Website Migration Resource
Many businesses large and small go through the process of changing elements of their destination website every 3-4 years. This is a process that can have varying levels of impact on your business, depending on the purpose of your business website and its existing performance levels in respect of such purposes.
Why hire an SEO agency to handle your site migration
As a very simple way of gauging whether you need an SEO agency to support your migration, have a go at answering the following questions:
We rely on our website to provide us with enquiries/leads/sales?
If our website were to disappear tomorrow, our business would be severely affected?
Our website is a common destination for our customers who need to seek information and advice about our business/products/services?
We run email/social media/SEO/PPC/affiliate/other marketing activity that drives traffic to our website?
Our website comes up in search engine results for the areas we operate within?
If you have answered “Yes” to any of these questions, then it is advisable to seek the advice and support of an SEO agency to assist you with your website migration to ensure the process is carried out efficiently.
What are the risks associated with a website migration?
Depending on the structure of your business and marketing function, there can be any number of people involved in the process of a website migration. Typically, anywhere from 2 individuals (business owner and a web developer) and above act as stakeholders during a website project. A web developer will take instruction and do as tasked, and the business owner will be responsible for giving guidance from a commercial point of view. Typically, a web developer usually guides a website migration from a development point of view, and depending on their remit, they may or may not cover additional aspects of a website migration (such as tracking, error reporting, and performance reporting) process to ensure a fully successful migration. Typical risks associated with such a project include the following:
- Site downtime
- Loss of traffic
- Loss of user experience
- Loss of enquires/leads/sales
The biggest threat to your project is communication and clearly identified remits that cover all critical areas such as SEO. Having a clear set of responsibilities for each party involved in a website project and well managed communication is critical in ensuring the success of your migration.
A poorly handled migration can result in significant losses of traffic, sales and revenue for any period of time from weeks to months, if possible threats are not identified, managed and handled efficiently within a sufficient timeframe.
Business reasons for a website migration
There are many business cases that warrant the migration of a website. In our experience, it is not just about launching a new front-end website to improve the user experience (although this is a very common reason).
Other reasons include the following.
Changing domain names
You may have been operating on a country specific TLD (top level domain) and decided to move it to a .com domain, either for strategic reasons or because you’ve finally managed to confirm the acquisition of it.
Changing business names
Many companies go through rebrands as a way to further define themselves and remain targeted to their customer profile. A change in business name is a careful consideration as a business needs to consider the digital profile of the business as it historically exists.
Switching from HTTP to HTTPS
A critical requirement for search engines but also for any business that’s serious about protecting their users data (ecommerce as a key example), the integration of HTTPS (Secure Hyper-Text-Transfer-Protocol) means that all user data submitted on your website is transmitted via a secure connection. A considerable and significant change that commonly drives business to carry out a website migration.
Moving to a new front-end platform
Content Management Systems (CMS) are a many and choosing the right CMS platform for your business depends on many factors.
- Upfront Costs
- Ongoing Costs
- Hosting Costs
Popular CMS systems include Wordpress, Drupal, Joomla, Magento, Sitecore and Umbraco. By moving to a new front-end platform, the entire code base is being redeployed and therefore a careful and detailed site migration is required to ensure efficiency and success.
Moving to a new backend platform
At the backend of your web stack you may want to move to a new database solution that integrates more effectively with other internal systems, or you could be adopting new technologies to replace outdated technologies that are no longer supported or considered legacy.
Introducing local sites for other countries
If you are introducing another destination website into your digital experience, your existing website structure will need to be reconsidered to accommodate the new website. Whether your architecture is focused on a set of directory-based websites or subdomain sites, your entire architecture will go through a change that will need to be managed.
UX based changes across device types
On average, businesses update their website to improve their user experience every 2-5 years across varying sectors, and the goal of improving the user experience is one of the most common reasons for going through a website migration process.
Typically, where the goal is to improve the user experience, a business will carefully consider how data led decisions can be made using tools analytics tool such as Google Analytics, but also user experience tools such as Hotjar, Optimisely or Crazy egg.
Enhancements will be designed and planned across desktop, mobile and tablet devices, and also tested across all three device types too.
Once these phases have been completed, a business may be ready to consider the website migration phase of the project.
Mobile first approach to web experience
Google first announced that they were experimenting with Mobile first indexing back in September 2016, with marketers since taking mobile much more seriously within their marketing strategies. As of Just 1st, 2019, any new website launched or indexed by Google is automatically indexed on a mobile-first basis, further cementing the authority and significance of mobile devices within a typical user's journey.
If you operate a B2C business whereby the majority of your website users visit your website through a mobile device, then you should be following a mobile first approach to your digital strategy and as a part of this launching a mobile first web experience would be a well justified reason to go through a website changeover.
The lead up to migration
A website migration is usually a project within a larger project, such as any of the business cases highlighted in the previous section. Typically, a business does not exactly know when a migration will occur, and for how long it will go on for. A changeover in itself is a process which should be completed within hours, if not days, however being able to effectively plan for this period of changeover is the unknown that cannot be planned for months in advance due to the overall project and progress being made within it.
Typically, the overall business project requiring a migration reaches a particular point at which 90% of the objectives have been achieved and then all stakeholders start discussing and preparing themselves for migration.
Roles and Functions within a migration
Typical job roles
Through all of the website migration projects we have completed, there have always been several stakeholders involved from various departments to ensure that the project goes to plan, from every business perspective.
Whilst in a small business the business owner and/or marketing manager may be the primary stakeholders, in a larger business many different department heads can also be involved. This may include any of the following:
- Front end Developers
- Back-end developers
- Project manager
- Legal – GDPR, new website policy
- Internal/external SEO manager or SEO agency
Ultimately, as a project owner you want to ensure that every stakeholder within the business that has a need for the website to function correctly is involved or at least kept up to date with the progress of the project.
Who owns a migration project?
Accountability for a website migration is as critical as any element of the website migration project itself. In 2016, POLARIS was contacted by the marketing manager of a successful high street chain that had just gone through a website migration and lost 65% of their organic traffic.
The marketing manager making the enquiry asked “who is responsible for this migration, ultimately”. During this particular migration, a development agency was involved, managed by the marketing manager. The area over who was ultimately responsible for the loss of SEO traffic was grey. It had not been considered explicitly enough to be defined.
Unfortunately, the business owners decided that the marketing manager was ultimately accountable for the migration and its failure, and as a result the person lost their role within the company. Whilst this is not a great experience to share, the point here is that it is absolutely critical that not only is someone identified as owning the project, but it must be abundantly clear what they are responsible for and also that they understand how to best manage this type of a project.
For this reason, it is critical to ensure an experienced party is involved during a website migration. If you are reading this and this is your first migration, it is safe to seek the guidance of an SEO agency. If you have handled multiple migration projects and you understand the process and potential risks, then this may not be necessary, but in most cases, we find it is necessary to have a third party SEO agency assist.
Job functions to appoint to a project member to ensure accountability
Regardless of the size of your organisation, the following areas of performance should be clarified and assigned to a project member in your team so responsibilities are clearly distributed and remit can be clear for everyone involved.
The 3 stages of a migration
The process of a website migration can be organised into three core areas.
Following steps through each phase will allow for a controlled website migration, directed with the intent of smoothly transitioning from one website to another with the core business goals in mind.
SEO considerations within a website migration
Within a site migration there are number of potentially unseen obstacles and subsequent impacts on SEO performance. Building a new website and carrying out a migration process with SEO in mind is essential to both online ranking and business performance.
At the heart of a website is its skeleton, or website structure. This structure drives both the immediate layout and user journey that we see, but also crawl map of search engine crawlers. If these crawlers cannot follow an expected route, particularly where one exists on a current site pre-migration, it would be expected that a negative impact on SEO will be seen and SEO performance of the website will decline after the migration is complete. URL structure should follow a clear path from the above steps. If the structure matches the steps users take through the website, indexing will be benefitted and crawling will be clean.
Site & Page Load Speed
Site migrations often come with either a change in hosting provider or server. This can be driven by a specific business requirement, cost or simply convenience. Testing website performance in areas such as speed and loading times can prove difficult on a development site, but there are some core principles such as caching, image sizes and theme sizes that can be managed to perform to a particular standard during the build process.
Considering these principles, you should test the new website’s speed as much as possible in a live environment before migration. As with the site structure process outlined earlier, carry out an audit of the existing websites load times and compare this to the performance of the new website. A switch in websites should only ever result in better performance as new technology and the removal of perceived ‘dead weight’ should enhance your website, not degrade it.
The following points can assist in acting as a reference for reviewing site speed and how to make improvements to load times:
Reduce server response time: Here are many factors which can slow down your server response time including the following:
- Large scale image loading
- Video homepage loading
- DNS settings
Optimise Images: Large scale images can have an impact on site speed
Minify CSS: Compacting CSS code for the theme will reduce the file size and speed up downloading, parsing and execution time.
Leverage browser caching:
Setting an expiry date or a maximum age in the HTTP headers for static resources instructs the browser to load previously downloaded resources from the local dish rather than over the network.
Changing the Content Management System (CMS)
CMS Changes, for example from Drupal to Wordpress, or version updates of the same platform, such as Drupal 7 to Drupal 8, will have its own set of challenges and considerations within a website migration project.
There are a number of areas to consider when looking at the migration from one CMS platform/release to another as each will function differently and this will have a knock on effect on your business and its operation’s, both internally and externally. For example. All website administrators within the business may have to undergo new training on how to use a new platform or system, to ensure continuity.
From an SEO perspective, there are a number of factors to consider, including:
- Does the proposed CMS give you the functionality and control you need to maintain and apply SEO strategies within the CMS?
- How different is the management experience of the website for those working on it day to day? Will this impact how employees upload and manage work?
- Does the website meet the needs from a user perspective based on the goals of the business such as easy to use payment gateways, security and functionality?
Beyond these 3 example points, a switch in CMS means an entire switch in backend code and functionality. These files might not be visible directly to the user, but they are hugely important in terms of crawling and how Google (and other search crawlers) work their way around the website and interpret the data within it. This website code will also have an impact on speed and crawl rates, and if not handled correctly can result in errors such as Google not seeing parts of a page or site, negatively affecting your SEO performance.
UX and discussions around funnels and journeys, CTAs, and internal links are common discussion points amongst stakeholders working through a website project. There are elements on your website pages which should be considered from an SEO point of view in particular, in order to maintain SEO performance and to identify and make the most of any new opportunities to improve both SEO and UX performance through changeover.
Whether it’s an update to the services you offer, or just a refresh of existing content on your key landing pages – all on-page work has to be considered in line with user intent, user search queries (keywords, questions and answers etc), and Google Algorithms such as E.A.T and YMYL.
A list of all pages with a staged sign off list for every stakeholder involved in the content should be created as well – this will include content writers, product managers, SEO agencies etc. This should include all existing pages as well – again to give a full 360 view of changes on the website.
It is advisable to have a documented schedule of all critical pages that receive organic traffic and involve subject matter experts in the curation of the content required to be updated on these pages, and all SEO considerations from the above table within.
Within a website, paths to conversion are essential to en-suring customer and business success is achieved. Under-standing a users beginning and end point through your website is a critical process when evaluating the new ex-perience you are due to launch to understand potential performance and user expectations.
Website navigation refers to the functionality that allows a user and search en-gine crawlers to navigate through your website. Typically this is largely driven by menus, pop ups and onsite scrolling (as opposed to the paths through pages outlined above), to connect different pages and content areas of a website.Menu structures should follow your website structure where possible and be clearly accessible in the navigation areas of your website. Depending on the de-sign of the website you may have a number of menu navigation areas (typically a header and footer navigation), for which all destination links in your menus.
User Tracking & Analytics
User tracking is an essential part of developing a digital marketing strat-egy as it allows marketing stakeholders to understand behaviour and make decisions using definitive data. With regards to a website migra-tion project, these tools allow for a direct comparison of performance to be carried out, pre and post migration, so that success can be clearly identified and reported on to all stakeholders.
Google Tag Manager
Tools such as Google Tag Manager (GTM), a system designed by Google to aid in event tracking, can be implemented (if not already) to aid in segregating track-ing into categories, actions and labels – meaning you can create subsets of data based on the various needs of the business.Within GTM, you can choose to track website events, such as clicks, downloads, video views, website form submissions, and add to basket. There are many variables and options for setting up tracking in GTM, however if setup correctly this will aid in a better level of data being gathered post migration.
Backlinks and citations linking to a website are considered one of the most influential core ranking factors and should be factored into a website migration project.
Typically, the goal is to retain all backlinks and ensure they continue to direct users and search engine robots to the relevant (updated) destination with the new website being launched. Work on this process should begin before switchover day – with a full audit of the backlink profile conducted and outlined in a document. Ideally, a process should be identified whereby external links are migrated from the old website to the new website.Post Migration it is essential to work through the list of pages and attempt to migrate as many links as possible to the new destinations where different. This will allow for a larger proportion of authority and equity to transition directly to the new locations within your website, for the benefit of search engine crawlers and any referring users from third party websites. Take into consideration the need to work through what could be a very long and complex list. The best process to follow is:
Website & Page Redirects
Redirecting pages isn’t just essential for the links within the site, it is also essential for the very fabric and success of the site. There are a number of ways to carry out redirects, including the implementation of Global redirects and product level redirects. Where possible, it is advisable to avoid bulk redirects and redirect rules. Particularly where two data sets need to be matched, as long term these will cause ongoing issues, and changes to the data could break redirects causing user experience issues post mi-gration. This stage of the website migration process is a fantastic opportunity to clean up or-phaned pages and URLs, as well as ensure the stability of a website going forward.
Within the redirect process there are two significant opportunities for disaster.
Redirect Loops: Redirect Loops are caused when redirects from one URL to another match or have the same URL. This can be caused by old changes to structure or historic redirects which match new URLs, IE Page 1 redirects to Page 2, which in turn redirects to page 1. This would send a user or crawler in a ‘loop’ and end up with an error message on the page, or the page not being crawled.
Redirect Chains: Redirect chains are slightly different and caused by multiple redirects through the same paths. This can be caused by multiple URL changes and will result in a slow crawl and potentially impact user experience through the site. For example, this would be seen if Page 1 redirects to Page 2, which redirects to Page 3 and so on. This can be caused by historic changes within the website overtime.
Please note, this part of the website migration must be conducted by SEO Experts with experience in website migrations.
Signs that your migration process is not going to plan
1. Your site is not working or hitting all 404 pages
2. The website is showing as not being safe to visit
3. The website is slow
4. Rankings are dropping
Polaris is an award-winning B2B SEO agency in London specialising B2B, PPC, e-commerce and the healthcare industry.