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SEO migration during a site redesign: the 2022 checklist

This is the ultimate checklist for managing an SEO migration during a site redesign.


Planning a site migration? The helpful guide will have you covering all the SEO basics to make the transition as smooth as possible.

Few things can destroy a brand's performance in search results faster than a poorly executed site migration.

Changing your domain name or implementing HTTPS can be a good business decision, but if you don't consider how search engines will react to this change, you're almost certain to take a major hit in search traffic. organic.

Use the following SEO checklist to prepare for developing a migration plan for your website.

1. Carefully consider whether migration is the right choice

A site migration will almost always result in a temporary loss of traffic – Google needs time to process the change and update its index accordingly. A carefully executed site migration can minimize traffic fluctuations, and in the best-case scenario, Google will treat the new site as if it were the original.

Nevertheless, this is only the best-case scenario. The reality is that site migrations, by themselves, typically provide little to no SEO benefit and do not eliminate search engine penalties. (That's why SEOs often use site migrations as an opportunity to make SEO improvements, like streamlining site structure, fixing broken links, consolidating redundant pages, and improving content.)

With all of this in mind, when is a site migration worth it?

  • When a strong rebranding is needed.
  • When the migration will generate press and links.
  • When the site must be moved to HTTPS (one of the rare cases where the migration alone offers an SEO gain).

2. Use a test server for your SEO migration during a site redesign:

Never perform a site migration without first testing everything on a test server. Check that the redirects are working properly and do all the following checks privately before making them public. Trying to do it all at once without having to do any testing is bound to lead to errors, and if the errors are serious enough, they can set your site back a few weeks.

Download the SEO migration checklist:


3. Plan to migrate during a downturn

A well-planned and monitored migration should not permanently affect your traffic, but you should expect a temporary drop. For this reason, it's best to migrate during a slow part of the year, assuming there's some seasonality to your site's performance. A site migration during or shortly before the holidays is always a bad idea. While the goal should always be to avoid losing traffic, it's important to make sure that if you lose traffic, you lose it when business is already slow.

4. Crawl your site before migration

Crawl your site with a tool like Screaming Frog, and don't forget to save the crawl for later.

You need to make sure you have a complete list of URLs from your old site so nothing gets lost in the transition.

Take the opportunity to identify search errors and redirects that exist on the old site. These tend to accumulate over time. I rarely come across a site that doesn't have at least a few broken or redirected links.

You absolutely must remove or replace any links that point to 404 pages during the migration process. Also, I strongly recommend updating all links that point to redirected pages to point to the final page. You don't want to end up with redirect chains after migration.

Related: Choosing the right SEO package for your business

Remember that a site search may not be able to identify all pages on your site. For example, if you have pages that are not linked to other pages on your site, they will not appear in a crawl. You can use your own records and databases to find these pages, of course, but if that's not possible, you can find these pages in your Google Analytics data, as well as in a link explorer like Ahrefs.

If you find orphaned pages, be sure to update the site and link to those pages during the migration. These pages are much less likely to attract search engine traffic if they are not linked to the rest of your site.

Download the SEO migration checklist:


5. Benchmark your analytics

Make a copy of your Google Analytics data; you will need this information so that you can quickly identify if traffic is lost after the migration.

If you're losing traffic, export your new site's Analytics data and do a side-by-side comparison with your old site's data, so you can pinpoint exactly which pages have lost traffic. In many cases, traffic loss will be isolated to individual pages, rather than occurring across the entire site.

You can also identify and take note of your top linking pages using a tool like Ahrefs. After the migration, you will want to pay special attention to these pages and monitor them closely. If they lose traffic, it's a sign that the authority is not properly transferred from your old site to the new one. These pages contribute the most to your authority, so losses here can affect your site's overall performance.

6. Mapping all changed URLs from old to new

You should have a spreadsheet that lists all old URLs and all new URLs.

Ideally, during a site migration, all the old pages exist on the new site. Obviously, deleting a page removes its ability to capture search engine traffic. Additionally, dropping too many pages during the migration can cause Google to conclude that the new site is not the same as the old one, which will cause you to lose your rankings.

Also, ideally, the URL architecture should be the same as the old one, unless you have very good reasons to change it. If you're planning on changing it, a site migration might seem like the perfect time to do so, but you should be aware that doing so may cause Google to consider it an entirely different site. If you do both at the same time, you won't be able to determine if the traffic drops are the result of a change in architecture or site migration.

Another reason to keep the same architecture is that it allows you to use regex in your .htaccess file to easily redirect from your old pages to new ones. This puts less of a load on your server than naming redirects one by one, and it makes the process of setting up redirects much less of a pain.

7. Update all internal links

Your new site's HTML links should point to the new site, not the old one.

It may seem obvious, but as you go through the process, you'll quickly realize how tempting it can be to leave the links unchanged, as they will redirect to the new URL anyway. Do not succumb to this temptation. Besides server load, which slows down site performance, redirects can dampen your PageRank.

The best way to rewrite the links is to perform a search and replace operation on your database. The operation must be performed in such a way as to update the domain name without changing the structure of the folder (assuming that you keep the same structure of your site).

Write your search and replace operations carefully so that only text containing a URL is updated. You generally want to avoid updating your brand name and URLs with the same search and replace operation.

Download the SEO migration checklist:


8. Canonize all new pages

Check that the canonicalization on the new site refers to the new site and not the old one. Canonicalizing to the old site can be disastrous, as it can prevent the new site from being indexed.

I recommend auto-canonicalizing all your pages on the new site (except, of course, for pages that should be canonicalized on another page). In combination with the redirects, this tells Google that the new site is, in fact, the new location of the old site. Site-wide auto-canonicalization is recommended anyway, as URL parameters create duplicate content that should always be canonical to the parameterless URL.

9. Resolve Duplicate Content Issues

Various errors during the migration process can lead to duplicate content issues. Be aware of these issues and take steps to avoid them:

If both multiple versions of a URL are published, it results in duplicate content. If auto-canonicalization is set up correctly, that should fix the problem, but I still recommend setting up redirect rules in .htaccess so that only one version of the page can be accessed. Make sure the links are consistent to avoid redirects from internal links.
IP addresses should redirect to URLs.

Watch out for folders that lead to the same content, especially the “default” folders.

Check that only HTTPS or HTTP is used and that only the www or non-www version of the site is accessible. Others should redirect to the correct site.

If your site has a search function, the search results pages should not be indexed.

I mentioned this earlier, but auto-canonicalization should be in place to avoid duplication of content created by URL query strings.

10. Identify and Address Any Deleted Pages

I mentioned above that you should generally avoid deleting pages during migration. If some pages simply need to be removed for tagging purposes, follow these steps:

  • Make a list of all the pages.
  • Do not redirect old pages to the new site.
  • Remove all links from these pages.
  • Remove the pages from the old site and let them redirect to the 404.
  • If there is a suitable replacement for the page, set up a redirect and change all links to point to the new page. You should only do this if the replacement page serves the same purpose as the old page.
  • Do not redirect deleted pages to the home page (also known as “soft 404”). If there is no suitable replacement for a page, it should 404. A 404 is only an error if you link to the page.

11. Ensure a custom 404 page is in place

A custom 404 page makes it easy for users to navigate your site and find something useful if they land on a page that no longer exists.

12. Manage and submit sitemaps
Keep your old sitemap in Google Search Console, and also add the sitemap for the new site. Asking Google to crawl the old sitemap and discover the redirects is a good way to speed up the process.

Download the SEO migration checklist:


13. Keep analytics in place at all times

Install Google Analytics on the new domain and go live well before launching the site to the public. You don't want to have any missing data during the transition, and it's important to monitor any changes in traffic during the migration.

14. Redirect All Modified Links

As mentioned above, the ideal way to set up your redirects is to use a regex expression in your old site's .htaccess file. The regex expression should simply replace your domain name, or replace HTTP with HTTPS if you are doing an SSL migration.

For all pages where this is not possible, you will need to set up an individual redirect. Make sure it doesn't conflict with your regex and doesn't produce redirect chains.

Test your redirects on a test server and check that it doesn't produce 404 errors. I recommend doing this before the redirects go live on your public site.

Keep in mind that once the redirects go live, your site has effectively been migrated. The new site must be in perfect condition before the redirects are set up.

15. Keep control of the old domain

Unless the purpose of the migration is to sell the original domain, I strongly advise against giving up control of the old domain. Ideally, the old domain should redirect to the new, page by page, indefinitely. If these redirects are lost, all inbound links gained by the old site will also be lost.

Some industry professionals claim that you can give up control of the old domain once Google stops indexing it, but I would never advise you to do that. While it's possible for Google to attribute the links pointing to the old site to the new one, even without the redirect, that's placing a lot more faith in the search engine than I would ever recommend.

Download the SEO migration checklist:


16. Monitor Traffic, Performance, and Rankings

Keep a close eye on your search and referral traffic, checking it daily for at least a week after migration. If there are changes in traffic, dive down to the page level and compare traffic on the old site to traffic on the new site to identify which pages have lost traffic. These pages, in particular, should be inspected for crawl errors and linking issues. You can continue to get external links pointing to the old version of the changed page to the new one, if possible.

It's equally important to keep a close eye on your top-linked pages, both by authority and number of external links. These pages play the biggest role in your site's overall ranking ability, so performance changes here are indicative of your site's overall performance.

Use a tool like SEMrush to monitor your rankings for your target keywords. In some cases, this will tell you if something is happening before a change in traffic is noticeable. It will also help you determine how quickly Google indexes the new site and whether it removes the old site from the index.

17. Mark dates in Google Analytics

Use Google Analytics annotations to mark critical dates during migration. This will help you identify the cause of any issues you may encounter during the process.

18. Make sure Google Search Console is set up correctly

You will need to set up a new property in Google Search Console for the new domain. Check that it is configured for the correct version, taking into account HTTP vs. HTTPS and www vs. non-www. Submit both the old and the new sitemap to consolidate the message that the old site has been redirected to the new one.

Submit a change of address in Google Search Console, ask Google to crawl the new sitemap, and use “fetch as Google” to submit your new site for indexing. It's incredibly important to check that all your redirects, canonicalizations, and links are error-free.