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How to NOT Lose Google Rankings During a Website Migration in 11 Steps

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How to NOT Lose Google Rankings During a Website Migration in 11 Steps

Thankfully, more building materials companies are recognizing that we have moved from an analog world of trade ads and brochures to a digital world where your online presence is your most important sales and marketing tool.

This is leading many of these companies to invest in a new website that is more focused on meeting customer needs than an online product catalog.

A frequent problem that these companies experience is a loss of their SEO rankings from their old site when they launch the new site. Most companies assume that the web designer takes care of this.

Unfortunately, this important step is frequently not part of the website development process. The company doesn’t realize this until a few days after they have launched their new site and realize that they no longer show up in search results.

Another result may be that your content still shows up, but it gives the viewer a “This page no longer exists” message. Neither of these are good for you.

I made this mistake myself when launching a new Whizard Strategy website several years ago. I had been growing my website traffic each month based largely on organic search. The next time I checked Google Analytics I was shocked to see how my traffic had dramatically declined.

I asked Matt Lee, my go to SEO and content expert to tell me what happened. He quickly saw what the web developer had failed to do to maintain my search rankings.

It took Matt and I a number of hours of work to correct this and regain my SEO rankings.

In order for you to avoid this costly error, I asked Matt Lee and Alex Vasev of Lead Generation Experts to develop this guide for how to ensure that the SEO rankings from your old site make the move to your wonderful new website,

11 Steps to Maintain Your SEO Rankings

Last week, I was talking to a building product manufacturer who mentioned that they were in the middle of migrating their website to a new website platform/CMS.

As an SEO professional, whenever I hear the words “website migration” a red flag immediately goes off in my head. After further conversation, the building product manufacturer mentioned that their expensive and well known web development company had assured them that nothing would go wrong during the migration process.

However, I knew that a second look was warranted after years of working with some of the top web development agencies. Upon further review, I discovered, like many web development companies, that they had not taken the time or had the know how to plan out a proper website migration. At least from an SEO PERSPECTIVE.

As a result, I was able to determine that if the migration was implemented as planned, the manufacturer would have lost over 40% of their traffic, and potentially thousands of leads from organic search per month.

A website migration describes any event where a site undergoes major structural change that disrupts search visibility.

Be it a domain change or a complete site overhaul, for many building materials companies, a site migration feels like skipping through a minefield in the pitch-black night—and very few of them make it to the other side with their rankings intact.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. In this article, we will cover in depth the ins and outs of the site migration process and provide you with an actionable step-by-step algorithm for a successful transition.

How a Website Migration Can Be the Death of Your SEO

From an SEO standpoint, the chief task of a site move is to smoothly transition all the accumulated SEO value of the legacy site—rankings, traffic, PageRank, and link equity—to the new one.

But given that such a move is a massive shock to the system, the scenario is, hands down, one of the most challenging times for your website as it takes a lot of specialized technical SEO knowledge to navigate through the process without losing the hard-earned organic search traffic.

Why is this so? Essentially, it all boils down to five key factors:

  • Rankings. It takes time for search engines to recognize that a website has been moved to a different place and pass all the SEO value to the corresponding new page(s), which may cause your rankings to tank, sometimes permanently. Also, the more variables you change in the equation—the source code, content, URL structure, etc.—the greater the risk that search engines may decide to re-evaluate the new pages.
  • Traffic. A site move delivers a double blow to your web traffic: in addition to organic traffic taking a nosedive, a plethora of potential technical issues, if unaddressed, may cause users to wind up getting lost along the way.
  • Link Equity. Your backlink portfolio, the major pillar sustaining your organic search rankings and site authority, can also become a casualty of a poorly executed site migration, especially when the developers in charge have not been educated on the SEO side of the process.
  • User Experience. If users land on anything other than the requested page due to technical issues caused by the site move, nine times out of ten, you lose those visitors. And once they are gone, that’s it. No second chances.
  • Revenue. Ultimately, all the above-mentioned factors combined directly affect the revenue your website generates for your business.

More often than not, things take the wrong turn for companies that underestimate the complexity of the task at hand. And when that happens, poor planning and implementation are inevitably at the heart of the problem.

To add insult to injury, web developers typically lack the in-depth SEO knowledge it takes to preserve organic search traffic, approaching the process without any consideration for the long-term impact of their actions on your SEO.

With all that in mind, here is a simple truth you have to come to terms with:

Without a seasoned SEO specialist on board, the only person on your team who cares about preserving your hard-earned organic search traffic is you.

However, if you play your cards right, your website can bounce back relatively quickly, have no negative impact at all, or even go through a rapid growth afterward.

But before diving deep into action, let’s talk about the reasons why anybody would even consider embarking on such a risky journey.

5 Common Reasons for a Website Migration

It would take a much longer article to cover every reason why companies may decide to take the plunge, putting so much at stake. Listed below are some of the most common ones:

1. Switching from HTTP to HTTPS

Search engines have been constantly pushing for higher security standards to make the Web a safer place for everyone.

For that reason, Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) has become the new norm for any website and one of the ranking factors determining its place in Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

With no other choice but to comply with the elevated security standards, websites that have found themselves stuck in the old ways, the HTTP protocol, are being forced to take the leap.

2. Moving to a New Server or Hosting Provider

As your site grows over time, at some point, you are almost guaranteed to entertain the thought of moving to a different hosting provider or web server.

For instance, explosively growing companies often upgrade from shared hosting where a website shares the server disk space and IP address with other customers to a dedicated server provided exclusively to one website—or even take it to the next level by opting for a custom web-hosting solution.

Details aside, whenever you switch to another IP address, your website location changes as well.

3. Changing the Domain Name

Whether it’s changing the domain name as a part of a rebranding, merger, or acquisition, doing so without wreaking havoc on your SEO is an art form in itself.

SEOs differentiate between migrating to a new domain name with and without changing the URL structure. If, in your case, the URL architecture remains unaltered, lucky you.

Otherwise, it takes a great deal of extra work to ensure the transition happens without any unpleasant surprises.

4. Replatforming

As the Web keeps moving forward at a lightning-fast pace, more advanced Content Management Systems (CMS) enter the market, effectively rendering some of the competition obsolete.

Whether you’re moving to a different CMS or developing your own tailored to your unique business needs, replatforming is a long and costly process that entails revamping the site structure.

If done wrong, this may greatly hurt search visibility, leading to catastrophic losses in rankings and organic search traffic.

5. Changing Your Website’s Design or Structure

Ranging from polishing web design or optimizing URLs to making a complete site overhaul, these improvements have one common denominator: substantial tweaking of the source code.

Whenever that happens, search engines treat it as an invitation to re-evaluate the pages affected by the revamp.

And that may not play out well for your rankings if your developers don’t go the extra mile to preserve the SEO value that takes blood, sweat, and tears to accumulate.

Now that you know the essentials, we can move from theory to practice.

The 11 Step Website Migration Process

As the captain of your ship, your first and foremost priority must be to ensure that your vessel makes it safely through the perilous reefs of the impending site migration.

Those who take the process seriously come out stronger on the other side. Those who come unprepared and downplay the risks involved sink into oblivion.

Again, poor planning and implementation are a recipe for disaster. So, laying down a solid foundation for each phase before flipping the switch is the key to ensuring that the light at the end of the tunnel will not end up just being the beam of an oncoming train.

For that reason, we strongly recommend you sit down with the development team and walk them through each step outlined below.

1. Lay the Groundwork

As the adage has it, the more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in war. The pre-launch planning stage is incredibly critical for streamlining the process and making your team work like clockwork.

Once you have stated the goals of the project, map out an exhaustive action plan and benchmark key SEO metrics to monitor the situation as things unfold.

Put Together a Comprehensive List of All Pages on Your Website

To start with, crawl your entire website and create an inventory list containing the following information:

  1. All your URLs
  2. The corresponding HTTP status codes (a server response to a user trying to access a given web page)
  3. SEO meta data for each page (page titles, meta descriptions, and H1s)

For the uninitiated, the page title is the title of a web page shown in the tab at the top of the browser window and search results snippets while the H1 tag is the main heading shown on the page itself. The meta description tag acts like a blurb describing the page in the SERPs.

To fetch this data, use Screaming Frog or any other similar crawl software with the least restrictive directives such as ignoring the robots.txt file settings—the file telling search engine bots which parts of your website they can and cannot explore—and crawling “nofollow” links.

And don’t forget to save the crawl data for later side-by-side comparison. Apart from getting a complete roadmap to your website, you get a terrific opportunity to unearth underlying crawling issues before the launch, killing two birds with one stone.

Create a Redirect Map

A redirect is a method of automatically forwarding users and robots from one page to another URL. Those who underestimate redirects often pay dearly.

In fact, one of the most notorious SEO blunders in history took place when Toys“R”Us purchased for $5.1M in an attempt to dominate organic search and wound up losing it all because the right redirects had not been set up.

For the site migration to happen painlessly, you need to channel users to the correct new pages and notify search engines that your website has been moved to a different location.

To do that, your developers or SEOs have to set up permanent redirects from every single page on the legacy site to the corresponding URLs at the new spot.

If you fail at that, all of that link equity, all of that page rank, all of that traffic that the page has managed to pile up over time will end up going down the drain, sometimes without even a slight chance for recovery.

Don’t play with fire. Compose a redirect map to keep track of whether or not all the pages have been replaced.

And when (not if) you spot a gap in the list, you will be able to quickly fix the issues without suffering devastating penalties.

Benchmark Key SEO Metrics

Before giving the green light to the site migration, you need to know where you stand in the SEO realm to benchmark the key metrics for all your pages.

That way, you will be able to discern the pages which have successfully recovered from the traffic dip from the ones which have not.

Pull the data from Google Analytics and other web analytics tools for the past 12 months, benchmarking the following key SEO metrics:

  1. Keywords. Compile a list containing all search phrases that drive organic search traffic to your website from the SERPs.
  2. Keyword Rankings. Create a list of your position in the SERPs for all the keywords you are ranking for in order to have a clear picture of whether or not you have recovered from the site move after your search visibility takes a blow.
  3. Top-linked Pages. Collect yet another list of your pages that have been linked to the most by third-party websites using tools like Ahrefs or Ubersuggest. Since a backlink portfolio determines domain authority, the top-linked pages act as the tide lifting all your other pages in the SERPs. If these pages are in trouble, you are in trouble as well.
  4. Site Speed. Prepare a detailed report analyzing how quickly users can access the content to compare the quantitative metrics to the performance of the new site.

Only when you have all that data neatly organized are you ready to spring into action.

2. Block Search Engines from Crawling the Staging Website

To avoid confusing search engines, the legacy and staging websites should not compete in the SERPs before everything has been set up the right way for launch.

SEOs advise restricting search engines from crawling the new website by writing special directives in the robots.txt file or setting a username and password in .htaccess (the file that contains all the rules overriding the default Apache server settings).

For example, if you want to block the entire domain from being indexed by search engine bots, your developers can make it happen by simply adding these two lines of code to the staging site’s robots.txt file:

User-agent: *

Disallow: /

That way, you don’t shoot yourself in the foot by letting search engines crawl the new site too early.

3. Update Title, Meta Description, and Canonical Tags

Once the new site has been hidden from search engines, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get down to work.

First, update the key HTML elements essential for SEO—title tags, meta descriptions, and canonicals—and make sure they match the corresponding pages on the legacy site.

Among the triad, canonicals are the trickiest tags.

The canonical tag (rel=”canonicals”) tells search engines that a given page is a master copy of another URL, which helps manage duplicate content, the plague of any CMS.

Here is how it looks:

<link rel=“canonical” href=“” />

In other words, the meta tag specifies the URL that will inherit all the link equity and PageRank accumulated by this page.

Translation into layman’s terms: let this tiny line of code slip through the cracks, and you are almost guaranteed to suffer massive SEO value losses, followed by various indexing problems.

To sidestep any potential canonicalization issues, crawl the staging site with Screaming Frog. The software will return all the URLs containing the canonical tag and its respective contents.

4. Set Up Permanent Redirects

Before we move on, full disclosure: even though Google has long admitted that redirects pass 100% of PageRank and treat all redirect types the same, that may not be the case with other search engines. So, we recommend you stick to the “old school” ways.

You already know what redirects are. But do you know that redirects can be set up in many different ways?

Basically, depending on where a redirect is triggered, all redirect types fall into two categories: client-side (the ones initiated in web browsers) and server-side redirects (the name is pretty self-explanatory).

Server-side redirects stand for 3xx HTTP status codes. Here is a quick overview of 3xx class HTTP status codes:

  • 300 – Multiple Choices
  • 301 – Moved Permanently
  • 302 – Found
  • 303 – See Other
  • 304 – Not Modified
  • 305 – Use Proxy
  • 306 – Unused
  • 307 – Temporary Redirect
  • 308 – Permanent Redirect

Each status code has its purpose (except for 305s and 306s which were deprecated, mainly for security reasons).

But when it comes to site migrations, permanent server-side redirects, specifically 301 redirects, have always been the golden standard.

The only time when you may want to work with something other than 301s may be the times when you need to leave the HTTP method unchanged (POST for POST, GET for GET). And that’s where 308 redirects come into play.

Once all the redirects have been created, fill out the redirect list to reveal any blind spots on the map prior to the launch.

Remember, if anything gets lost at this stage, you risk permanently losing all the PageRank, traffic, and link equity of that page.

On top of that, every single web page on your website can be accessed through multiple URLs simultaneously. These are the duplicate pages taking the wind out of your SEO performance, so you need to resolve the following issues with permanent redirects as well:

  • Both www and non-www versions
  • HTTP and HTTPS
  • Redirecting uppercase to lowercase URLs
  • Adding or removing a trailing slash
  • IP canonicalization (in addition to typing the domain name into the URL bar, your website can also be accessed through its IP address)

5. Design a Custom 404 Error Page

Whenever the user requests a page that does not exist, that triggers a 404 HTTP response code (Not Found).

And instead of losing out on that traffic, create a spectacular 404 error page to raise the odds of retaining some of the users who would have otherwise abandoned your website.

6. Update Internal Links

Once you have dealt with all the potential pitfalls covered above, update all the internal links on your new website. Without this step, the users surfing your new website will be forwarded back to the old version.

The implications? Ruined user experience, diminished domain authority, and the wrath of search engines.

To prevent that from ever happening, every single internal link on the staging website must be replaced with the new URLs.

Believe me, even if your site is relatively small, it’s easier said than done. To help your development team track down all the internal links, here is a quick SEO checklist.

Write the items off the list as you go along.

  • Main content links (especially images)
  • Navigation menus
  • Taxonomy links
  • Pagination links
  • Site buttons
  • Cross-site internal links (for multi-lingual websites)
  • Footer links

7. Canonicalize Taxonomy Pages

Whenever you put out new content, virtually every CMS is going to categorize that page across various taxonomies.

In and of itself, the taxonomy pages are relatively benign; however, if they have not been canonicalized, that automatically makes the website guilty of promoting duplicate content, something search engines hate with a vengeance.

For that reason, pay additional attention to CMS-generated category pages which help the website function but bring nothing to the table from an SEO perspective.

For instance, WordPress, the most popular CMS as of this writing, has the following taxonomy pages that should be canonicalized before the launch:

  • Tag pages
  • Pagination pages
  • Archives
  • Author pages

It’s not uncommon to observe a scenario where 20 blog posts on a poorly optimized WordPress website generate fifty additional category, tag, author, and archive pages—all treated as separate URLs by search engines.

Don’t let that happen to your website. Weed out the taxonomies from the SERPs by utilizing the canonical tag.

8. Configure Web Analytics

During a website migration, every tidbit of web analytics data is worth its weight in gold.

For that reason, set up Google Analytics for the new website before it goes live so that you don’t miss out on any valuable feedback on how the new website makes its first steps post-launch.

9. Audit New Website for Errors

Before the launch, conduct a comprehensive technical SEO audit to test the new website for the following technical SEO issues which may have lurked under the radar for months and months:

  • Crawl Errors. Make sure search engine bots can actually access and read the pages on your site.
  • Meta Tags. Double-check whether or not SEO meta tags have been successfully imported to the staging website.
  • 404 Errors. Clean up any 404 errors caused by both internal and external links.
  • Content Consistency. All the body content must be moved to the respective pages on the staging website.
  • Canonicalization Issues. It’s worth skimming through your canonicals once more just in case.
  • Broken Links. Audit both external and internal links. They have to be updated and should lead to the correct target URLs.
  • Redirect Chains and Loops. A redirect loop occurs when several pages redirect to one another in a way that short-circuits the loop (page A > Page B > Page A). Both redirect chains and loops negatively impact your SEO performance and should be tackled before the launch takes place.
  • Validate Redirects. Ensure that only one version of the staging website is available while applying 301 redirects to the alternative web addresses.

10. Launch New Website

After countless hours of planning and preparation, the time to launch your new website has finally come.

First, evaluate web analytics data for the past several years to study traffic patterns and find out when organic search traffic is at its lowest to cushion the temporary blow to your rankings.

But even then, you can’t afford to rest on your laurels. Once the website goes live, you need to have the development team fully mobilized to fix any new issues as quickly as possible.

Generate XML Sitemap

Generate a brand new XML sitemap containing all the new URLs and submit it to Google Search Console and Bing’s Webmaster Tools.

That way, you let search engines know that your website has, in fact, moved to a different place, helping search engines re-crawl the newly launched website. In addition, you can create an HTML sitemap as well to speed up the process.

Allow Search Engines to Crawl Your New Website

Lift all the previously imposed restrictions on search engine bots in the robots.txt file. Let them explore your new website and index the new pages.

11. Check the Performance of the New Website

Finally, prepare daily ranking reports analyzing the recovery of the website in the SERPs. Compare that fresh data against the benchmarks, hunting for any underlying SEO issues that may arise post-launch:

  • Site speed
  • Rankings
  • Indexed pages
  • Backlinks
  • Organic traffic

We recommend keeping track of these metrics for the next six months after the launch.

Final Thoughts

That was pretty intense. But now you know what to watch out for should you ever consider a website migration.

And we have not even scratched the surface!

For that reason, companies typically hire SEO consultants to evaluate the site migration through the lens of SEO, communicating to the development team the potential impact of every single decision on the long-term success of the website.

Because at the end of the day, it’s people, not code, that generate revenue for your business.

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About The Author

I am the leading sales growth consultant in the building materials industry, I identify the blind spots that enable building materials companies to grow their sales and retain more customers.  As I am not an ad agency, my recommendations are focused on your sales growth and not my future income.

My mission is to help building materials companies be the preferred supplier of their customers and to turn those customers into their best salespeople. Contact me to discuss your situation.