Website domain migrations are a common fear among digital marketers thanks to the inevitable drop in organic traffic. In the old days of SEO, the drop in organic visits caused by site migrations could sometimes be permanent, causing a catastrophic loss of leads and conversions.

However, this no longer is the case. Google’s algorithms are now capable of figuring out when and where websites have migrated. While drops in organic traffic still do happen, these are unlikely to be serious or permanent — provided you follow certain best practices or hire the right SEO agency for the job.

Here, we’ll teach you our approach to handling website domain migrations. If you follow this closely, any drops in organic traffic should be minimal and temporary.

Step 1: Make Sure Google Search Console and Google Analytics are Set on Both Websites

Website migrations can have all kinds of goals, including reduced bounce rates, longer times spent on site, more engagement, better conversion rates, and others. For basic SEO purposes, though, you want to make sure that the new site has the same or better traffic than the old one.

To ensure that your migration goes without a hitch, make sure Google Search Console (GSC) and Google Analytics (GA) are properly set on both the old and new websites. Access to GSC and GA gives you better visibility over both properties and also helps establish site performance baselines, allowing you to see whether the new site performs better or worse than the old one in specific areas.

Step 2: Back Up Your Old Website

Migrations can have a lot of points of failure, making it extremely important that you have backups of your existing site and its associated assets. Apart from being failsafes, backup files can also provide a useful point of reference for everyone involved in the migration.

Fortunately, most hosting solutions and content management systems make backups easy. If you don’t have access to a web developer and don’t know how to perform backups yourself, user-friendly backup plugins are available for sites on WordPress, Joomla, Shopify, and other widely-used systems.

Step 3: Make Webpage Inventories of Both Websites

If your old site’s XML sitemap has been set up correctly, it should give you a good starting point for your page inventories. After confirming that you set up the old site’s sitemap, you can download the XML sitemap and open it on Microsoft Excel to get a full list of your old site’s web pages.

Similarly, you should also make an inventory of your new site’s pages in the staging environment. You’ll need to do this so that you can make comparisons between the two web properties and audit them, later on.

Step 4: Identify Your Old Website’s Most Valuable Pages

“Value” is a relative term and different clients may want to prioritize different types of content. However, you generally want to make sure that pages with the following qualities are prioritized:

  • High organic traffic
  • Ranks for their target keywords
  • High leads or conversions from organic traffic

You should be able to draw traffic data from GA and rankings on rank-tracking software such as those provided by Ahrefs, Semrush, and so on. These software tools will give you access other data that you could use to determine different pages’ relative value, including their Page Authority and Citation Flow.

After these high-performing pages are identified, you can later set them up as 301 redirects going to their new URL to ensure that their link equity is passed on.

Step 5: Build a Redirect List

To make the migration more methodical, you can map your planned redirects on Excel or any other spreadsheet app. You can later refer to this document in case certain pages on the new site suffer an unusual drop in traffic or rankings. Referring to your redirect list can give you an idea if the redirects or other migration activities were performed correctly.

Step 6: Update Internal Links

You will need to make sure that internal links point to the new pages rather than the old URLs, including cases where the old URLs have redirects. There are several reasons that you may want to do this:

  • Updating internal links can help avoid slowdowns and poor user experience resulting from users having to travel through a redirect page.
  • Updating your links also conserves server resources, preventing crashes and ensuring better service.
  • Google’s bots only search a limited number of pages per site, including redirects. Updating internal links helps more live pages fit within this limited crawl budget, ensuring more useful pages are crawled.
  • 301 pages don’t pass the full amount of link juice. Updating internal links will, therefore, improve the flow of link equity between a site’s pages.

Updating internal links can be a very labor-intensive process, particularly on large sites with thousands of internal links. However, it’s worth doing as it can make a significant difference in the technical and on-page SEO, improving performance and helping Google’s bots make better sense of your site.

To learn how to audit links, read The Ultimate Technical SEO Audit Guide.

Step 7: Update Your XML Sitemaps Before Launch

A lot of SEOs neglect to update their sitemaps on the new domain. The sitemap on the new website should reflect the current URLs and not contain the URLs from the old site. Neglecting to update sitemaps can lead to crawl errors and poor performance on the new website.

To learn how we audit XML sitemaps, read XML Sitemap Audit Guide.

Step 8: Run Final Checks and Launch

After you’ve checked your internal links, sitemaps, and everything else, it’s time to finally migrate your website. This can be done either manually or with a plugin.

However you do it, once you’ve started the migration and activated your redirects, make sure to check a few of your old site’s URLs to see if they redirect you to their equivalents on your new domain. If they do, this means that your migration is probably a success.

However, you’re not done yet. You have to make sure that every redirect is functioning correctly.

Step 9: QA Your New Site

The proper passing of traffic and link equity to the new site is only possible if 301 redirects are executed properly. This is why it’s important to QA your new site immediately after migration.

Several different tools could be used to help you QA your site. However, we prefer Screaming Frog for this specific task. If you have Screaming Frog downloaded, you can do the following to quickly QA your redirects.

  • Get a list of your old site’s URLs. You can refer to the webpage inventory you made in Step 3.
  • Open Screaming Frog and set “Mode” to “List
  • Paste the list of URLs and let the app crawl your list
  • Once you have your data, check the “Status” and “Status Code” columns to identify successful redirects.
    • If Status says “301” and Status Code says “redirected”, then the redirects were done properly.
    • If Status says “200” and Status Code says “OK”, then this means the old pages are still live and need to be redirected.
    • 404 and 5xx errors mean that the old page went offline or became inaccessible for some reason, in which case you’ll need to investigate and fix the cause of the error.

Step 10: Update Google Business Listing

If you haven’t set up a Google Business listing (formerly known as Google My Business or GMB), set up your listing, taking care to fill out all the fields accurately. Make sure to include your new website address in the correct field.

If you already have a Google Business listing, update it with your new website address. You can’t rely on redirects to handle this reliably, so you’ll have to do this update ASAP to ensure your new site enjoys the best possible CTRs and local search optimization.

Step 11: Use Google Search Console’s “Change of Address” Tool

While Google’s algorithms are now pretty good at understanding when and where a site migrated, it’s still best to help them along whenever you can.

To use the GSC’s Change of Address tool, you need owner-level access to both the old and new domains on GSC. Simply find the Change of Address tool and follow the instructions given. Next, check your redirects and confirm your address change.

At this point, you may need to wait around 4-6 weeks before Google recaches and your address change is fully recognized. In the meantime, your new site’s traffic may fluctuate wildly. For this reason, you’ll want to set the website owner’s expectations at the very beginning of the migration project.

Step 12: Monitor Google Analytics on Both Old and New Sites

In the six or so weeks before the web traffic finally normalizes on the new site, you’ll want to make sure that you continue monitoring the old site’s Google Analytics.

Significant activity on the old site may mean that some pages were not redirected properly. In a few cases, clients may want parts of the old website to remain active or, at least, available to visitors. For example, they may have had a forum on the old site that they don’t want to bother migrating. You’ll have to account for these cases to better contextualize any significant changes in site performance after the migration.

Final Thoughts

Website migrations are a common cause of anxiety among SEOs. However, if you follow these basic steps, any losses in organic traffic should be both minimal and temporary.

If you want the most respected SEO company in the Philippines to advise you on your upcoming site migration, contact us to set up a meeting.