At some point, you might find yourself facing down a great website migration.
I’ve helped many website owners rebrand online. I’ve managed website migrations, domain merges, and acquisitions.
In this article, I’ll tell you how to properly navigate a website migration from a digital marketing perspective.
What You’ll Learn:
- What to consider when performing a website migration
- How to set up a website migration
- How to promote your new site
- How to benchmark and monitor site performance
Watch the Video or Read the Full Article Below
Things to Keep in Mind During a Website Migration
As a rule of thumb, there’s a lot that goes into rebranding.
If you buy another website and merge it into yours, you’ll need to transfer all the content as well. If you don’t, you’ll probably lose the site’s old traffic over time.
It might seem like the best idea is to take a shortcut and just redirect the whole site. That’s not going to cut it.
You’ll have to go over all the old URLs one-by-one and make sure they transfer to the new site. Otherwise, you’ll lose the traffic value that you had expected the old site to deliver.
If you’re doing a complete rebranding that involves moving a new domain, you can expect a drop in traffic of 10-30% no matter how well you implement it. That’s par for the course.
The good news is that the drop in traffic probably won’t stay permanent. The site could very well recover after 3-6 months.
Of course, you could also see an increase in traffic if you do additional SEO on the new site.
Next, let’s go over the steps involved in website migrations.
Set up a Development Environment
First, you need a “sandbox.” That’s a development environment where you can experiment with your new website while letting your old website continue to run online.
That’s necessary because as you tinker with the new site, you won’t affect the functionality of the existing site.
If you try to rebrand or migrate the website that people are already using, a simple mistake in programming could take it down for hours. While your developers are trying to figure out what went wrong, customers won’t be able to visit the website.
That’s going to hurt your brand.
Instead, set up a development environment where you can make mistakes and no paying customers will notice. Then, work to perfect that rebranded site until it’s ready to go live.
Keep in mind: you’ll also need to manage parallel development.
In other words, if you’re adding new features to your existing site, you’ll also need to add them to your new site. Sometimes that process can be tricky, so be sure to keep track of everything.
Understand Every Single Asset You Have on Your Current Site
A successful project depends on how many pages you migrate to the new site and the quality of those pages.
So, you’ll want to kick off the process by crawling the old site to identify your top performing pages, as well as all indexable pages.
Essentially, you need to take inventory of the assets that you have on your existing site.
Start by going into Google Analytics and looking at the last three months of traffic.
Here’s how to do that: fire up Google Analytics and check the stats for your current website.
On the left-hand sidebar, click on Behavior. When the context menu opens, select Overview.
To view the last three months worth of data, you’ll have to change the date range. It’s likely defaulted to the past week.
Click on the date range in the upper, right-hand corner. Select a date range that covers the last three months.
Scroll down. You’ll see a table at the bottom that shows your most popular URLs.
However, that’s only going to show you the top 10 URLs. You’ll need to see more than that.
Click the “view full report” link just underneath the table. A new page will appear that will allow you to view all your URLs. You’ll have to scroll through the table using the arrow keys at the bottom.
Use the info in the report to identify your most important pages.
But you’re not done once you’ve collected that info. If you’re serious about how to rebrand, you’ll have to take things a step further.
Next, look at the most important directories and sections on the website. Put all of that info into one sheet that identifies the best resources for:
- Conversion rates
By doing that, you’ll learn which of your pages are bringing you the most traffic, conversions, and more.
How much traffic are you getting, and which pages generate the most sales? Which pages convert at the highest rate? Which pages have the most backlinks?
It’s essential to identify which pages are boosting your business most so you can focus on adding the pages that matter to the new site.
Once you aggregate all that data, you’ve identified your site’s business model.
Finally, break out your pages by traffic channel. Find out how people are getting to those important resources on your site.
Fortunately, Google Analytics can help with that as well. While you’re still in the Behavior section, click on Landing Pages under Site Content. Once again, you’ll see a list of your most heavily trafficked pages.
Click on one of the URLs, under the Landing Page header. The tool will show you a new table.
At the top of the table, you’ll see the words “Primary Dimension” with several clickable options to the right. Click on “Source.”
The new table will show you where you’re getting your traffic for that page. Rinse and repeat for your other popular pages.
This will allow you to focus your efforts on understanding how your audience moves through your website and where they’re coming from.
Be sure to do this early on, and base your customer journeys on historical data. Otherwise, you may face some challenges due to the lack of user data on the new site.
While sometimes, there’s no other option, UX decisions should be based on real data, not general knowledge or gut feelings.
Website Migration: Understand Your Backlinks and URLs
Next, you need to get a sense of every link that points back to your URL.
This is super important because it’s going to give you an idea of which pages have acquired the most links over time, as well as how all of these pages fit together.
Grab a tool like Majestic that will show you all your backlinks.
Why is that important? Because you want to make sure that all those backlinks will remain live on the new site.
Think about it: if you have a backlink from a popular website right now and you move to a new site that loses that link, you’ve just lost a lot of link juice. Your rank will probably suffer and people won’t find the content that was at the link.
Another thing to keep in mind: even if a site doesn’t have a lot of traffic, it might still have a lot of links pointing to it. If you lose that URL, you’ll lose a lot of backlink power.
Start Matching External Links to the New Domain
Once you’ve identified all your backlinks, it’s time to match them to your new domain.
Crawl the old domain and the new domain. Make sure that everything is matched up on a one-to-one basis.
Take a look at titles, descriptions, H1 tags, H2 tags, breadcrumbs, URLs, and the amount of copy on the page.
Also, make sure that schema.org markup got transferred over. Remember, that info helps search engine bots learn about the content on your site.
Unless there are some serious problems with the way the old site was set up, you’ll want to make sure that you match the old site as much as possible.
Another thing to keep in mind: if the old site was using HTTP (the unsecured protocol) and the new site is using HTTPS, make sure that your web server is configured to send HTTP requests to HTTPS (in fact, that’s a good thing to do in any case).
Bottom line: make sure that the new site is as similar as possible to the old site on a URL-by-URL basis. Usually, that means looking at everything in both URLs after the domain name.
Create Your Redirect Plan
Next, you need to add 301 redirects.
If you’re unfamiliar with 301 redirects, they’re basically the web-equivalent of call-forwarding. Someone visits one web page and is immediately forwarded to a second web page.
They’re called 301 redirects because the original page returns a status code of 301 as it forwards the user to the new page.
In fact, I’ve already alluded to a redirect in this article. When I mentioned forwarding HTTP requests to HTTPS, that’s a kind of redirect.
How do you implement 301 redirects? Normally, you don’t.
That’s a task that’s best left to trained professionals. Hire a well-qualified web development team to handle your 301 redirects.
The reason it’s complicated is because it often involves updating the configuration file of your web server. You don’t want to mess with that file unless you really know what you’re doing.
Once your team has created the redirects, it’s time to check their work. Once again, go URL-by-URL to make sure that all the redirects happen as expected.
Also, get into Google Search Console and use the Change of Address tool. Unfortunately, that tool is only available in the old Search Console. So you’ll need to switch to the old version if you want to use it.
If you want to use the old site, you can do so by clicking the Go the old version link at the bottom of the menu on the left-hand sidebar.
You can follow instructions about how to use the Change of Address tool here.
Once you’ve finished using the tool, let the changes take effect for a few days and then start monitoring the traffic. You should see the same kinds of traffic patterns on the new site that you saw on the old site.
Other things to think about include:
Keep in mind that you probably already have redirects in place within your existing website. If you don’t account for this ahead of time, they may hurt your SEO performance. Make sure you resolve any old 302 (temporary) redirects from the old site before the migration.
Avoid Internal Redirects
Make sure you account for any internal links so that you avoid internal redirects. Though Google is capable of following internal redirects, they can slow your site down or increase crawl times.
Redirect Old Image Files
If you’re moving the site’s image files to a new location, you’ll also need to redirect them to the new image URLs so that Google can discover and index them faster.
Spread the Word About Your Website Migration
I suspect one of the biggest challenges you’ll face when going through the website migration is getting the rest of the internet to acknowledge that you’ve moved.
As such, you’ll want to follow a few steps to make sure that people can find you when the new site goes live:
Make the Announcement
Aside from making sure Google knows about the move, you’ll need to make sure customers, clients, and all kinds of contacts know where to find you moving forward.
Here are a few ways to ensure that your audience knows about the change:
- First, be sure you run a press release announcing the rebrand/migration.
- You’ll also want to schedule a few social media posts for each account, announcing the change.
- Create blog content, videos, and social posts that cover everything from the reason for making the change to any new products, features, and updates.
- Email existing clients in advance to let them know what’s changed.
Use a Tool to Crawl the Web for Old Brand Mentions
I recommend using a tool like Pitchbox (a social listening platform) to identify any old brand mentions. You’ll want to make a list of everywhere the old brand name crops up.
This way, you can reach out to the mention’s author and give them an updated link to use instead. An added bonus; Pitchbox also helps you identify unlinked mentions, so you can identify new link opportunities as you correct outdated backlinks.
Update Socials, Directories, and Other Off-Site Channels
You need to make sure you update all external accounts so that no traffic sources are leading potential visitors down the wrong path.
Make sure you’re reviewing social media accounts, directory entries, and so on and when the time comes, as well as updating URLs, bios, and web copy to reflect the new rebrand.
Manage and Submit Sitemaps
Before going live, you’ll want to test out the new XML sitemap using a tool like Deep Crawl, just to make sure that the new map has everything in place.
Once the new map is ready to go, you can go ahead and upload it to the Google Search Console. You might be ready to be done with the old sitemap, but it’s a good idea to keep the legacy sitemap stored in your account, at least for a while.
After uploading the new map, have Google crawl the legacy version to make sure that redirects are working correctly. The point is, you don’t want to find out down the road that visitors see 404 errors instead of top-performing pages. Or worse, find out that you’re experiencing a major drop in traffic due to some small, preventable error.
Benchmarking Site Performance
So, we’ve looked at some specific areas—pages, links, and traffic sources—that have an impact on your performance.
Before launching the new website, you’ll need to benchmark the old site’s performance, so you have an idea of how the new site compares.
You’ll want to understand everything from your top ranking keywords to the areas on your website that have historically underperformed. This way, you can spot any potential problems before adding them to the new site, so that they can continue to cause trouble.
A few areas to look at:
- Organic Traffic
- Landing Page Performance
- SERP rankings
To weigh new website performance against old benchmarks, you’ll need to install Google Analytics on your new domain before it’s up, running, and accessible to the public.
It’s crucial that you don’t miss any opportunities to collect data during a website migration, as you’ll want to monitor for changes in traffic during this transitional period carefully. Compare things like top conversion paths, PPC performance, and referral sources.
Transfer Your Conversion Strategies As Well During a Website Migration
One of the biggest problems that I’ve noticed when advising people on a website migration is that they don’t take the conversion strategies that worked well on the old site and move them to the new site.
In your split testing with the old site, did you notice that a red call-to-action button outperformed other colors? If so, why would you want to go with a different color on the new site?
In some cases, you might eventually want to switch the color, but you’ll learn about that with the new site just as you did with old site: by doing split-testing.
Also, the CTA button should be in the same place. Any banners you’re using to get people to take action should follow the same design pattern and take up the same amount of space.
Keep An Eye Keyword Performance, Too
If your site has thousands of pages, monitoring every keyword will be close to impossible.
Before you make the change, spend time reviewing which keywords contribute to your site’s organic visibility. Instead, focus in on your top-performing keywords; meaning those driving traffic with a medium-sized search volume.
If you do get traffic from both branded and unbranded keywords, decide if it makes sense to focus on building out your branded keyword strategy to match the new domain.
In general, unbranded keywords tend to be more competitive and harder to maintain the top position. As such, you’ll need to focus the bulk of your SEO efforts here.
Be sure to track rankings closely as possible. This will make it much easier to diagnose problems post-launch should there be performance issues on one device type.
Test Site Speeds During a Website Migration
The new site’s page loading times are another area you’ll need to review. As we’ve mentioned before, site speeds are a significant factor when it comes to conversions and user satisfaction.
The Pagespeed Insights is a free Google tool that allows you to test the speed of your site on both mobile and desktop devices and they’ll assign you a score–slow, medium, or fast, along with some recommendations. The benefit is, you’ll get real-world data based on what Google collects from Chrome users.
Google’s Lighthouse is another free resource that allows you to track things like site load times, accessibility, and how you can optimize your site for better performance. What’s nice about Lighthouse is, it provides your Pagespeed scores, along with other performance metrics like accessibility, SEO, and best practices.
For more on the best page speed tools, I’ll refer you to a round-up we posted a while back.
Hang onto the Old Domain, Even After a Website Migration
Even though you’re moving on, I recommend maintaining control of the old domain. Chances are you’ll start the website migration process by first adding the most important pages. However, you may want to add lesser pages to the new domain later on.
If you lose those redirects, any inbound links from other sites will be lost forever, which, could hurt your SEO performance.
While some SEO pros say it is okay to give up control of the old domain after Google has stopped indexing it, it’s smart to keep the old site around just in case. See, Google won’t crawl every page on your new site right away, so you’ll want to keep checking the new site’s performance against the legacy site, for at least a month or so.
By that point, if the new site hasn’t reached the same value as its predecessor, you may need to make some changes.
Pay Close Attention to Performance
Finally, we should mention that, at least for a while, you’ll want to keep a watchful eye on your search traffic, referrals, and how visitors are navigating your site post website migration.
Take note of any shifts in traffic and then drill down, comparing traffic at the page level between the old and new sites. The point of this is to gain an understanding of whether individual pages have lost traffic.
If you find a significant drop-off, make sure you look out for any linking issues or crawl errors. Make sure you reach out to people linking to your old site and get those links updated as soon as possible.
All of the changes you’ve made play a significant role in your site’s ability to rank. As such, you’ll need to make sure you’re on top of any changes in performance and can quickly trace any problems back to a specific page. It will also give you a sense of how quickly Google is indexing your new site and phasing out the old one.
Wrapping Up Website Migrations
I wish there was an easy answer to website migrations and the “how to rebrand” question. Unfortunately, it’s an effort that’s going to take a lot of work.
It also requires significant attention to detail. That’s especially the case if the site you’re moving has thousands of URLs.
Still, the reward is worth it if you take it seriously.