This Minimalist Site Migration Checklist – Essential for SEO Preservation

Want to minimize effort on your next site migration project, all while preserving SEO for your client and limiting risk? Has your client given you an impossible timeline and limited budget to work with? If so, you’ve come to the right place.

First, it’s important to know that site migrations are never simple, and they always take longer than you would think. In fact, some claim that the phrase “minimalist site migration” is a negligent oxymoron. I respectfully disagree.

There are more exhaustive site migration checklists and advice available on this topic. If you’re worried about your situation (and you should be), you might check out John Mueller’s advice about minimal impact on SEO for moving platforms.
If you want more context into why minimal SEO migration strategy is better than traditional, exhaustive pre-launch planning, then please continue reading. You may need to be prepared to explain how you saved the client 50 percent of their budget or be able to defend the validity of your SEO preservation tactics.

MOST MIGRATION CHECKLIST ITEMS ARE UNNECESSARY

I have been involved with dozens of migrations, new site deployments, brand consolidations, traffic recovery projects and acquisitions, yet have never once experienced a catastrophic failure – a significant loss of organic traffic that negatively impacted the client’s business. On the contrary, most migrations have gone extremely well by following a minimalist approach.
Sure, I’ve had clients insist on thorough pre-launch activities 90+ days in advance of deployment, and this usually involved detailed SEO analysis on the staging server, a full review of XML and Robots.txt directives, implementation of rel=canonical or header level directives and other busywork. I know every situation is different.

But many of the traditional migration tasks are costly and unnecessary, and I’ll show you the minimalist strategy below. But first, why is there a need to migrate?

WHY MIGRATE YOUR SITE?

Migrating an entire site is often a necessary step to improving user experience, adding integration and adopting a new CMS, increasing retention, changing domain names, rebranding, etc. All are important business objectives that can take precedence over SEO concerns.
Most companies I’ve worked with follow the traditional 5-year web design cycle. The people at WiderFunnel call this the Revolutionary Site Redesign (RSR), illustrated below:

Image source: Amazon AWS

Because of this tendency, site migrations are usually interesting because they mostly involve changing the URL structure and other impactful activities that require an effective, yet minimal, migration strategy.

TYPES OF MIGRATIONS

Site migrations come in many forms. Here are a few common types of projects you will likely encounter:

BUSINESS OBJECTIVES ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN SEO

As noted in the table above, there is a risk involved with site migration. However, after having followed the minimalist migration approach with most projects over the years, I’ve determined that the single most important factor which drives effective migration strategy is the business objective – not SEO.

It seems obvious right? Yet many in the SEO community tend to overthink migration and stick with redundant, cumbersome checklists that are outdated and cost the client significant money. I mean, is it a critical misstep to omit that Robots.txt before launch? Definitely not. What about segmenting the XML sitemap by filetype and submitting it through Google Search Console? Not necessary in most cases. What about the H1 headings? Nope.

SO, WHAT IS IMPORTANT FOR SEO PRESERVATION?

Ultimately, the important SEO preservation steps are related to these fundamental elements:

  • Preserving link authority (external link analysis + 301-redirect mapping)
  • Preserving existing traffic (analytics and server log review + 301-redirect mapping)
  • Preserving relevancy of content (on-page SEO, mostly title tags + internal links)

WHY I SUPPORT THE MINIMALIST APPROACH

The project that changed my perception of ‘how migration should be’ was a national home builder that hired our agency to oversee a major rebranding, merger and website deployment.

The migration strategy was to support consolidation for Brand A, who merged with Brand B to form the 4th largest home builder in the country. It sounded like a fun project.

Image source: Pixabay.com

However, I was surprised to learn that by the time this company was ready to start migration strategy, this large company was already in the later stages of rebranding to an entirely new entity, a new domain named Brand C.

All the content from these two home builders was to be migrated into a new, rebranded entity – incidentally on a newly registered domain name with no existing link authority. The logistics of the project were straightforward, and I would have the help of their teams’ CTO to build a snazzy redirect engine prior to launch.

But what concerned me most was Brand A was competing in similar market locations as Brand B and there was significant keyword crossover. In other words, once the migration was completed and Google search settled, I projected that Brand C could lose as much as 50% (or more) of existing visibility from organic sources in Google – an ominous prediction!

Using the real estate analogy, I explained Google page one is highly valuable real estate and if you own the keyword ranking for “new homes in Georgia” for both brands, and are planning to drop down to just one, you’ll effectively cut your visibility in half. Two prominent positions on page one in Google, in a highly competitive housing market is better than one, right?

The situation was a lot like this illustration of Google Search for the phrase “new homes Atlanta GA”:

In this scenario, the ideal situation would have been to keep all existing content on the existing domains and place a shiny new logo at the top (or change nothing) and dominate Google page one.

Consider another example. If Endurance International, who acquired Bluehost and HostGator, were to create BlueHostGator.com, what would be the expected result from an inbound, organic search perspective? It wouldn’t be pretty. In fact, Endurance International would quickly lose market share to dozens of other competitors competing in the web hosting space.

THE MINIMALIST MIGRATION CHECKLIST

What ultimately led me to try a minimalist approach was a client-manded timeline of just 30 days – from delivery to implementation. Bonkers, right? Apparently, the two merging companies were just too far along in this process and they had no intention of stopping their multibillion-dollar merger over mere SEO concerns.

So, what was the outcome of all this? The migration went surprisingly well, during and after the migration. I was very careful mapping my redirects and captured all historical and present backlinks to preserve authority. I also spent the good part of the weekend pouring over log files to catch any straggler 404 pages and kept all the essential on-page elements intact.

Brand C – the new 4th largest home builder in America – temporarily occupied the three top positions in Google (for several weeks in fact). Then, later the domain settled into a single URL in Google search, as predicted.

In the end, I learned the minimalist approach was not only okay, but it was essential for this situation. In the case of real estate, there are tangible assets that occupy physical space in the real world and Google is just a single channel for companies with well-established home builders. Lesson learned.

MINIMALIST MIGRATION CHECKLIST V1.0

Pre-Migration Items:

  • [1-2 hrs] download all existing ranking URLs (using SEMrush and Ahrefs – two separate data sources) into a single spreadsheet (the first two tabs of my .csv/.xlsx document)
  • [1-2 hrs] download all Google Analytics data (content URLs – what’s currently getting traffic) from all traffic sources, add to the spreadsheet (3rd tab)
  • [10 mins] download all backlinks into the same spreadsheet (4th tab)
  • [2-3 hrs] combine all those URLs into a single tab, then remove duplicates
  • [10+ hours] map to equivalent URLs on the new site, identify all applicable 301 redirects (this part takes me the longest – easy if just a domain change, very time consuming if 10,000+ pages)

Deployment/Post-Migration Items:

  • After launch, ensure the new site content is not blocked and discoverable (use a crawler like Screaming Frog, troubleshoot directives in robots.txt and meta robots in case your crawler can’t get past the home page)
  • Preserve internal links if moving content into a new CMS (Screaming Frog – Inlinks Report), re-add existing links if not imported already
  • Monitor server logs, post-migration and redirect any URLs (log data this is the purest data you can get, work with developers to communicate and deploy redirects – consider using Screaming Frog Log File Analyzer)
  • Monitor traffic in Google Analytics and Google Search Console, watch for losses in traffic, compare previous vs. new

IN CONCLUSION

To summarize, there are many benefits to using the minimalist migration checklist described here. It cuts through a lot traditional minutia and focuses effort on the most important elements.

Ultimately, successful site migration boils down to just a few things – how well you handle existing backlinks/link authority, your implementation for redirects on existing traffic channels and on-page SEO. Pay close attention to preserving meta data (especially title tags) and keep existing internal links intact.

Remember, migrations are never perfect, and you should keep a healthy dose of skepticism. But above all, stay focused your client’s business objective, and your next migration will be more successful than you thought.