I’m sure you know by now that website migrations can be really tricky. They cause sweaty palms for many an SEO.
I’ve managed 50+ website migrations myself, and I’ve been involved in some capacity in hundreds of them.
I try to learn from every website migration to see how the next one can be done even better. I zoom in on:
- What went wrong.
- What happened to make it go wrong.
- How to prevent that from happening the next time.
In aviation there’s this golden rule that every plane crash should lead to a change to keep it from happening again. When we’re talking about changes, think about changes to the way that planes are constructed or to maintenance processes.
While this may seem extreme, it’s the right mindset.
That’s why I’ve adopted the same paradigm for website migrations. Lives may not be at risk, but businesses certainly are.
I went through my notes on website migrations and discovered that most website migrations fail for four reasons. This post will walk you through those mistakes and describe how you can overcome them.
This article is written for the people who manage website migrations, be that SEO professionals, digital marketers, or project managers.
1. Poor Planning
Successful website migrations are planned well and executed with military precision.
Planning starts as early as possible, ideally when the idea of migrating the website is first entertained.
You’re going to need all the time you can get to:
- Scope the migration and put together an action plan and a website migration team.
- Educate them on website migrations (more on that later).
- Request a budget.
- Prepare migration checklists, redirect plans, and so on.
Scoping the website migration and identifying the goals for the migration is really important too, because otherwise how are you going to evaluate how it went?
One of the most common problems happening in website migrations is SEO professionals getting involved in the process way too late. When that happens, pull the handbrake.
Your odds of making the website migration a success aren’t looking good; if you don’t take the time to properly plan the migration, you’re just setting yourself up for failure.
Make sure that you, and perhaps a few of your colleagues who are part of the core website migration team, have the final say in whether you decide to proceed with the migration, or instead postpone it because you need more time.
Choosing to move ahead with the migration should not be an executive decision.
2. A Lack of Awareness of the Risks Involved in Website Migrations
It’s essential that everyone involved in the website migration is acutely aware of the risks involved.
In SEO, there are no guarantees. If you rock the boat with a migration, there’s always a chance things will go wrong and you won’t regain your old rankings.
Search engines don’t owe you anything – not even an explanation.
Address this by holding a training session wherein you explain the website migration’s risks to everyone involved. Make it visual and bring the inherent risks to life by presenting website migration case studies.
Include visibility charts, and show them the good, the bad, and the ugly. And then some more ugly to make sure your message is received.
I say “involve everyone,” but who’s that? Consider people in the following roles (but potentially also others):
- SEO team
- Front-end and back-end developers
- Project managers
3. A Lack of Knowledge by the Parties Involved
So now that you’ve ensured everyone involved is aware of the risks, schedule SEO training sessions for everyone who’s going to be directly involved in the website migration.
Explain the basics of SEO and highlight particular aspects that are especially important when it comes to website migrations, such as:
- 301 redirects.
- Properly setting up separate test environments.
- The impact of changing content.
Website migrations that went sour should definitely be included in these training sessions, including charts showing the drop in visibility.
Schedule a separate, more high-level, training session for the decision makers involved.
They don’t need to hear about the nuts and bolts of website migrations, but they do need to know:
- What risks are involved.
- What they can expect.
- What you need from them to be able to successfully pull off the website migration.
4. A Weak Migration Checklist
Even if you’ve planned and educated everyone on the risks involved in website migrations well, you can still fail at them horribly.
You may have a weak migration checklist.
Essential checks may be missing, or your checklist may be insufficiently thorough.
Your migration checklist needs to contain both pre-launch and post-launch checks.
Plan enough time to draft a complete and thorough migration checklist.
Things to pay special attention to are:
- Content: Is it all in place, and if it’s different from the old site, is it as expected? This goes beyond body content, as it also includes meta information such as titles and meta descriptions. It can even go as far as schema, Open Graph, and Twitter Cards markup.
- Redirect plan: Are URLs mapped correctly? And are the redirects implemented and working correctly?
- Technical checks: Among others, these are checks to ensure that your robots.txt, robots directives, canonical URLs, hreflang attributes, XML sitemaps, and page speed are all correctly set up.
There are many more checks to think of. For more inspiration, check out these migration guides:
- How to Successfully Pull Off an Enterprise-Level Site Migration
- The Website Migration Guide: SEO Strategy, Process, & Checklist
- Website Migration (How Not to Lose Traffic)
A Note on Laying Blame When Website Migrations Fail
It’s popular among SEO professionals to complain about other people involved in the website migration not having done their part or lived up to expectations when a migration fails.
But in cases like this, there’s never just one person to blame.
If a developer thought it was fine to start the migration process early without a redirect plan in place, whose fault is that, really?
Isn’t it your job to educate him or her about the importance of redirect plans and the SEO risks involved in website migrations?
If the management team wants to go through with the website migration even though you’re 100 percent sure it’ll crash and burn, who’s really at fault here?
Did you do enough to convince the management team of the risks involved?
Better yet, think about these “education risks” rights away and avoid the failure!
Your Next Website Migration
You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.
Hopefully, this article helps you do better on your next website migration.