If you’re upgrading your website or moving to a new CMS, you’ll be embarking on a journey that is fraught with risk to your existing organic traffic and conversion performance. Despite the risks, the rewards should be greater as long as you adhere to some best practice principles, especially with regards to your SEO efforts.

Over the past decade we have witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly with regards to website migrations. Sometimes clients arrive at our door with a website that has been completely wiped off Google’s rankings and need rescuing, whereas those we work with during a migration process have sustained and sometimes even seen their traffic levels and rankings improve quickly. So we like to think we know quite a bit about this subject.

We've just read a brief with an oh so familiar tale:

The current version of site was launched in February 2016 minus an SEO strategy. The site saw a loss of around 55% of organic traffic overnight, which the domain struggled to recover from. Key factors behind the drop were due to lack of sufficient content being migrated, and redirects from the old site were pointed to either a less content-rich article or to the homepage...the site also suffered from broken links, broken images, and errors with HREFLANG and self-referencing canonical tags.

Words that inflict pain and are like a red rag to a bull for SEO's everywhere!

The major pitfalls of site migrations on organic performance

1. Not implementing redirects

A shiny new site will inevitably carry some changes to your URL architecture. It’s really important to ensure that all URLs which trigger a 404 error (not found) are appropriately redirected to a suitable new URL.

404 errors create poor user experience, and can waste your search engine crawl budget. This can definitely have a negative impact on indexing and ranking over time as well as ruin your reputation with users.

At times you may not have a suitable URL replacement, if that’s the case, you can just leave it. Google prefers if there are URLs that genuinely don't have a proper replacement that they just 404.

2. Not analysing your landing page traffic and rankings before launch

New sites typically mean fresh starts, and the opportunity to enhance or change what you’ve currently got. But whilst you may not value or want some of the pages on your existing site carried across, they could be strong traffic drivers for your site and conversion points.

During a site build our SEO team gets involved at the very early stages of crafting the site architecture. Their analysis into what is currently working on the original site helps to inform what should be incorporated into the new one. Sometimes these ‘important’ pages get sacrificed for the bigger picture and don’t work with the new approach, but if this happens you have to accept that you will not be able to retain this traffic.

If you want minimum disruption during a site migration, especially if it’s to change CMS, your best bet is to keep the page structure, content, URL etc as close to identical as possible. Over-time you can then start to make edits and update as you see fit.

Nobody likes a shock, and Google is no exception. Changing a whole site can have some serious shockwaves on rankings and Google’s assessment of site relevancy in relation to search queries. Mitigate this risk by evaluating what you already have and what you want to have. You might have to find a compromise, if only to make migration less scary.

3. Not updating your tracking

Whilst not technically isolated to SEO performance, when re-launching a website it’s imperative that all tracking is reviewed. Not only will new pages have been added, but new conversion points and possibly alterations to existing triggers will have occurred that can throw your tracking off-course.

Tracking can be set-up prior to launch using demo sites and Google Tag Manager, testing should be carried out pre and post launch to ensure the live environment behaves the same way as the demo did.

Remember if you point any tracking to a demo environment during testing, always make sure it’s pointed to the live domain / URLs on go live.

Updates to Google Analytics, Search Console, social media platforms and other proprietary tracking systems should all be considered.

Migrating your website? Don't go it alone. Our SEO migration service could help mitigate risks to your website performance.

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4. Failure to run a thorough technical audit pre and post launch

All sorts of technical hiccups can occur during a website migration. This is no fault of the developer as one size doesn’t fit all, and each website code is different (or at least vast!) so running through a technical checklist by an SEO expert will add another pair of eyes to the process for quality assurance.

  • Issues arising include absent or incorrect implementation of canonical tags
  • Broken links
  • Broken images or poorly labelled ones
  • Missing or incomplete sitemaps - both HTML and XML
  • Slow pagespeed
  • 404 error pages
  • Robotx.txt file out of date

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but gives you an idea of the sorts of things we look out for and review.

This audit needs to take place pre-launch, to catch any faults prior to go live which could exacerbate an issue; and post-launch, to ensure that no new faults have arisen in the live environment.

We also spot check activity every day for at least a week after launch to ensure that results are going the way we expect them to - new 404 errors often arise, pages need re-indexing via search console and quite often we just like to see all the hard work pay off with immediate ranking rises.

5. Inadequate resource and budget to complete properly

If you’re lucky enough to have got through a website migration with little or no negative impact then this may seem futile. But if you’ve been on the receiving end of seeing your website traffic deteriorate rapidly or disappear completely overnight you’ll appreciate and heed the advice. If you’re just about to start this journey, then let others’ mistakes be a lesson for you.

You need to have a proper plan with realistic budgets and timescales. The process dovetails with your web build project plan, and SEO should have a seat at the table with regards to decisions made.

Website migration projects shouldn’t skimp on thoroughness nor should they ignore the impact they can have on your website performance, and ultimately your business. What would you pay to ensure that performance improved, or at the very least was maintained? Don’t miss budgeting for this vital process.

And when your website has launched, adopt the attitude that this is only the start of the project not the end. You may not have had time to launch with everything on your wishlist, but that’s okay - you have days, weeks, months and years to evolve your site and never let it sit still.

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Meet the author ...

Kherrin Wade

Strategy Director

Kherrin works with clients to develop effective marketing strategies, whether that's introducing brands to digital for the first time or pushing the boundaries with more ...