Website Migration Best Practices Ahead of Your Big Move

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As companies grow, they need their digital assets to adapt to new priorities and opportunities. In many cases, website migrations are a multifaceted way to solve technical or strategic problems with the current domain, platform or server.

No two migration projects are the same. To complete your site migration without losing SEO value, you’ll need to focus on the details. We’re here to help!

What Is a Website Migration?

There are several types of website migrations, but the basic premise is the same. A site migration takes data and content from its current location and moves it someplace new. This can be categorized in many ways – but most commonly these three buckets:

  • Domain migration (new domain name or TLD/ccTLD)
  • Website server migration (new server, and sometimes new hosting)
  • Platform migration (new CMS)

It’s worth noting that these migrations are often conducted at the same time, in any combination. Migration projects are complex and require considerable planning and detailed implementation to avoid an SEO dip.

What Does Domain Migration Mean?

Domain migration is the process of replacing the current domain name with another, and it can be a surprisingly tedious process.

At a high level, here’s how to migrate an existing domain to a new domain:

  • Create a backup of the current website database. Your hosting provider may provide an easy backup option, or you may need to reach out with a special request or ask a developer. We highly recommend making these changes on a staging environment, not the live site. If you are unable to create a staging environment, we recommend either adding a Maintenance Mode WordPress Plugin or creating a static placeholder landing page while this is being completed.
  • The goal of the next step is to locate all instances of your brand name (if applicable) and domain name and swap them out with the new one. This could be a manual process, or it could be mostly automated, depending on your Content Management System.

For example, if this is a WordPress site, we recommend using Search Replace DB. This allows for test runs on the database to make sure you’re targeting the proper data. If a developer is doing this and has access to SSH, the WordPress CLI search-replace command will do the same. Using Search Replace DB will look through the content and serialized data and replace the name and domain you’re looking for. Please use caution, as this can potentially create unexpected functionality changes and bad references to pages and images, creating not found content (404s).

If this is not a WordPress site, there might be similar tool options for your Content Management System. Some research will be needed.

  • Once you feel that your content is ready to go, you can then add your domain through your hosting provider. Please note, adding your new domain to the site does not mean that traffic will be flowing to this domain. There will need to be a record adjustment on the domain for this to happen. This is just getting the endpoint set up for testing.
  • Testing the new domain is very important. In order to test your new domain, you’ll want to update your hosts file. This tells only your computer where to find the website.

    For Windows users, here’s how to update your hosts file.
    • In the Start menu, right-click the Notepad program and select “Run as Administrator.”
    • Next, click File > Open and locate the hosts file in c:\Windows\System32\Drivers\etc\hosts. If you cannot see any files here, then allow hidden files to be shown.
    • Once opened, add a line to the bottom of your file that has both the IP address of the hosting environment and your new domain. It should look something like this:
      111.22.33.44 www.newdomain.com
      111.22.33.44 newdomain.com
    • Save your new changes.

For Mac users, here’s how you can update your host file.

  • You need root privileges to be able to modify this file. If you do not have root privileges, then log in as an administrator and enable root access for your account.
    • Open the terminal application, which can be found in Finder > Go > Utilities.
    • Once the terminal window is opened, type sudo nano /etc/hosts and hit Enter/Return. You’ll be asked for the administrative password. Enter the password and hit Enter/Return again.
    • Next, you’ll be brought to the text editor. Add a line to the bottom of your file that has both the IP address of the hosting environment and your new domain. It should look something like this:
      111.22.33.44 www.newdomain.com
      111.22.33.44 newdomain.com
    • Press CTRL + O to update the existing file, followed by the Enter/Return key. You can exit this editor by pressing CTRL + X.
  • Once your hosts file has been updated, you can open a web browser and navigate to the new domain. Please keep in mind that only your computer can see this new domain on top of the site.
  • Verify that your content, links and images are working as expected.
  • Update your DNS records (Domain Name Service) with the new domain. Most hosting providers provide A records, and some also supply CNAME records. It’s up to you which one you choose to use. Also depending on the hosting provider, they may offer an automatic update for the domain name records. When updating your domain, we recommend setting the TTL (Time to Live) setting to as low as possible to get it updated quickly. If you are using an A record, we recommend updating your * and www records to the A record. To see how your domain propagation is going, you can visit What’s My DNS. This website tells you where it has been updated around the world.
  • Once your domain updates have propagated, point all traffic from your old domain to your new domain and implement any not found (404) pages to the appropriate locations.

Domain Migration Example

We helped our pals at Tilley Distribution migrate from tilleycompany.com to tilleydistribution.com. Part of their growth strategy was changing the domain to reflect a new brand name. Our team went beyond just swapping out domains. We made this a comprehensive change at every level of the site. We found instances of their previous brand name within the content, links and images and replaced it with the new one. We also updated their imagery and brand colors to support this new strategy and ensured that all traffic from the previous domain was mapped properly to the new domain.  

Video editor wearing headphones editing on a computer.

What Is Website Server Migration?

Server migration is the process of transferring data from one server to another. A key component of this type of migration involves configuring the new server to replace the first. Website server migrations are almost always handled by professional web developers.

At a high level, here’s how to how to migrate a website from one server to another:

  • Determine the new hosting environment. This will help determine what the next steps could be. Have a professional review your new hosting environment and confirm it meets your needs.
  • If the site is a WordPress site, the folks over at WP Engine (and Flywheel) have made website migrations easy. Some other hosting providers may offer a similar service.
  • If your hosting provider does not offer any migration support, then the migration will need to be done manually. Manual migration can be very time-consuming.

cPanel to cPanel Migration:

  • If your current host has cPanel and your new host has cPanel, you can log into your existing cPanel and create a backup. This can be found on the main page of cPanel under Files > Backups.
  • Select “Download a full website backup” and set the destination to be the home directory. Then click on the available backups to download on that same screen.
  • Log into your new cPanel account and go to Files > File Manager or log into your new site via FTP/SFTP. Upload the full backup.
  • Reach out to your hosting provider and let them know the location where you uploaded it.

Other:

  • To get started for the manual migration, download the contents of your website. This will require an FTP/SFTP program and credentials to access your files. If you are having issues with this, reach out to your current hosting provider for assistance.
  • If your website has a database (most sites do), get access to it through phpMyAdmin, provided by your hosting provider.
  • Export your database, making sure to include all tables.
  • Once everything is downloaded (files and database), upload all files into your new FTP/SFTP location. Don’t forget to reset permissions on the uploads folder. If this site is in WordPress, you’ll need to change permissions for the wp-content/uploads folder.
  • Next, you’ll be required to import your database through a database manager, most likely phpMyAdmin. Make sure your configuration files match your new credentials for the database.

Once the server migration is complete, you’ll want to update your CNAME or A records of the hosting company.

Reasons to Migrate Servers

The most common reason to migrate servers is to switch to a faster, or scalable, web host. Most modern hosting providers offer scalable cloud-based hosting. Cloud-based servers offer dynamic pricing based on the amount of data you need, which appeals to organizations that may have an influx of requests on a website. Some hosting providers can be slow, as they share resources across multiple websites. By switching to a faster platform, it could potentially speed up your website, therefore providing better Core Web Vitals. Reach out to Oneupweb’s web development team for server migration tips and professional implementation.

Other reasons to migrate servers include:

  • Replacing old servers
  • Consolidating hosting
  • Utilizing new technology

What Is a Platform Migration?

A website platform migration is the process of moving your site from one content management system (CMS) to another. Sometimes called a content migration, a platform migration allows organizations to use unique features of platforms like WordPress, Squarespace or Shopify.

Many platform migrations are motivated by changes in CMS pricing, new features or new priorities, or lack of functionality. For example, many ecommerce brands jump to sales-focused tools like Shopify as they look to increase online revenue.

Related: Shopify vs. WordPress: Which Is the Best Website Builder for Business?

The SEO Checklist for Website Migration

Before we get into our website migration checklist focusing on SEO factors, a word of caution: One size never fits all. You can move your site without losing SEO value associated with your content, but it does take a unique-to-you website migration strategy to get it right. This checklist covers the basics of a website migration, but it’s only the tip of the digital iceberg. This process will put your team in a position to identify possible hurdles and explore new ones.

1. Conduct a technical site audit.

A TSA will give you (almost) all the information you need for a successful migration. We recommend identifying and addressing as many issues as possible before the move. This usually includes:

  • Documenting 404s
  • Documenting 301s
  • Documenting other URL statuses that aren’t 200, 404, or 301
  • Implementing optimized page titles and meta descriptions
  • Resolving duplicate content
  • Documenting existing canonical tags and cleaning up any errors
  • Documenting existing hreflang setup and cleaning up any errors

2. Set up tracking.

Make sure your Google Tag Manager or Google Analytics code is placed on the new site or domain before you switch. When doing this, we recommend creating test properties in Universal Analytics, GA4, and Google Tag Manager so you can test and update all your tracking for the new site without muddying up your live site data. Then, when migration day comes, you can point all the event tracking in your test GTM container to your live Google Analytics properties.

This process reduces the risk of losing valuable data right when you need it most! Accurate metrics before, during and after website migration will provide insight into potential problems, such as deindexed pages or unwanted changes to your site structure.

3. Map out 301 redirects.

This is an important step in a successful website migration. Whether manually or programmatically, you can point every URL from your existing site to a new relevant URL on the new site if the domain is changing. 301 redirects are permanent signals that tell Google’s crawlers to check out the new domain because the old one is history!

Start by mapping out 301 redirects for the healthy 200-status URLs. The most important URLs should be redirected to whatever URL on the new site is closest to the current one. The least important URLs can likely be redirected to top-level folders or to the homepage.

The redirects can be implemented through .htaccess (if you have an Apache server) or redirects.conf (if you’re using an Nginx server) during the migration. Some hosting companies will provide documentation for how to implement these.

Don’t forget to review your list of current 301s, too, and decide which of those will need to be altered to fit the new site as well.

4. Mobilize additional channels.

Use paid search, social media and email marketing to reduce potential traffic fluctuations. Consider targeting branded keywords to deliver users to the right URLs immediately after the migration, as well as making a big darn deal of your rebrand or new domain!

5. Rip off the Band-Aid.

When you move, move fast. Slow migrations or site launches can confuse search engines and make it more difficult to identify problems. The longer your migration takes, the more likely you’ll see a negative impact on organic search sessions.

  • Get through all the server-related and hosting-related steps.
  • Apply your 301 redirects.
  • Update all canonical tags.
  • Check all internal and external links for errors.

Hot tip: Create a custom 404 page during the site migration that tells the user things are changing. Consider including a list of popular resources for the user to select from to keep them on the site, even if it takes them a few clicks to find what they’re looking for.

6. Do quality control.

We like to run a website traffic loss audit and a full site crawl a week after the site migration. This lets our team spot problems, make sure pages are being indexed consistently and make other adjustments as needed. It’s hard to predict how long SEO will take to recover from site migration, but you’ll usually have a good idea of the deeper impacts within two weeks. Traffic may be lower than usual for a while after that – details just below!  

How Common Is Traffic Loss After a Site Migration?

It does happen. According to one industry poll, 80% of professional digital marketers say they expect some kind of dip in organic traffic. On our experience, a 10-15% drop in organic traffic for up to three months is a relatively common event after a website migration. This decrease in traffic is avoidable in some cases, and we’ve successfully increased organic traffic and improved PageSpeed within that three-month window for clients as well.

Some of the factors that influence traffic loss include:

  • Metadata loss
  • File corruption
  • Major changes to URL structure
  • Changes to XML sitemap
  • Non-existent URLs, broken links, missing redirects, and other dead ends

These are just some of the most common problems. Luckily, these are also the easiest to address!

Get Your SEO Site Migration Done Right

Site migrations don’t have to trigger organic traffic losses. Working with an experienced digital marketing partner like Oneupweb can help the transition go smoothly. Whether consulting with your team or taking the reins, our team of professionals will be ready to lend their expertise and talent. Get in touch today or call 231-922-9977 to get started.

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