How to Avoid SEO Destruction When Migrating your Website
When a website is completely redesigned with a new set of pages at different URLs from the existing site, it’s important to make sure you’re prepared for the switch – otherwise it can take a long time to recover. The above graph shows the ranking phrases for one site when it relaunched without our knowledge, leading to a particularly slow recovery. Sluggish response and a complex web of previous redirects that already existed added to the problem. Being prepared and having redirects in place when the new site goes live should ensure a quicker and cleaner transition. So how should it be done? Ideally, a complete picture should be built up of the existing site, starting with a list of all the URLs that make up that site.
Then 301 permanent redirects should be implemented to take any visitors to the equivalent URL on the new site. The full picture of your site To build a picture of the existing site, it should first be crawled, giving you a complete list of all the URLs that currently make up the site. You can use programs such as Screaming Frog to do this, and they will also provide a list of title/descriptions that can make it a bit easier to identify what the pages are in the crawl. This can then be supplemented with the following data:
- Google Analytics: in particular the ‘Landing Page’ report, under Behaviour / Site Content. This gives you the number of visits that are coming to each page from an external source, be it the search engines, from other sites or browser bookmarks. Remember to increase the reporting period to at least the last quarter to get a complete picture of the pages that your customers are visiting.
- Backlink data – this can come from sources such as Majestic SEO, Ahrefs or Moz.com, providing a list of the URLs on your site that other sites are linking to. Some of these may appear as landing pages in analytics, but not always; there could be links that haven’t generated recent traffic but do add to the value/relevance of the site when it comes to your search engine rankings.
- Google Search Results: URLs that already rank for valued phrases should also be included in your list, these are pages that Google obviously knows about and considers relevant. If you are currently monitoring rankings then you can get the URLs from this. Alternatively, Google Webmaster Tools to see which pages are driving search traffic in the ‘Search Analytics’ report under Search Traffic.
- Google the ‘site:’ search operator – this can give you a complete listing of pages that Google has in its index for your site, simply query ‘site:www.yoursite.com’ in Google to get this list. You can use a program such as Advanced Web Ranking to get this list. For larger sites consider including queries for each of the main sub-directories that make up the site to ensure a complete picture.
The hard facts about your new site
These additional metrics can then be used to prioritise the URLs on your current site. The pages that should be prioritised for a redirect to an equivalent page on the new site are:
- Those that are generating traffic
- Have backlinks from multiple other domains
- Are showing in the search results
- Have been indexed by the search engines
For lower priority pages, consider creating more general ‘catch all’ rules. This could mean sending any URL within a section of the site to the equivalent section page on the new site. So it may be that your old blog archives are being replaced with a ‘news’ section on the new site. If those older blog posts aren’t generating much traffic, you could consider simply redirecting anything within the blog to the new news section, instead of attempting to redirect each individual blog post.
Since the new site has only just been created, a crawl of it will suffice. You can then review the prioritised URLs on your existing site and match them to the equivalent pages on the crawl of the new site if the URL no longer exists. Appropriate 301 permanent redirect rules can then be created for your server so that any visitors and value that the old URL had will be transferred to the new page.
- Make sure you have placed your analytics code on all the pages of the new site
- Check your robots.txt file – remove any rules that will no longer trigger and make sure that any of the old rules won’t block new content
- Update your XML Sitemaps to create an accurate and complete picture of the new site and, if registered, submit these to Google Search Console
- Monitor your server logs/GSC to look for increases in ‘not found errors’ – these may indicate URLs you have missed or have not been properly redirected
- If the new site was hosted from a different domain when in development, make sure that it has not been indexed (again, use the ‘site:’ search operator in Google) and if it is, implement redirects to the proper domain to avoid duplication
- Consider reviewing your backlinks to see if any of these can be modified to go to the equivalent page on the new site if the URL has changed
After this, you’ll have a full and effective picture of your old site, giving you a new site that reaps the benefits of your previous search ranking successes!