Sometimes a website needs a new home. Perhaps the company’s web development or SEO expert is recommending a change to improve user experience or technical performance. Or maybe an exec-level decision maker wants to increase or decrease investment in digital marketing.
Either way, the ripple effect this has on the success of a website can be massive -- for good or bad.
Moving a website -- whether on the same platform or to a new one -- and rebuilding the original -- whether with an identical or all-new design -- isn’t a simple “copy/paste” job. While the ultimate goal is usually to keep the site’s “architecture” structured the same (think menus and page locations), there’s a lot to consider. If executed poorly, you could end up with:
- Site errors
- Visitors leaving in droves
- Poor search engine performance
In fact, some folks call these projects SEO (search engine optimization) migrations because it’s 100% critical that the changes don’t cause long-term harm to your visibility in Google results.
At their worst, web projects involving site migration are for the birds. (Sorry.) Use this website migration checklist to increase your team’s efficiency while increasing profitability:
Website Migration Checklist: How to Move Your Website to a New Host
When a website migration takes flight, it generally flows like this:
- Choose your host
- Finalize your design
- Migrate the assets
- Set up for launch!
- Post-launch upkeep
Believe it or not, all four of these steps can influence your website’s SEO (search engine optimization)
Packing up a website’s bags can prompt varying levels of changes (depending on your goals and scope) to the URLs, navigation, content, design, and platform. The work could include anything from updating the layout of your website to moving it to a completely different host.
Examples of site migrations include:
- Changing protocol, domain, or subdomain
- Changing top-level domain: .com, .biz, .net, and so on
- Redesign: From small layout changes to full revamps with code and copy overhauls
- Structural: Changing the website architecture or URL structure, which may impact user experience
- Content management system: i.e. changing from Wordpress to HubSpot
Actually, let’s start right there because it’s probably the biggest order of business:
Choose Your Website Host
If you’re choosing to take your website’s talent’s south to a full-blown content management system, let us first congratulate you. If the bar for your website expectations is higher than “crappy brochure,” investing in an actual CMS is the right move. A good CMS gives you more than just a new home; it’s also a hub for creating and tracking marketing and sales materials.
The big name out there is, of course, WordPress. This old standby can adequately meet many needs of small-to-medium businesses. However, based on your size and specific needs (see the bullet list below), you may need something more robust.
(Related blog: How to migrate a WordPress website with no data loss or downtime)
Whether you’re enlisting a website migration service or handling it in-house, get these questions answered before choosing a host:
- What’s your budget?
- What tools/features does your website require?
- How successful is your site at its current location? (i.e. monthly traffic)
- Is your sales/marketing process lacking useful tracking & reporting tools?
- How important is lead generation to your online marketing goals?
- How important is customizability?
(p80 Tip: We did our own website migration to HubSpot a few years ago, as it’s more integrated from a marketing standpoint and makes in-depth tracking and reporting easy. Many of our clients have also shifted to HubSpot and are quite happy with it. We have happy clients on WordPress too, so do what’s best for your digital growth!)
The first rule of website redesigns: Make sure all stakeholders are aligned on look and functionality before you finish a draft. Before you even start a draft would be better. There’s nothing less efficient than redoing the entire homepage because the CEO and COO have totally different aesthetic preferences.
If your website migration project includes new or totally redesigned pages, or moving to another platform altogether, it’s best to start by creating wireframes. These can be simple whiteboard mockups that show where different elements (images, videos, text) will live on a page.
We can’t stress it enough: During this template rebuild phase, make sure you and other stakeholders are aligned on:
- Design/layout preferences
The designer will need “do this” and “don’t do this” references and examples up-front, plus any new assets (i.e. logos and brand color hex codes) you want on the site. Drip-feeding this required material upon request is inefficient and irritating for the designer.
Are you sticking to the same design? That’s usually much simpler -- it’s just a matter of importing styles and templates from the old site.
Either way, when your team is ready to build the real thing, focus on core pages first rather than low-traffic pages that don’t drive conversions. High-impact pages include:
- Your blog
- “Industries Served” pages
- RFQ/Contact Us
Consider having the design team check back in with decision makers to ensure the user experience (UX) and branding matches their hopes and dreams. You can even take the test version of the site to friends and family to see how they navigate around it -- you may learn valuable UX insights.
Here are a few other technical, boring things that need set up in the design phase:
It’s generally best to keep old pages on your site, even if you don’t plan to make new versions. If some pages absolutely must be removed for branding or other reasons, experts recommend these steps:
- Make a list of all pages you wish to remove
- Don’t redirect them to the new site
- Remove all links from them
- Remove the pages from the old site and redirect them to 404
- If and only if there’s a new page that serves the same purpose, set up a 301 redirect to the new page.
- Don’t redirect removed pages to the homepage -- if there’s no suitable replacement for a page, let it 404, as it won’t be an issue if there are no links to it
Custom 404 Page
An effective 404 page guides users back to relevant pages on the same site.
Yes, a default 404 page is quicker to build, but a custom one provides your company the opportunity to put valuable links in front of visitors. Try linking to the homepage, an FAQ, or whatever else would keep a potential lead from leaving your site.
The timeline of this stage entirely depends on the scope of your website. Will it be 5 pages, or 500 pages? That’s the difference between bribing your friend with a 6-pack to move your furniture, or hiring an army of U-Hauls.
The migration stage is when text, images, and other assets actually move over to their new home on the internet. In more complex cases, this stage could involve rebuilding custom modules or applications.
For example, HubSpot’s hosting uses the HubL templating language, while WordPress uses PHP. They aren’t interchangeable languages, so the designer may need to do some translating. For example, perhaps your old Products page has a special image box that slides in from the right side when the user’s cursor hovers over it. Those sorts of features often require “rewiring” so they work on the new host platform.
A quick audit of the old site’s unique features before the onset of migration, will help the developer avoid surprises and delays.
Other steps and tips for the migration stage include:
Back That Thing Up
Create a backup of your old website so you can revert to it in case of emergency.
In some cases, analytics data is lost during a site migration, so don’t forget to back this up too.
While you’re at it, review those analytics -- today. Knowing your traffic and conversion numbers on a page-by-page basis may inform any changes you make to site architecture in this stage.
Moving Furniture/Creating a Staging Website
A staging website is a duplicate prototype version of your new site. Users will never see it (unless someone messed up big-time).
The test website gives the team a real-time visual of how the site will look and function. It also facilitates the testing and execution of URL 301 redirects before going live.
(p80 Tip: If your project involves several large moving parts, don’t force the entire flock onto the new site at once. Breaking the process into bite-sized pieces makes it easier to identify and troubleshoot issues before you publish.)
Keep the Titles, Meta Descriptions, & HTML Markup
Part of the reason you move a website is to make it more organized -- for customers, internal teammates, and Google’s SEO ranking algorithm.
Where possible, pages should be uniform and contain the same “guts” as before. In other words, even if you add a video and swap the order of the products on your homepage, that page’s SEO title, meta description, and markup should go untouched (unless they suck as-is).
First things first: Don’t attempt to relaunch the site during peak traffic hours and days. Websites break all the time, especially when restructuring is involved, so be prepared.
There are several boxes on your website migration checklist that must be accounted for before you launch:
This is all about testing, testing, and more testing. A dead page is a dead lead, so start by running a website audit tool to ensure no 404 errors are present.
There are several other UX tests you should consider mandatory:
- Desktop vs. mobile: Is one group getting a subpar experience compared to the other?
- Navigation links in header and footer
- Lead-capture forms: Do they function correctly and move the prospect to the right place?
This is a user-experience measuring stick too, but also a tangible calculation Google’s algorithm can detect. To determine your site won’t get dinged for slow loading times:
- Run a page speed test on the homepage
- Run a page speed test on at least 3 subpages
Culprits for slow website speed include unnecessarily large image sizes, natively embedded videos, and an overall excess of multimedia elements.
Transport Layer Security (TSL, but also still called by its predecessor’s name, SSL) is a security technology that ensures the safety of server-to-browser transactions. One security issue to watch out for is mixed content, which occurs when initial HTML loads over a secure HTTPS connection, but other resources (i.e. images and stylesheets) load over an insecure HTTP connection.
- Ensure TLS/SSL is set up at the www., non-www., and subdomain levels
- Check for mixed HTTP/HTTPS content
- If HTTPS remains broken, test through a webpage security checker like whynopadlock.com
DNS (Domain Name System) may sound boring, but it’s one of the greatest features of the internet..
This global network of servers (basically a giant address book) ensures the internet is not only user-friendly, but also smooth and efficient in loading the content users request..
Now, the bad news: Anytime you change web hosts, you’re changing the physical server on which your site lives, along with its IP address. Modifying your DNS configuration settings to always point visitors to the correct IP address will keep the site running during your move to a new host.
Website owners beware: If you enter DNS settings incorrectly, the entire website can go down for days.
To summarize your goals in this step:
- Make sure whoever’s launching the site has access to DNS hosting
- Obtain DNS settings and populate
- Ensure forwarding from non-www. to www., or vise versa
The web developer is largely responsible for executing the back-end, technical SEO best practices that no one sees. The primary goal here is to tell Google and other search engines to crawl each and every page you want visible in search results.
To make your pages visible:
- Run an SEO audit tool (i.e. SEMrush)
- Ensure sitemap.xml exists
- Ensure robots.txt exists
The work of digital marketers and developers is never done. The last step before hitting “Launch” is to install tracking technology so your team can monitor SEO and other website metrics.
To measure your site’s performance effectively:
- Set up Google Analytics and add code to website
- Set up conversion tracking for lead-capture form submissions
- Set up Google Search Console and verify site
- Install HubSpot or other CMS plugins/tracking
Thought you were done, eh? There’s plenty to track in the coming days:
Watch Your Performance
Nobody likes hearing the sound of their own voice on a recording. Unfortunately, in this case your team will need to “watch the game film,” as they say in sports.
Keep a close eye on your website’s analytics to ensure you didn’t miss a step during a launch. Short-term dips in traffic are common after a migration, but if you see a major drop, it’s time to self-scout.
Sometimes, third-party software can locate problems you’d never have the time to constantly check up on. SEMrush and other site auditors can continue cleaning up messes post-launch.
If your site is redirecting old links correctly, you’ll still get traffic and search results brownie points from your backlinks. And we all love backlinks -- they’re one of the highest determining factors in Google’s rankings.
However, it's still best that other websites linking one of your pages use its current URL. ID your most valuable backlinks and ask the publisher of them to swap in the new URL.
In all the madness of launching a new website location, don’t forget your ads!. If you have ads or anything else that uses old URLs, return to them and add fresh links.
Assessing Your Current Website Performance
All website projects are different, our lead web developer Daniel says. He looks vaguely like Abe Lincoln, so he must be telling the truth.
Different digital marketing strategies require different website hosting services, which all have their share of pros and cons. But just like it’s a guarantee birds will fly south in the winter, web migrations will always require painstaking attention to SEO and UX best practices. Keep the checklist above on-hand to guide your team’s future projects.
For another free tool to improve your website, see our website assessment page: