Website Migration Checklist for SEO
Don’t Lose Your Rankings & Traffic Because of a New Site
Updating your website is inevitable. As your business goals or design tastes evolve, your website has to change as well. Sites should be updated often, especially if your user experience metrics dictate a refresh. Change is good, and it’s all about how you manage this change. Because there is definitely a right way and wrong way to do things.
Redesigns usually involve more than one stakeholder or source of input, and so various considerations (often competing with one another) come into play. But SEO has to be a major decision-maker in the process, unless you just don’t care about organic traffic (and most people do). Fortunately, there is a way to secure your SEO gains without sacrificing business goals.
Sometimes, the SEO can be done “under the hood” without executives having to worry about it. Other times, there are elements of the redesign that have to be hashed out. In this list, we will try to extrapolate on what you can do easily without involving too much debate and what elements you have to really advocate for.
SEO Elements to Consider During a Redesign
Shortlist of Essential Items
These are the things that you MUST retain. You must fall on your sword to defend the two items below.
- Existing Content & Meta Data.
You have to port over all existing pages with the same content, along with the meta data for these pages. This is not the time to “prune” content. And by this, we mean any main pages with significant amounts of content. Yes, there are some exceptions if you know that you have a lot of “low-value” pages. Low-value pages are usually “stubs” or pages that don’t have any content. Sometimes, blog tag pages are good examples of this.
Likewise, the meta data must be retained for the aforementioned pages. Why? Because these elements contain the main keywords that are driving your current positions in Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, etc.
What is the meta data?
- title tags
- meta description tags
- canonical tags
- href-lang tags (if more than one language is being served)
You can add new content, but don’t let it overlap with existing pages.
- URLs & 301 redirects.
Try not to change the URLs for the content mentioned above. It’s just easier this way. But, if you must, then a 301 redirect strategy has to accompany these changes. You must redirect the old URLs to the new ones.
Why do you need to do this? Maybe your developer is telling you that the new URLs will be totally crawlable and Google will find the new pages anyway. Yes, that is true. But it’s all about preserving your link equity. What if someone is linking to the current page? The link juice to that page will be lost without a 301 redirect, and you will lose all associated rankings.
- Pre-Launch Baseline
You need to create a snapshot of where you are now, some sort of benchmark with data that you can look back on after launch. The baseline data will help you understand if your redesign had a negative impact on SEO.
Start by collecting rankings for as many pages as you can. 10 rankings for each page is probably a good number. If you are not currently using a keyword monitoring tool, then get SEMRush, or something similar, and spend some time checking your keyword positions for various URLs. Don’t just focus on your best rankings. Take note of positions on page two and page three.
Go into your Google Search Console account and download the performance data that shows keyword positions as well. After you download them, take some time to spot-check as many as you can to validate that the Google data is accurate for location and date.
Have a good bead on your organic, direct, and referral traffic. How many sessions per week have you been generating for the past 3 months? How does the trend look YOY? You want to see this trend continue after you go live with your redesign. In Google Analytics, make an annotation of the site launch period.
Take note of how many of your webpages are indexed in Google using the “site:” search operator. For smaller sites (sites with less than 200 pages), this number will be KPI. For larger sites, it’s just good to have the ballpark number. If this number changes radically after launch, then there could be an issue. Keep checking the index number for 3 to 6 weeks afterward.
- Performance Metrics
Use PageSpeed Insights or something like GTMetrics and understand your download times. Even better, record your Core Web Vital metrics from PageSpeed Insights.
- Top Performers
What pages are your greatest assets? You probably already have a good feel for what your best pages are, especially you monitor your organic traffic regularly. If not, hopefully the benchmarking process above has helped you identify them. You should review your analytics with the time range set to the past 12 months. Either in your analytics or a separate document, denote the top 10 to 20 pages on the site. These should be the top 10 to 20 pages that are driving traffic from non-paid sources (if you are also doing PPC). Treat these pages as “oligarchs” or VIPs that must be remembered during the build process.
- Main Navigation
Document the main navigational construct of your site. For most sites, this is the top navigation and it might even include fly-out menus in a “mega nav” function. Take screenshots of the fly-out menus. Then, create a simple spreadsheet that shows the interlinking between high-level categories and sub-categories. These links can play a key role in how Google ranks your site. If you are making big changes to your nav, remember that these links can play a key role in how Google ranks your site. The navigational construct impacts page discovery and crawling, but even more, it helps Google understand the order of importance that you allocate to each section of the site.
- Site Crawl
Run a crawl of your current site using software like the Screaming Frog SEO Spider. Save the crawl results so that you have a record of crawlable pages and important page elements to refer back to during and after the redesign.
During the Build
This is the timeframe when the site is being constructed. In this “under construction” mode, you need to think of the following factors.
- Dev Environment
Do you have a special development environment where the site is being constructed? If so, make sure that it cannot be discovered by search engines, especially if you are using a subdomain for this purpose.
- URL Change
Has the URL structure changed? If so, then 301 redirects will have to be put in place to account for URL changes.
Note: Do you have a say in how the URLs are changing? If so, we want to avoid the old-school, dynamic style formats that don’t contain the page titles. At the least, use abbreviated page titles as URL slugs.
- Main Navigation
How to build an effective navigation is a whole other topic. That being said, your new nav should highlight important landing pages in the main navigation and secondary landing pages in the footer. Don’t forget about breadcrumb navigation, related posts callouts, or other internal linking features that may have changed in the new design.
- Duplicate Content Review
Are there any navigational constructs or page result filtering options as part of this new site? On e-commerce sites, these would be product attribute refinement mechanisms or product results controls. How does your search box function? Does it generate URLs that can be discovered? You are looking for any feature that will create pages with very little content or content that is similar to main pages.
You will have to decide how to handle any of these issues with crawl control directives such as noindex, follow tags, rel=nofollow link attributes, or even blocking in a robots.txt file. How you do this depends on the size of your site.
Again, you want to protect your top-performing pages. So as far as dupe content is concerned, look out for any new pages that are competing with the same keywords or sharing the same copy.
- Global Header Elements
Every HTML document has a header area (
head>). The head area usually needs to contains some tags that appear globally, as well as ones unique to each page. But for now, check that these tags appear in the head of every page on the site:
- Google Analytics tag (or Google Tag Manager code if that is where it is kept)
- GSC verification
- Special schema snippets such as “@type”: “SearchAction”, or “@type”: “Organization”,
- On-Page Review
Or, “How to Inspect the Pages Under Development.” At some point, you need to be able to review the new site with the existing content in place.
Check the copy and source code for the following elements:
- Title tags – make sure these important SEO elements retain target keywords.
- Meta description tags – explain to users what the topic of a page is and why they should click on your search result listings.
- Canonical tags – keep them in place to ensure proper crawling and indexation.
- Href-lang tags – help search engine crawlers understand the language(s) used on your site.
- Schema markup – additional guidance for search engine crawlers that can help content rank better and appear in featured snippets
- Heading tags – utilize H1s, H2s, H3s, etc. to structure pages and emphasize keywords.
- Images – do all images feature descriptive alt attributes that help with both SEO and ADA compliance?
Make sure that the meta data is the same as the old site. Don’t just use the same description tag throughout. Also, now is not really the time to be optimizing pages with new search terms.
Are the canonical tags accurate?
- Robots.txt file
Just make sure that the new file is not blocking search engines from crawling your new pages! This is often overlooked and is easy to overlook.
Make sure it doesn’t look like this:
You, or a developer, may have set it up previously to block search engines from discovering your dev site.
- Analytics code still installed?
Great. Go into GA and review the latest dates, and if you can, check for real-time users.
- GSC code still there?
If so, then go into your GSC account and submit the old sitemap so that Google will discover your new 301 redirects.
- Security certificate
Is there an active SSL certificate installed? Is there a force redirect making sure all traffic uses HTTPS protocol?
- Crawl the site again
Run a new crawl. Look at the crawl results and check for any 404 errors or in-page 301 redirects. Update any in-content redirects to link directly to the new location. Also, review the meta data associated with each page.
- Log file analysis
Try to get access to your log files and extract the Googlebot requests for some dates after the launch. Look for any 404 errors or unexpected URL requests… basically, any URLs that you did not foresee being generated. Manage accordingly.
- Check Your Web Vitals Again
Make sure that the redesign didn’t increase page loading times or negatively affect other core web vitals that Google is now insisting web designers account for.
The post-launch period begins as soon as the new site is moved to production. Or in layman’s terms, when you delete the old site and launch the new one. Here is what you need to look out for after the new site goes live.
If you can account for these items, your migrated or redesigned website should remain SEO-friendly and not lose any traction after the relaunch. All that being said, there is often a lot of nuance or gray areas involved, and that’s where an expert can help.