Website migration — preparation, verification and the most common problems

Kamil Pończocha
Website migration — preparation, verification and the most common problems

Sooner or later, there comes a time for changes during the life of any website. Often they are dictated by at least one factor, such as:

  • changing the domain,
  • changing the website engine,
  • changing the website’s design,
  • rebranding,
  • merger.

In each case, the process looks very similar — the devil is in minor or major details.

In this article, I will try to introduce the entire migration process and point out its most important elements, as well as specify the most common mistakes that can have a disastrous impact on the website’s visibility, and consequently reduce traffic and conversions.

What exactly is website migration? Why is it done?

In a nutshell, website migration is the transfer of the current website content to a new version. The details of the migration process may vary slightly depending on the exact purpose for which it is being done, however, the general principles are always similar.

The most common reason for website migration is a change in the engine on which the site (CMS) runs. The growth of the company, along with a company’s new needs, often involves the requirement to access new features and enhancements that the current solution does allow.

How do you prepare for the migration?

The most critical stage during the migration of the service is its proper preparation. During this period, some of the most important decisions related to possible limitations of the old system and the new one are made, as well as other elements that emerge during the preparation process.

Preparation stages

Being properly prepared before the migration makes the subsequent implementation very easy, as well as the verification of the course and results. Therefore, the more we dedicate to the process at the beginning, the fewer issues will arise at the end 🙂

Stage 1: have a proper understanding of the situation

In order to prepare well for the migration, first you need to understand what exactly you are going to be working on, i.e. determine what engine the site is currently running on and which one you are migrating it to.

Once we know the material we will use to whip it into shape, it is necessary to set a realistic date for the migration. This will allow us to better plan our activities, determine milestones and deadlines.

Stage 2: Defining the baseline

This stage is vital, as many of the next steps depend on it, such as preparing a redirection map or determining the effect of migration. Based on the available analytical tools, you should:

  1. determine the current visibility of the site – in other words, prepare a list of key phrases in the top 3, top 10, top 20, top 50, preferably in with the assigned URL to each phrase;
  2. access to the trial version – this is primarily about having access to the CMS panel and server with the new website template files;
  3. prepare a summary of the current site structure – a complete list of the site URLs, as well as graphics and files. In addition, meta titles, meta descriptions, Hx headers or content available at the given addresses.

Stage 3: Technical preparation

Stage three is by far the most significant in the entire process. It is the technicalities that determine how web robots will reindex the site from the old version to the new one, and consequently – how the status of key phrases will look like after the migration.

Technical optimization of the new version

The optimization of the new engine can be divided into two parts:

  • strictly technical optimization — basically spotting and improving technical errors, such as improving Hx header structure or blocking outbound links;
  • key phrase optimization — or “soft optimization”, which aims to implement specific key phrases.

Redirection map

This is the key element that determines the success of the entire migration process and allows you to maintain the current results. A properly prepared map containing redirection URLs will facilitate their implementation.

An ideal redirection map should include:

  • pairs of addresses — the old and its new counterpart,
  • meta titles,
  • meta descriptions,
  • current texts (e.g., category or product descriptions, blog posts or other information pages),
  • H1, H2 and H3 type headings and a list of key phrases according to a given URL.

You can easily generate a set of redirection rules with such information gathered in one place.

Preparing new content

A new version of a website often involves changing the structure of the menu or the theme of some subpages. This is why you need to adapt them to the relevant key phrases. When creating new content for a new sub-page, take into account the information and keywords included in the redirected addresses. It is necessary to check not only the phrases, but also the optimization (headings, title, etc.) and create new content.

Set an appropriate migration date

Selecting the date of migration is no trivial matter. This should be the time when statistically we have the fewest visitors, and it should also ensure that the people involved in the process are as comfortable as possible.

The most suitable days of the week for migration are Tuesday and Wednesday, when there is still plenty of time to make any critical fixes that may surface when the site is being migrated to the new one. For obvious reasons, Friday afternoon is not recommended 🙂

On that day, you should pay close attention to: correctly transfer the site files and database of our service,reconfigure DNS if necessary.

Process verification and fixes

Process verification is also a multistep operation, as it is not a one-off activity and is spread out over time.

The first verification should take place pretty much as soon as the new version of the site is implemented. Elements worth checking include:

  1. redirects — you need to verify the correctness of redirects from the map you prepared earlier;
  2. SSL certificate — you need to verify whether the HTTPS version of the domain works properly;
  3. that the website is functioning correctly — it is worth manually “scrolling” through the site, even playing with all the available features, to detect as many errors as possible;
  4. proper functioning of the customer journey (if applicable) — check all possible available options for purchases and deliveries. It is also worth trying to generate errors, e.g. no valid email address, etc..;
  5. accurate data collection from analytical tools — verify that traffic and transactions are collected correctly in Google Analytics and Google Search Console;
  6. perform a technical audit — after the implementation of the site, it is worth analyzing it from a technical point of view, because it may turn out that some functions on the site are not working properly or according to the guidelines;
  7. monitoring of key phrases — a previously prepared list of phrases is worth adding to tools that verify positions, to get the full picture.

If the redirects and the site itself are working properly, the next step is to track how things are running in Google Analytics, Google Search Console and site:domain-name.com.

Google Analytics

If the domain doesn’t change, your traffic statistics should be fairly flat, with possibly a slight drop in the first two weeks after the migration — at that point Google is still reindexing phrases to the new addresses, which may result in a drop in their positions, and consequently less traffic.

Google Search Console

In GSC, you should verify and fix any errors that come up in the report. Special attention should be paid to “404 — not found” errors, as they are the ones we want to avoid the most.

site:domain.com

A very simple command to paste into the Google search bar (obviously with our domain included in the body of this search query).

Thanks to this procedure, in the search results we will be provided with everything that Google has indexed for our domain. There we can detect undesirable elements found by Google. This makes it quite easy to find some “hidden” issues.

The most common problems we may encounter

A multitude of issues related to migration can appear, but some happen more frequently than others.

Some of the most common issues include:

  • Incorrect implementation of redirects — this is one of the worst scenarios, where:
    • redirection map will not be implemented correctly,
    • site map will not be implemented at all,
    • all old addresses will be redirected to the home page,
    • all old addresses will report “404-not found” errors;
  • not blocking the trial version from web robots — development companies often do not realize that the control test site they are building should not be accessible to web robots. This later creates the problem of website duplicity, as in its index, Google has both the trial version and the new version implemented on the client’s domain, which can negatively affect the site’s visibility in search results;
  • blocking the indexing of the new version of the site — it is also often the case that after moving the site from the test server to the real one, we forget to unblock the site for web robots. This is a very small detail that can easily be overlooked, and can be detrimental to a site’s visibility;
  • The website being completely shut down even before the migration day — it also happens that the owner of the website will shut it down and leave only the information “Website under construction, coming soon”. This results in a sudden huge loss of key phrase visibility;
  • loss of visibility despite the correct execution of the entire process — site migration always carries the risk of losing visibility and, as a result, traffic to the site from the organic channel. Even if only the site’s appearance is changed, with the existing structure of URLs and their content preserved, a drop in keyword positions can occur.

Is migration biting off more than one can chew?

Service migration is a very complex and challenging process, which should be done carefully and well-thought-out. Communication between those involved in the whole endeavor is very important — it will minimize the risk of possible problems. Everything, from the choosing the new version of the site — the engine and layout — to the preparation of redirects and even selecting the day itself, are of significant importance. When migrating a site — especially an extensive one — it is worth reaching out for the help of specialists who already have experience and knowledge in this area.

Kamil Pończocha
Senior SEO specialist at ICEA Group
He has been connected with the SEO industry for 7 years. He prepares and implements the strategy of SEO activities for positioned websites on a daily basis, working mainly on high-budget projects. Kamil gained experience among the best; he had the opportunity to work with one of the most famous online bookstores in Poland.