Liberty’s SEO Migration Strategy – Retain Rankings & Build for the Future

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Owen Whitcombe

Senior SEO Specialist

In the words of one of our senior technical SEO specialists:

Migration is something that is overlooked or taken far too lightly. A good migration is a matter of process, ours is streamlined and refined from many successful projects.”

But there are ways for you to manage the unexpected and keep a detailed log of events and actions along the way. And I’m going to tell you all about it. You can also checkout our SEO migration services for more information on what’s involved when it comes to considering SEO before a website migration.

Check out how we helped Universal Music Group handle a technical SEO Migration of 22 websites across 17 territories into one global Sitecore website.

Liberty have been instrumental in the success of migrating and launching our new global website. Working with several international teams and stakeholders has added to the complexity of the project, but Liberty have always been on hand to quickly respond to the many unexpected turns in such a technical project

First things first we need to scope out the project, what’s involved, what resources do we need. And when I’m thinking about all of this, I’m also thinking about what do we classify as a migration so we can properly plan? There are loads of different types so when you hear the word ‘migration’ mentioned, you’ll want to get some clarity on what they actually mean.

Migration types

CMS Changes or Upgrades
Changing of the content management system. This is a very common form of migration. They usually occur when users are limited with the features on their current CMS or perhaps their business has grown so they need something to cope with the volume – particularly common for ecommerce.

Server Changes
Changing over of the server or host. This is less of a ‘big’ migration in terms of action points for us as SEOs but nevertheless still very important for us to monitor and ensure that the site doesn’t see any downtime in the process.

URL and site structure changes
These can occur as part of other migrations (CMS) or can be stand alone. Along with new websites these have a lot of room for error as there’s many URLs and site architecture changing. It means you need to plan in advance, create redirect maps, list out the URLs you no longer want or need and where they’re going to go. URL structure can really help users and search engines understand what your page is about. Read more about “The best site structure for your website, according to Google

Domain Changes
These are for when there’s a new domain name or business name so there’s a big migration to consider. There’s a lot more offsite SEO involved in this kind of migration as you’ll need to consider where your website is linked to and ensure that directories and other strong links are replaced with the correct domain on its anchor text. Check out more of our top tips for a successful migration for further tips to ensure these kinds of domain changes cause as little disruption as possible.

Total new website (from scratch) or a redesign
This type of migration will often include everything we’ve spoken about up to this point so is the trickiest kind with the most moving parts. There’ll be a lot of phases of the staging site to review as with a redesign there’s lots to take into account if you’re internal, but also if you’re in an agency. For example, are the developers considering the user experience? How is the accessibility faring? Are there lots of images and no text? Have they created all the site content into one image meaning that crawlers can’t understand it? These are all questions we need to think about when beginning to plan for the migration.

Merging different websites into one (subdomains and country domains)
This usually happens because of companies acquiring other companies, businesses bringing all their brands all into one group and other similar scenarios. Again, this is one that needs thought. What’s the current picture with the domains that are merging, are they in a good state? Have the domain owners ever purchased links or got any toxic links? What does this look like? Checkout our international SEO services if you’re thinking of going international with your new or existing website.

Are you aware of the resources you have access to? The reason why this is so important is because engaging an SEO agency or SEO consultant is one step to migration success, but we also need to be aware of whether you have in-house support for CMS changes. Does this involve a long sign-off process? Will this impact the timeline? How much support are the developers providing? This latter point is critical to us as SEOs because if the developer support isn’t in place, our recommendations are going to be incredibly difficult to get implemented on time.

Migration Timeline
A timeline will help to set the scene of the different stages of preparing for the migration, doing the migration, and everything after the migration.

Once you’ve nailed the scope and you understand the reason why your website or client’s website is migrating, you’ve got your resources in place, and you know a rough timeline, you can get going on the first stages of planning for the migration.

Now that we’ve outlined all of the resources, timings, type of migration and all of the other stuff you need to ensure a successful migration, we move on to the stages. This is where the project starts to become more critical. At this point we’ll be working with developers and other agencies to get this all rolled out smoothly.

SEO Migration Checklist

Stage 1 – pre-migration data and planning

Outline what the migration will be. From the types we’ve listed above find out what is the scope of the project. From that you’ll be able to figure out what tasks are needed and put together a solid project plan.

Within this first stage it’s useful to define the URL and site structure along with a content audit to assess what the site currently looks like and what you’ll need to produce. This will help massively in figuring out timelines.

Crawl the website (Screaming Frog is a great tool for this), get a full list of all the URLs (page titles, canonicals, images, site map, structured data, directives, indexability, all the good stuff a crawl produces and anything else that may be relevant).

Then gather all your assets for the website. Assets include things like keyword rankings, number of backlinks (including quality and high DA), sessions to the pages, conversions on the page.

Depending on the migration (as listed above) you should know roughly what you need to retain. What I mean by this is, if it’s a CMS migration, it’s likely that your URL structure will change slightly, or if it’s a re-design, domain change or rebrand, your company name may be changing so you’ll need to pull things like directories and brand mentions across the web.

What are the most important gems on your website? Do you have areas that are essential to your wider digital strategy? Collect them and keep them safe.

Stage 2 & 4 – communicate with client / wider team

Once you’ve got all your assets in place (I find that the best way to do this is via a Google sheet as it’s all updateable and actionable), ensure that you communicate effectively to the client, wider team, or agency (depending on who is doing the majority of the work).

You’ve pulled all that data that you need to keep, you’ve got all the top-quality links you need to retain, the URLs which you need to map into new areas of the site.  Now, you’ll need to tell all the relevant parties what you need from them.

It could look a little like this:

  • URL structure (developers)
  • Developers to implement the redirect map
  • Client to check brand names
  • Agency to work with developer on site structure
  • Site structure workshop (all parties)
  • Agency to review the staging site

Stage 3 – Staging site review (this isn’t a static stage; this can occur multiple times throughout the process)

Now that you’ve specified what you need other teams to do, it’s your turn to review the new design, perhaps changes have been recommended previously and they’re available to view on the staging site, or maybe this really is it.

Ensure you do a full and comprehensive review of the staging site.

  • Crawl the site using crawling software but do ensure you change the settings to ‘ignore robots.txt’ and authenticate the site (all developer testing and staging sites are usually password protected so you’ll need to enter the credentials here).
  • Pull out all the same stuff as you did before; headings, H1s, structured data, robots directives, canonicals, broken links or content, site performance scores (has this been impacted after changing CMS, for example?)
  • Make sure the site is HTTP authenticated
  • We always do a full technical SEO audit with further recommendations which will be checked and implemented continually
  • Development fixes and implementations from all the previous stages

Then, when you’re happy that absolutely everything has been actioned, do a final website crawl to check, and then you can give the developers the SEO green light.

Stage 5 – Migration Day

Hurrah! The day has finally come. Maybe it’s later than anticipated but we can put that behind us for now. Let’s get down to the real good stuff.

When will the developer be pressing the button? If you do PPC, you’ll need to pause your ads, you’ll need to know what each person is responsible for and resist the urge to smash F5 every five minutes until you get final confirmation.

You should have already put time aside today to make sure everything is live that should be, that things have been updated. I always find creating a snag list on migration day is super handy. It allows me to jot down all the stuff I find when looking a live site, then it can be shared with the client and developer.

You’ll need to update external links on social media, Google Ads, (for domain migrations), submit your new sitemap to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools, ensure that the correct GA/GTM/Ads tracking codes have been correctly migrated and check that forms are tracking correctly (some forms could be set up differently if the way the forms are built have changed).  

Stage 6 – Post-migration Review

Once the site is finally live, you’ll need to do the same thing in a full technical SEO audit as you did before the migration.

Check that staging site URLs haven’t gone live, are redirects correct, what is showing up in site: searches, has the site started indexing, are there missing alt tags or title tags, or is the canonical strategy incorrect. Note all of this and send on the client, this will need to be rectified pretty quickly.

Update all backlinks to new domain and ensure that everything was actioned since migration day.

Monitoring thereafter

If you’re an agency, this migration may be a one-off project for you, so you may have to put together a little guide of how to monitor the site following a migration, perhaps you’ve got a bit of consultancy time leftover to make sure that everything is working as intended, or maybe the website is either a retainer or you work in-house. Whatever your circumstances, having a solid plan for the months following a migration is critical.

Technical SEO is part of a long term SEO strategy, and as we say, SEO is a marathon not a sprint. To get a better understanding of this checkout our blog, how long until I see SEO results to understand how SEO is the long term project you never knew you needed.

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Owen Whitcombe

Senior SEO Specialist

Owen has worked in primarily Ecommerce since leaving University. Many years spent in the online sports retail arena before gaining experience in the online catering business then becoming digital marketing manager for national toy company before finding his feet in SEO. As a results driven individual Owen loves nothing more than when we can give…

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