Before we start, it’s necessary to make clear that what you’re about to read isn’t intended to be a guide to performing a site migration - although some of what is touched upon can be actioned.
Rather, it's a look at some of the key considerations we took when simultaneously rebranding and migrating our site.
On 30/01/2019 we launched the current iteration of our website. In our 18 year existence we’ve redesigned and rebuilt several versions of our website, but with one key difference - we’ve never rebranded and migrated domains at the same time.
We’ve conducted countless domain migrations for our clients, all of which proved highly successful leading to the client being in a stronger position post-migration as they were pre-migration, which is the intended scenario.
In most cases, when migrating our clients’ domains, the business decision had already been taken and we were simply there to execute the migration. This time, we were the ones making the business decision. For anyone who knows the potential risks associated with migrations of this nature, when the website is your primary source of business, you cannot afford to get it wrong.
With the natural evolution we’d gone through as an agency over the years, we felt our current identity no longer reflected us as an agency, the outstanding work we delivered, or us as individuals. We set about establishing a set of brand visions and values.
With the new visions and values in place, we were left with one key business decision - do we change our domain name to reflect our new identity and risk losing our strong organic search presence, or retain our old domain name and safeguard against a potential loss of new business?
The case for changing domains
The arguments in favour of the change were that with the drop of ‘Creations’ from our brand, it would no longer be relevant in our domain name. It could be confusing for new clients, or look out of place whenever it appeared together with our new identity - such as any print collateral - and would be the one thing holding back a seamless transition to a new identity. We also needed to be mindful of how we’d feel several months down the line had we not decided to change our domain name when we had the ideal opportunity to do it as part of the rebrand and new website.
The argument against
The strongest voices who suggest we air on the side of caution where, understandably, our managing directors who ultimately had the most to lose should the migration go wrong. Neither were against the idea of the migration - they just wanted reassurances that we could execute the migration without putting the business in any unnecessary risk. Once the migration was complete, they wanted us to be in a strong position.
Our migration strategy
Our starting point, as with all our migration, is to benchmark current performance. This allows us to accurately see the impacts - both positive and negative - resulting from the migration. Without clear benchmarking, you’re completely in the dark and basing all post-migration results on assumptions of how the site performed pre-migration.
Conversions and traffic - begin by exporting a report of all organic landing pages from Google Analytics and filtered them according to conversions and traffic. The pages receiving the most conversions and the highest volumes of traffic should be your priority pages. Your focus should be on ensuring that these pages performed as well as they did pre-migration as they did post-migration.
Rankings - while not as important as they once were, it's still important to obtain a ranking report before migrating a site as this’ll give you an indication of how visible the site is for the keywords it’s currently optimised for. One of the most effective ways of doing this is to run the site through Keyword Explorer or SEMRush. A second ranking report should also be created once the new site has been live for around a month or so to compare pre and post migration performance. Of course, make sure to use the same tool as you did before - so that you can compare the two reports objectively. For most agencies the chances are you’re already tracking rankings for your clients so you can simply refer to whichever tool you’re using to compare pre and post migration ranking.
Link profile and domain authority - use a tool such as Link Explorer to check the authority of the domain and export a list of all the URLs that are being linked to from other domains. During a migration some of these links may be lost, which is why it’s important to record these as a means of keeping a record should you need to reach out to any of those sites who were once linking to you to see if they’d consider adding the link again should it be lost. Link Explorer also provides data on discovered and lost links for any campaigns you’re currently tracking.
Crawling the live and development sites
Full crawls of all of the URLs on both the live and development site are required to prepare the new site for going live and to identify any technical issues that either exist with the current site that could be transferred over to the new site or if any technical issues have developed while the new site was in development.
Content mapping and 301 redirects - correctly applying redirects is one of the most important aspects of any site migration and essential in ensuring the site retains its search visibility following launch. All 301 redirects should redirect to the new version of the existing page and not just a close variation. If there’s no suitable replacements then it should return a 404 status. Many SEOs mistakenly apply 301 redirects to simply avoid 404s under the impression that 404s are intrinsically bad. There’s also the added confusion caused to Google by telling it that the content is now located elsewhere when that’s technically not true.
Testing redirects - as important as identifying and setting up redirects is testing them prior to the migration - if they’re not working now, they won’t be come the migration. One way to do this is to change the localhost file so that you’re seeing the development site when you load the live site. Following this, you’ll need to crawl the live site to test if the redirects are working by doing the following:
- Open Screaming Frog and change the mode to list
- Either upload a file of the redirects or enter them manually
- Go to configuration > spider > advanced tab and tick the ‘always follow redirects‘ option
- Run the crawl
- Once the crawl is complete, go to reports > redirect chains and save the file.
You’ll now have a file that contains all the redirects you’ve set up, their redirect chain, and status code so you can check to see if the redirects you’ve set up are redirecting correctly.
Optimisation - in order to retain or improve on your current search visibility, it’s necessary to ensure that the new site is optimised for the same topics and keywords as your previous site - unless, of course, there are considerable changes to the site and the topics covered on your former site no longer apply. This should be a combined effort of your SEO and content teams to ensure that the site goes live with high quality, highly relevant content designed to target the searches that matter the most to you.
Launch - this is a crucial time, but if you’ve successfully taken care of the necessary pre-migration work, there shouldn't be any real concerns. When the site goes live, perform a crawl to check for any technical issues such as unintentional 404s and redirects not working and that all of the meta data and copy has been successfully migrated. Now is also the time to check Google Analytics to ensure that all of your tracking is working and Search Console to take a look at coverage and crawl errors reports.
Post-launch performance review - once the new site has been live for a month, you’ll be able to pull in some reliable performance reports and compare them - where applicable - to the pre-migration benchmarking you carried out. This will provide some early indication of the success of the migration.
There we have it - some key strategic considerations and technical tidbits for a successful domain migration.
At Extreme, we’ve helped many of our clients to migrate seamlessly. If you’re concerned about an upcoming domain migration and think you’d be able to benefit from our digital expertise, drop our team a message.