A website migration might seem like a daunting task, but if you want to keep your website running efficiently over time, it’s a necessary process.
With proper preparation, even a large site migration can be pulled off without overtaxing your team. The process of updating your site during a migration can even enable you to make significant improvements to your website and the way your team is empowered to interact with that site. Careful planning and meticulous organization are the keys to pulling off an effective migration that sets your site up for future success.
Determine the type of website migration you need
A website migration is any change to a website big enough to affect the indexability and visibility of the website to search engines.
That change could be a visual refresh, updating internal structures, change to a new CMS, or a software update. Many platforms operate on a software versioning system, so enterprises using those tools may need to perform a migration every few years as new versions are released.
Site migrations fall into these main categories and can include multiple changes from this list:
- Content change
- Structural change
- Design/UX change
- Software update
- Platform change
During the initial planning stages of a website migration, you should also consider if big picture elements like your content management system (CMS), visual design, and site structure are in need of changes. Take this time to audit your design, structure and tools and decide what your site migration plan will cover.
Prepare your team for your website migration
Once you know why you're doing a migration, it's time to gather your team, set expectations, and understand the goals for your website migration.
Any significant site-wide change will cause a short-term drop in traffic, and you need to be prepared for that. Your goal should be to minimize how much and for how long traffic dips for. If your migration is done well, it’ll result in traffic growth over the long term as errors are revealed, corrected, and optimized.
Understand your goals
Establishing goals will help guide your migration plan in the right direction. A well-organized site migration should have these three goals as its focus:
1. Preserve and optimize SEO and backlinks
The ultimate goal of a website migration is to make necessary changes or improvements to a website while preserving search engine optimization (SEO). You also want to be sure you’re preserving backlinks so users can continue to find your website.
2. Migrate all content
You want to make sure you’re not losing any content during your site migration — whether that’s images, text, or entire pages.
3. Improve your site design, performance, or function
If your team is already focusing their energy on the structure and content of your website, a migration is a good opportunity to make adjustments and improvements. Assess your options and make decisions about the types of changes — like a visual design update or a change of CMS — that you might want to include in your migration.
Migrations are necessary during the lifetime of a website and are a good opportunity to make sure your site and the tools you’ve chosen to operate that site are keeping up with cutting-edge standards. If you’re already putting labor into migrating your site, it’s often not too much extra labor to make improvements at the same time.
“Businesses are kind of held back by a bad CMS, it creates friction between executing their ideas. And we found the same was the case when we tried to use WordPress to build our websites, because depending on budget, you are kind of limited to using somebody else's theme, which hasn't been designed with a client's business in mind...Webflow helps us to execute what's in our mind for our clients.”
Loop in whoever needs to be involved
You’ll need input from many of your teams to pull off a successful site migration. It isn’t just on developers to execute it. To preserve SEO, you’ll need the insight of the teams responsible for your back-end structure as well as your content, marketing, and design since each of those elements has an impact on your search visibility.
You want involvement from your:
- Web developers
- Marketing team
- Content writers
Depending on your current and target platform, some of these teams may be able to build their own site elements during a migration. Platforms like Webflow that use no-code visual interfaces make it possible for teams without programming experience to make direct contributions to the website. That takes the pressure off of developers and allows them to focus more on the rest of their migration tasks.
“Prior to Webflow, we had one designer managing the entire design process pretty much end to end...they handed off to our developer (one person)...getting revisions and edits done was just not smooth and streamlined. “
Preserve site traffic and search optimization
Evaluate current site performance
Evaluate current site performance thoroughly, so you have a benchmark to assess the impact of your migration after it’s completed. Identify which pages are especially high-performing, so you can give those parts of your site extra care and attention. Google Analytics and Google Search Console will give you visibility on which pages have been indexed by Google and should be a priority. Avoid changing high-traffic pages too drastically.
These three steps are important:
- Evaluate the current health of the site by running a full site audit
- Monitor the site’s current keyword rankings with position tracking
- Record the current traffic to your website to set a baseline for analyzing migration impact later
Clean up your on-page SEO
This is a good time to clean up your SEO and fix any errors you identified in the audit. You want to launch your new site in a clean and optimized way. Factoring in SEO improvements at this stage will reduce the impact of the post-migration traffic dip.
Take a thorough look at:
- Title tags
- Heading tags
- Meta descriptions
- Image file names and alt text
- Internal and external links in body copy
Plan to do a post-migration audit
You’ll want to plan time to audit the fully migrated site and identify any new errors before the site goes live.
You should also continue to monitor traffic post-migration to see how effective your migration has been. Track its performance against the old site’s baseline you established earlier. This way, you can make sure your traffic is recovering and improving over time.
Record current URLs and backlinks
The first step should be recording all the URLs of your current site and pages. Then use a tool like Semrush or Ahrefs to evaluate and log all of the backlinks to your site and pages. Pay specific attention to frequently linked pages, but make sure to record every single page’s URL so they aren’t lost.
Later in the migration process, you’ll use this information to redirect the old URLs to avoid 404 errors, but you’ll need to have all this information logged before you can do that.
Decide which pages you will preserve, change, or delete
While migration is a great opportunity to reassess your site’s structure and links, you want to avoid purging too many pages at once. If Google notices a significant drop in indexed pages, your search ranking will take a big hit. It’s better to retire these pages gradually over time. The organized list of pages you created will help you execute that process both during and after your migration.
Set up redirects and update links
Using the list you created, set up 301 redirects for your migrated site. If you’re moving over to a new CMS, some slugs will inherently change — even if you’re sticking with the same domain. To set up redirects in Webflow, you’ll need to set up a site plan.
Don’t forget to update the URLs in your marketing materials at the same time. Go over your ads, social media, and newsletter, as well as any templates your marketing team uses. Make sure all your URLs point to the right places now that your site has been updated.
Plan to migrate all your content
Inventory all your content
Create a catalog of all the content currently living on your site. This could be as simple as placing all your files in Google Docs folders. Index and backup copies of all written content, images, videos, and other media.
Even if you’re doing a simple visual refresh, the details of your content are important to preserve. It’s easy to inadvertently remove important information when updating design. Changing images can change alt-text, and switching fonts can change heading tags — both of which can impact your search rankings, so you want to have that information recorded.
Export a CSV if possible
An efficient way of migrating all your content at once is with a CSV file. If you are changing platforms, you may be able to easily export a CSV of your site content with a tool like WP CSV to Database. You can then upload that CSV into your new CMS, giving you access to all your previous site’s content in one simple step. This can be a big time-saver.
Add a sitemap to your domain
Adding an XML sitemap to both your old and new sites during migration can help keep you organized during the migration process. It’s a simple step: add /sitemap.xml to your domain. That sitemap can enable your team to more easily check the old site structure and pages to make sure they’ve all been migrated. Plus, it will help Google index your new site.
Submit your sitemap to Google Search Console
Examine new opportunities during website migration
A website migration is an opportunity to review and reimagine what you want your website to be and the roles you want your teams to play in the creation and maintenance of your web presence. While the technical details of your migration need to be meticulously organized, it’s a good idea to take time while creating your website migration plan to dream up improvements you can make to your site and your process.
"WordPress, it just doesn't fit an enterprise company of our size of what we're trying to do. It's impossible to iterate quickly, especially without the help of a third party...it was always on the wishlist...Webflow allowed us to dream a little bigger”