Introduction to website migration
If you’ve decided to migrate your site, you’re getting yourself into a web of intricate decision-making, flexible planning, and technical challenges. But worry not! We are here to help you figure all of it out, step by step.
Let’s start at the very beginning:
What is website migration?
Website migration is a process that a website undergoes in order to change its setup or technology. We do not call simple updates a site migration, as migration implies serious changes, usually in regard to the website’s platform, structure, content, location or design.
Although migrating a website may be a problem-solving necessity, it inevitably brings with it a lot of risks – from losing your ranks on search engines to completely losing parts of your website.
Website migration is a challenging process and you need a really good reason to take it on.
Reasons to migrate your website
There are various situations that you may face as a site owner where migration is your best or even only option. Let’s go over the most common ones.
Changing your site’s structure, navigation, or design
Reworking your website is not something you should do on a whim. If you feel that your conversions or sales are weaker because of the look of your site or the customer journey, you should first prove it by excluding other not design or architecture related causes.
Moving to a new CMS or framework
Having a website on an outdated platform can be painfully limiting for you and extremely upsetting for your audience. Choosing a CMS that is right for you is a different topic for another time; there is no single answer as each site requires a specific approach.
Be sure to think about whether moving to a different technology is the only option, and that there’s no way you can enhance your current setup to meet your needs.
Adding a mobile version
In the age of mobile-first indexing and considering the immense ratio of mobile to desktop traffic, there’s no way you are not thinking about optimization for mobile platforms. Still, you should first analyze your audience preferences and find an appropriate cost-to-benefit balance of creating a mobile-specific experience.
Moving from HTTP to HTTPS
Implementing the HTTPS protocol on your website is not only important from a security standpoint. If you don’t have an HTTPS site, it also negatively affects user experience as most browsers will pop up a warning for the unsecured pages.
Although, you might not need to switch your whole site to HTTPS right away, as you may start with the pages that store users’ personal information.
Moving to a new server
If you are not satisfied with your server’s performance or your hosting conditions you may want to switch to another host. Take time to research and find the right host, you don’t want to jump out of the frying pan into the fire.
Changing the domain name
You might want to change your domain name due to rebranding or getting your hands on a better URL. But just like with any other reason for migration, changing the domain name is a big decision that you shouldn’t make lightly.
Before you start the migration
Our interactive checklist contains all of the steps you will need to take for a successful website migration, so feel free to use it as a guide and an outline for planning.
For now, you should remember that the key to smooth transition is careful planning and testing.
Also, stick to these basic rules of website migration:
Inform your users that you’ll be moving your website. Even if you follow all the instructions, your website may still suffer some hiccups here and there, so you’d better give your audience a heads-up.
Try not to migrate the whole site at once. First, create a test sample of a new site. When you are sure that everything works right, start moving your website part by part.
Avoid mixing multiple migration types in a single move. For example, if you want to change your domain name, and switch to a new host, and redesign your site architecture, we recommend you to do it one step at a time.
Migrate during a low-traffic time if possible, this will minimize the impact in case something goes wrong. Plus, a reduced server load will allow GoogleBot to crawl and index your new website faster.
Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Website migration is a serious undertaking that has a lot of potential issues and pitfalls. Use our checklist along the way to facilitate the process.
And remember: Planning and Testing!
- Start the checklist
Here are some stories and tips from the industry experts:
The worst situation I ever saw decimated around 90% of the website’s organic traffic (which was in itself 90% of the site’s total traffic). There were several issues here that all worked together to just destroy the site’s rankings:
– complete change of URL structure
– loss of all optimization on key pages
– loss of some key content pieces and pages
– change of forum software (which itself accounted for around 40% of organic traffic
– change of URL (shortly after an earlier change)
– several issues with redirects (domain variations, page level etc.)
– the loss of a previous domain as it was believed it was no longer needed (yet it held years of equity)
This was just a perfect storm of issues. The redesign process went through two developers. There was a recent rebrand. Quickfire changes in domain names. To top it off, there was the loss of a historic domain (the first one that the site had run on for years).
Ultimately, SEO was just not a consideration until the lights went out. We were not brought in till a month or so after launch so it was a tricky one to resolve with so many moving parts. It was a charity, so we did the work pro bono, and I believe we got them most of the way back in about 3 months. It was super painful though, and the loss of a historic domain name was something that could not be recouped.
The biggest website migration issues usually come from a switch in the content management system being used – particularly on larger sites. Often there is a completely different URL structure, with hundreds/thousands/millions of pages. Rather than any specific technical issue, I tend to find the size of the site presents the biggest issue.
It can also be problematic when there are several changes at once: new CMS, different URL structure, content changes, HTTP to HTTPS etc. Each change introduces a new variable and something else to be managed (and potentially messed up). The charity issue above was an almost perfect example of this and everything was changed at once: content, CMS, forum software, URLs – all of this was done with no consideration for SEO, so untangling the historical mess was nightmarish.
Something worth mentioning: At BowlerHat (my agency), we speak to a lot of small business owners who are concerned about losing site traffic during a redesign. In most cases this is unwarranted. For a typical small business site, using WordPress, and ranking for mostly local commercial terms, migration should be easy. You still have to do the basics but any competent SEO or web developer should be able to manage this without any major hiccups.
As a golden rule, keep it as simple as possible. Try not to make multiple changes at once. Never change URLs if you can help it. Do the analysis and put clear plans in place as, ultimately, failing to plan is planning to fail.
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