If you're planning on moving your website from one platform to another, or you're doing a redesign, you really need to read this, as it could save you some huge headaches down the road.
On the surface, planning a site migration may seem like a straightforward set of tasks, but heed this dire warning: don’t underestimate the enormity of a site migration. A website has a lot of moving gears that aren’t necessarily in the forefront of your memory, even if you have personally built and configured 100% of your website. It’s not as simple as copying and pasting files to a new server and setting up a redirect from your old domain.
The problem is that a lot of unforeseen mistakes and oversights can crop when you least expect them, and what may seem like an insignificant mistake could cost you boatloads of traffic...and thrash your bottom line.
Great care and attention to detail are crucial. I've seen businesses take huge dives in traffic (and therefore revenue) due to bad migration implementations.
To help you look before you leap, remember to keep these critical concepts in mind when planning your site migration.
Account for Every URL Change
With few exceptions, one of the main goals of the migration should be to successfully reproduce every page on the old site. Perhaps in the process you may decide to prune some old, outdated, or now irrelevant content, but more or less, you want to make sure all the content is accessible after the migration. Prior to the migration, you need to account for each and every page’s URL, and spell out in great detail what the new URL is going to be.
I highly recommend using Screaming Frog's SEO Spider and Google Sheets to aid you in this process. If your site is smaller than 500 pages, you may be able to use SF's free version. If you have more than that, you'll have to purchase their tool, or contact us to run a report for you for a small fee.
Furthermore, use this as an opportunity to improve the structure of your URLs. Of course, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it, but if things got terribly messy on the old site, this is an opportunity for a remedy.
I can't reiterate this enough: It pays to be thorough when mapping your redirects as if could tank your business if done wrong.
Stage a Trial with a Test Server
The central theme of this post is look before you leap, or suffer the consequences. One of the best tools you can use to cause unforeseen problems to bubble to the surface is a test server.
Once your site has been cobbled together on a test server, start accessing it from a variety of test devices. Is it formatted properly for mobile? Are there any issues with page load time?
Are there any missing data, posts, or images? Are all of your plugins working appropriately? Are your WordPress and plugin code versions updated with the latest patches? Failing to use a test server is like walking into a jungle blindfolded; don’t get eaten alive, use a test server.
Implement the Migration When Traffic Dips
Humans are diurnal creatures (most of us, anyway), and more often than not, the best time to implement changes is during the evening, or depending on the type of website, a weekend.
Look at your analytics for dips when traffic is at its lowest to implement the migration to mitigate any negative impacts as much as possible. Not only should you account for a slow time of the day, but also a slow time of the year, which is crucial for seasonal businesses. For instance, any ecommerce business that does the majority of its business through the holiday season should avoid implementing their migration during the busy season. Plan that for January.
Also take into consideration where the majority of your audience is located. If you have an international audience, planning the migration in the dead of night may not be the most opportune time. For example, if your audience is primarily native English speakers, don’t forget to consider any traffic you get from Australia, New Zealand, the UK, or South Africa.
Avoid Duplicate Content
Google doesn’t think highly of duplicate content, plain and simple, and there are at least two ways to create duplicate content within the scope of a migration. The first is to fail to properly redirect to the new site URLs, (as explained in tip 1) which is big no-no.
The second way is to publish the same content on the new site twice, which could be caused by URL issues, such as hosting an HTTP and HTTPS version of the page simultaneously on the new site. These problems can be fixed with a few lines of code.
Third, be careful that if you're moving from a different platform TO WordPress that you mark some taxonomies as noindex. For instance, WordPress by default creates category pages and tag pages. These, unless optimized correctly, should probably be blocked from being indexed. We typically do this via the Yoast SEO plugin or robots.txt file... or both!
Go through your pages with a fine tooth comb to ensure Google doesn’t penalize your site.
Double Check All of Your Images
The problem with copying code directly is that file paths may have changed slightly as things become shuffled around. It could be that all of the images in an entire folder or sub-folder are failing to load simply because you copied the images onto the new site with a different method of organization.
This is particularly important if you're going from HTTP to HTTPS, as not updating the links to all your images will cause the 'secure lock' to not show.
Ideally, you would be able to catch such an error as you analyze content on your test server. Just make sure to tediously run through all of your content to double check.
Review Internal Links
Just as moving images around can cause problems in code that hasn’t been changed, so can renaming a page. Given that your pages have been migrated to a new domain, you’re going to also have to run through and check internal links, because, unless you’ve already changed them, they’re going to be linking to the old site. Take the time to test out the links or at least view the link’s URL by hovering your mouse over it in a web browser.
Quantify Google Analytics Traffic
After you have implemented the migration, you’re not out of the woods just yet. Now you need to verify the migration was successful and determine if you’ve lost any traffic – and if so, why. Make sure you have analytics data from your old site, and make a comparison with the data from your new site. If you notice losses of traffic, try to discern if its a page-specific issue. For instance, an internal link may have become broken or misdirected during the migration, thus preventing traffic from reaching a page.
Secondly, have Google Search Console set up for your site. This will show you any redirects that you may have missed, and give you time to correct those 404 errors before the page becomes deindexed.
Last but not least, I did want you to make a final consideration: is a site migration really necessary? A site migration is no easy task, though it’s often necessary in specific cases, such as a rebranding.
If you decide that a migration is a must, make sure to follow these best practices to avoid intense headaches and hours of hassle.