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Website Migrations: What to Do and What to Avoid

9 min read

Billy Watts, SEO Manager for CallRail, and MarketMuse Co-founder and Chief Product Officer Jeff Coyle take a hard look at doing website migrations, what you should do and what to avoid. After the webinar, Billy participated in an ask-me-anything session in our Slack Community, The Content Strategy Collective (join here). Here are the webinar notes followed by a transcript of the AMA.

How to Approach Internal Buy-In and Timeline

Site migrations occur for several reasons. Sometimes they’re small, like adding new features or pages, but other times they’re more complex as in switching or upgrading to a new content management system (CMS).

The most important task is getting everyone aligned and understanding that a site migration isn’t merely a matter of clicking a few buttons. SEO people are usually last to know when a site migration happens. Having good relationships with the other teams helps to ensure awareness of any significant changes coming down the pipeline. Often, those not involved in SEO don’t appreciate the impact of changing all the URLs, so it’s imperative to educate others in the organization ahead of time.

The Impacts of Pivotal Decisions

Some business decisions can lead to adverse outcomes in website migration. The biggest one Billy sees is when an organization wants to undertake a migration without moving all the content. They feel it’s too much work and elect to move just the top-performing pages.

According to him, this is a disaster. It’s essential to maintain everything you have when making such a significant change. Otherwise, you’ll end up leaking search engine value everywhere, resulting in lower traffic. You don’t just lose traffic from the pages that were left behind. You miss out on all the authority they give to the site.

Other common issues include:

  • redirection (missing, stacked, and loops)
  • canonical tags
  • robots.txt
  • pages in production not published
  • noindex tags

Migration Strategies to Make Your Life Easier

Never depend on your CMS to handle your migration automatically. You can’t trust a system like that to work. But some strategies can simplify the process.

  1. Maintain everything (don’t trim old content).
  2. Get a web crawler (Screaming Frog, Botify, DeepCrawl)
  3. Use an analytics program (Google Analytics)
  4. Use Google Search Console.
  5. Save your server logs (at least three months).
  6. Moz Link Explorer and SEMRush are solutions to help with link checking.
  7. Make sure you understand what the dev team needs to execute redirects.
  8. Verify that dev has executed your requirements correctly.
  9. Use a test environment.
  10. Typically you should use 301 redirects (it’s permanent).

Website Migration Examples

Billy talks about a company that bought a brand and wanted to maintain the domain but bring it into their CMS. They changed the URLs (100,000+ pages) and integrated the new website into their existing network of sites.

They could tell by the URL pattern that the brand had switched their CMS at least twice. URLs were not properly redirected, with up to 15 URL variants per page. They redirected the URLs to their proper destination, added new content features, and improved the internal linking structure for a 100% gain in traffic within three months. By the next year, organic traffic tripled.

Billy also mentions an unsuccessful migration of a consumer products review site. This old site with lots of quality content and authority was built on top of a custom CMS that could no longer be maintained. The sire wasn’t perceived to have much value. So they took a quick and dirty approach to the website migration resulting in a 50% loss in organic traffic.


What resources or thought leaders do you regularly follow?

Great question, if you check who I follow on Twitter, I’ve been pretty careful to follow mostly the SEO experts I trust. A few of my favorites are Kevin Indig and AJ Kohn. They usually have unique insights and a perspective that challenges some prevailing opinions out there.

How do you deal with a redesign when it comes to images and videos?  

You can set up redirection on images, that works! The old references will redirect and load the images from the new host/CDN. You might want to review things post-launch and try to update references to reduce redirection, though. Videos, need to make sure the embed codes were carried over, you probably wouldn’t be changing video providers, so just make sure they are working. Sometimes code like that gets trimmed out in a migration.

How do you do forensic audits?

I’d actually start with Google search console and analytics; it can be easier to spot issues there. Even a crawl of a site can uncover lots of missing pages.

But with server logs, if you can get them, I like to look at requests from Googlebot. If Googlebot is having trouble finding stuff and keeps checking for it, that’s important to fix. Crawl all the server requests, see what the HTTP statuses are, and look for redirection chains, stacked redirects, 404s, and other errors?

What resources would you recommend someone who is dipping their toes into server log analysis?

There’s really no better way to learn how a search engine works than doing massive site migrations for many years. So, I’ll admit, it has only been in the past four years or so that I’ve got into server log analysis. I was lucky enough to get Botify subscription a few years back (I don’t have it now). Their server log analysis combined with page segmentation is so powerful, easy to use, and set up for SEO analysis.

It’s an expensive platform, but if you can make a case for it, it’s like having a technical SEO hire for your team. Screaming Frog has a log analyzer, and it’s one of the goals this year to start playing with that more, separate from its web crawler. I really got to understand the impact of crawl budget on a site after seeing problems Googlebot had crawling a large site with server log analysis; it was incredibly eye-opening!

Do you have any insights on how can I can use social media to increase SEO payback?

Social media is a great promotion tool; we want to be promoting and distributing content are as many different channels as possible; that’s always a win. I think there’s value in creating discussions on social media. You can even curate those discussions into content for your site. Understand the different audiences for different social networks and what they want, research which type of content works best on each network.

What are your thoughts on PPC vs. SEO?

I started in PPC, way back, before quality score. You can waste a lot of money on PPC if you’re not continually optimizing. The cool part is you can set budgets, and if you find the right balance and ROI, you can crank up spend and see the revenue follow. I’d recommend finding ways to do double duty on your landing pages. Why not try to create a great resource page that ranks in organic search that also works well as a paid landing page? The other PPC topic I heard a lot about lately is brand vs. non-brand spend.

Some people say you want to pay for that brand spend, top spot, that it helps register the brand in people’s minds, makes them more likely to click the organic listing even. I tend to think a lot of people are wasting money on brand spend PPC. We’ve recently pulled back on brand spend PPC, and not seeing a significant reduction in conversions. There are arguments on both sides, though, sometimes you want to be in that space bc competitors are buying your branded terms. If it’s super cheap, it might be worth it. Keep testing.

Long term, you are always going to want to invest in SEO. You don’t want to rely on paying Google for traffic. Ranking in organic search is super difficult. But creating quality, authoritative content that aids your potential customers not only helps you rank well in search, it also builds trust with your website users. You’ll see higher conversion rates if you are an authority in the space.

Where do you see the future of SEO jobs going?

I think AI and machine learning is going to help free up some time so we can prioritize more impactful work. I think we will continue to see growth in SEO jobs, more than ever; companies are valuing SEO.

In the webinar, you mentioned examples where forums and UGC (comments) were part of significant issues in migrations. Can you get into those details?

I mentioned the user base of forums too. If you are changing systems, you need to migrate users and make sure you message them about the change. Make sure they are involved and don’t hate the change; most people hate change. If you rip out or “sunset” your community/forum, and it’s one part of your overall network of site(s), you’ll be losing more organic traffic than those forum pages account for. You’ll lose a lot of link value and positive engagement signals.

I believe Google values a community, it’s almost the best type of engagement. So you don’t want to lose that type of positive signal. If you have comments on a page, and you lose those, that’s part of the content on the page, not only is it a signal of engagement, but it’s content that provides relevant context. Hosting a forum is a lot of work, I see so many examples of people giving up on them due to resources needed to manage. It’s sad when that happens.

As a newcomer to the space, what are your best SEO tools/articles/tips/resources that you visit religiously?

I like to get it from the source. Check out Google’s statements on their blog and Think With Google. Make sure you know Google’s guidelines backward and forwards. Read between the lines; Google doesn’t always come out and say everything.

Don’t believe everything you read, challenge things, verify, test.

One more essential document to read and understand is Google’s Quality Rating Guidelines. This is how they want the algorithm to work.

Don’t chase the Google algorithm, do understand what’s changing, what experts are seeing, but most of the time these days, Google is just tweaking how they determine relevance and quality. We should already know what to do for that (and the QRG guidelines are a big help there).

Glenn Gabe is an excellent resource for understanding algorithm changes. I love his insights.

Before you go, any lessons learned or last bit of advice to share?

For me, SEO is making robots and people happy. Understand what Google considers positive and negative signals. Reduce negatives and keep adding positives. Pay attention.

Stephen leads the content strategy blog for MarketMuse, an AI-powered Content Intelligence and Strategy Platform. You can connect with him on social or his personal blog.