Making some big changes to your website? Change is good! But if you aren’t careful with site migration, it could be disastrous for your SEO presence. Here’s our site migration SEO checklist for changing domain names or moving to HTTPS:
Ask Yourself: Why Are You Migrating Your Site?
The two main reasons you may be migrating your site:
- A domain name change
- Moving from HTTP to HTTPS
Both are long-term investments in the site’s future. A domain name change is typically sparked by a branding overhaul. Moving to HTTPS is typically implemented to secure the site and hit a recommendation by the SEO team.
Google has been using HTTPS as a ranking signal since, at least, 2014. Google stresses the importance of HTTPS because the user receives protection benefits via encryption, data integrity, and authentication.
While there may be branding or security and ranking benefits, site migrations typically come with a short-term decrease (if migrated properly) in organic traffic. This is because your domain and pages have been building trust with search engines, like Google, over time. When you change your domain, you are essentially starting from scratch in the eyes of search engines.
There are ways to lessen this expected dip in organic traffic, which the rest of this post will cover, but you should set this expectation with your team. Remember, migrating your site is a long-term investment. When you migrate following the steps below, this dip should be minimal and you will quickly see a return on your investment.
Site Migration SEO Steps to Follow:
- Pick a Smart Migration Date
- Review the History of the New Domain
- Complete Other Short-Term Traffic Hindering Updates
- Crawl Your Site
- Update Internal Links
- Implement 301 Redirects
- Create a Custom 404 Page
- Ensure All Other Channels Reference the New Domain
- Update Your XML Sitemap
- Update Your Robots.txt
- Back Up Your Site
- Keep Control of Your Old Domain
- Submit Your XML Sitemaps and Change of Address
- Update Your Inbound Links
- Monitor Analytics Data
1. Pick a Smart Migration Date
When migrating your site to a new domain name or to HTTPS, you will want to pick an optimal time for the push date.
A common rule for any site update is to avoid site pushes right before weekends and holidays.
Another item to consider for a site migration date is your site’s seasonality. Since you should be expecting a slight dip in traffic immediately following the migration, it would be best to launch during a slow part of the year for your site. It’s best to lose a little traffic when you are already expecting lighter traffic.
If your site doesn’t have a clear slow season, I’d recommend picking a time where there are less updates happening than normal. The fewer updates happening to the site around migration time, the fewer chances of mistakes and items getting missed.
2. Review the History of the New Domain
If you are moving to a new domain name, review the domain’s history.
Does the domain have many spam, low quality, irrelevant links?
See what lived on the site previously by looking it up on web.archive.org.
If you already own the domain, verify it in Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools. Do you see any manual actions or important messages?
3. Complete Other Short-Term Traffic Hindering Updates
When you complete a site migration, you could utilize this time to complete other long-term investment updates that typically hurt your traffic in the short-term. To kill two traffic-dipping birds with one stone, you may look to:
- Optimize the site structure
- Update URLs
- Consolidate redundant/duplicate pages
Before you go all out on killing traffic-dipping birds, there are a few thoughts to consider.
Making too many updates during a site migration could cause search engines to see your site as completely new. This would cause a larger dip in traffic with a longer wait for an ROI.
Updating the site structure and URLs will make redirects and traffic monitoring more of a nightmare, especially for large sites.
More updates and tweaks equates to higher risk of mistakes.
4. Crawl Your Site
Use a tool like Screaming Frog to crawl and export your site’s URLs, internal links, and tags.
Note that these tools are web crawlers that rely on internal links. It will not uncover any orphan, unlinked, pages you may have throughout your site.
5. Update Internal Links
You want to make sure all your internal links point to your new domain.
If your site uses absolute URLs for internal links, you want to update those to your new domain name or HTTPS. If you have a WordPress site, there are many find and replace plugins you could utilize to save time replacing internal links.
If your site uses relative links, as long as you are not changing the site structure or URLs, this transition should go smoothly for your internal links. It is still worth making sure your internal links result in a 200 status code during your site crawl.
You want to make sure your canonical tags, whether hardcoded or autogenerated, reference your new domain. The last thing you want is to tell search engines that a wrong location is the owner of your content.
Content Delivery Networks
If you are using a content delivery network (CDN) and migrating your site to HTTPS, you want to make sure your CDN is migrated over to HTTPS as well. If not, you will weaken the security of your page through mixed content. Mixed content is when you have insecure resources (HTTP) loaded onto a page served over HTTPS.
Other Plugins and Resources
Ensure that any other plugin or resource you utilize to add any content or coding on your site references your new domain name or HTTPS. If every resource is not updated, you put yourself at risk for having many broken links or pages with mixed content.
6. Implement 301 Redirects
Redirecting your old domain to your new domain is a very important step during a site migration.
301 redirects tell search engines that your old site now lives on a new domain and that they should pass all the authority that old domain has built through time to its new location.
First, you will want to ensure you have all your redirect rules on your server file set to your primary URL format, HTTPS/HTTP, www/non-www, trailing slash/non-trailing slash, capital letters to lowercase, drop site extensions like php, html, etc., and potentially old domain name to new domain name.
Next, you want to map out your page-to-page redirects. You will want to find all your old, changed, no longer in use URLs and map them to the most relevant in use page. If there is not a relevant page, let the old page lead to a custom 404 page or completely delete the page by serving a 410 status.
How to find all your old pages for a redirect map
- Pull your existing redirect file and ensure the existing destinations are still relevant and live
- Export a crawl of your site
- Export a large timeframe of pageview data from your analytics platform
- Complete a “site:domain.com” search of your domain in Google
- Export your linked pages from any backlink tool
- Review your errors in Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools
- Click through your archived pages in web.archive.org
7. Create a Custom 404 Page
When moving to a new domain name or HTTPS, you’ll want to make sure your site has a custom 404 error page.
Migrating your site leads to a higher chance of increasing your 404 hits. You want to make sure that your users land on a friendly error page that easily navigates them back into the site.
I recommend monitoring your 404 hits after the migration to see if any pages were missed during the transfer or may not have been added to the redirect map, then update accordingly.
8. Ensure All Other Channels Reference the New Domain
You want to make sure all other channels – paid search, email, social, display, etc., all reference the new domain name or HTTPS version of the site.
9. Update Your XML Sitemap
The best way to have search engines crawl your pages is to include your pages in an XML sitemap. Make sure your sitemap(s) reference your new domain.
10. Update Your Robots.txt
Ensure your robots.txt file is only disavowing folders you don’t want search engines to crawl. This is especially important if you have site architecture updates along with the site migration. You also want to update the XML sitemap reference in the robots.txt to point to the new domain’s sitemap.
11. Back Up Your Site
I recommend backing up your old domain, right before the migration, if you have the ability. That way if something goes wrong, you can revert to the older version of your site.
12. Keep Control of Your Old Domain
If you are changing your domain name, you should maintain ownership of your old domain. Without maintaining ownership of your old domain, you will not be able to keep your redirects in place. You should try to maintain ownership of the old domain indefinitely so search engines will always associate your old domain with your new one.
13. Submit Your XML Sitemaps and Change of Address
Once your site migration goes lives, you should submit your updated XML sitemap in Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools. You could submit your old XML sitemap too, as a way for them to crawl the old site and see the 301 redirects in place.
When you are in Google Search Console, you want to use the change of address tool. This is called, Site Move in Bing Webmaster Tools. This will notify the search engines of the migration and help minimize the potential impact of the switch.
14. Update Your Inbound Links
When your new domain is live, you will want to update your inbound links.
The first place to look are any properties you own – other sites/microsites, social media profiles, partner sites, etc.
Next, you may want to reach out to other sites that link to your old domain. There is likely way more sites linking to your old domain than time you have to reach out. I’d recommend you reach out to your most authoritative links first, monitor the success rate, and determine if additional reach out is worth it.
15. Monitor Analytics Data
You will want to keep an eye on your site performance after the site migration.
First, make sure that your analytics is set up before pushing the site live so you don’t lose any data.
Next, you will want to watch out for major dips in traffic to a certain section or page on your site. This could be caused by crawl errors, internal linking issues, redirect issues, unpassed authority, or many other ways. If there are no clear causes, you may want to focus on reaching out to the external sites that link to that section on the old domain.
If you follow these 15 SEO steps on changing your domain name or moving to HTTPS, your site migration shouldn’t harm your site performance too much in the short-term and you’ll quickly see a return on your investment.