a search engine feature on your website, make sure the search result page is noindexed.
  • Self-canonicalizing your pages should solve most of your duplicate content issues.
  1. If there is no suitable redirect for a page, remove them properly

Sometimes, you will want to remove pages from your old site. Ideally, you should redirect the removed pages to a suitable page on the new site. If no such suitable page exists, then you should remove the page properly.

  • List all of the removed pages and don’t redirect them to the new site.
  • Remove any links that may appear on these pages.
  • Allow the removed pages to redirect to a 404.
  • Don’t redirect the removed pages to your home page (aka a “soft 404”)
  1. Set up a custom 404 page

If someone clicks on a link that no longer works or mistypes a URL, you want to make sure they are taken to a custom 404 page so they can easily navigate your website and find the appropriate page they are looking for.

Without a custom 404 page, the user will most likely leave and not come back. A custom 404 page will at least provide them with your site’s navigation. A really good custom 404 page will keep your visitor and direct them to a page that serves their interest. Click here to see some creative examples of custom 404 pages.

  1. Submit your sitemaps

When migrating a website, it’s important to add your old and new sitemaps to the Google Search Console. You can speed up the reindexing process on Google’s end by requesting Google to crawl the sitemaps from your old and new sites to catch all of the redirects. This also helps confirm with Google that your old site has been moved.

Before you do this, however, make sure that all your redirects, canonicalizations, and links are free from any errors. This is why it’s so important to test crawl your website before changing your address in Google Search Console and submitting your new site to be indexed.

  1. Install Google Analytics

Before you launch the new site, make sure you set up Google Analytics so it is up and running when you launch. Remember to export the old Google Analytics data so you can compare it with the new Google Analytics data. In addition to many other reasons for doing so, you want to keep track of any traffic fluctuations from migrating your new site.

  1. Keep your old domain

When you migrate your website to a new domain, you want to make sure you keep control over the old domain as well. The only reason why you may want to get rid of the old domain is if you intend to sell it. In all other cases, it’s extremely important to maintain control of the old domain. This ensures that the old domain link redirect to the new ones forever.

Make sure you have auto renewal set up for your domains. If you lose the old domain, all of the inbound links that you have acquired from the old domain will be lost. Domains work on an annual basis, so you have to keep renting them (at around $14.99/year).

  1. Don’t block your URLs from web crawlers using robots.txt (unless intended)

One of the biggest and most critical mistakes when migrating a website is a mistake with your robots.txt file. Make sure you check the robots.txt file for any mistakes. Allow indexing of your pages by search engines where possible. Avoid the noindex robots meta tag.

You can test your robots.txt file with Google’s robots.txt Tester. Learn more about robots.txt files.

The Post-Launch Check

Once you launch your new website, you want to make sure you:

  • Set up Google Search Console and Google Analytics
  • Properly manage your PPC campaigns (if you are pointing people to your website). We recommend, however, pointing PPC campaigns to landing pages rather than your website.
  • Update all of your social media pages and other platforms.
  • Change your most important links (it’s not possible to do for every link to your website, but can be worth your time for most important inbound links).
  • Check your indexed pages after around a month. If Google has not indexed all of your pages, something is wrong.
  • Double-check your 404s and redirects. Crawl the site to check for 404s, 301s, 501s, and 503s.
  • Make sure all of your old URLs are properly redirecting to the new site. The only reason why there should be a 404 if the page had been intentionally removed.

As you can see, migrating your website is not as easy as it looks. There are a lot of checks and verifications along the way. The best way to ensure a seamless transition from an old site to a new one is to hire a professional web team to do it for you. That way, if you ever have a question, request, or change to your website, you can simply contact your webmaster team to make the desired change for you.

When it comes to your website and online presence, it is much better to be proactive rather than reactive. In order to make sure you don’t lose your rankings after your site migration, speak with a professional web design team, such as VitalStorm. We provide turn-key digital marketing solutions, including websites, social media, PPC, and call center integration.

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