Site migration – how we make sure a domain migration is successful for SEO

Because getting it wrong can be a terminal blow to a business…

SEO consultants share a nightmare: finding out that their client has decided to change their site’s domain with no notice given or thought set aside for the impact on their organic search visibility.

Even in 2024 with all the free SEO material available on the internet, this scenario happens all too frequently. More often, though, some thought is given to SEO during a domain change, but not enough. Perhaps something went wrong or a step was missed.

Either way, the board will want answers, so get your excuses ready.

The above shows a bad one we got called in to remedy as a priority a few years ago. The site above went live with a brand new .com gTLD (Generic Top Level Domain), changing from an established, market-leading ccTLD (Country Code Top Level Domain). That 37% drop in rankings carried a significant cost. Let’s break it down:

  • The company had a £42m annual turnover and approximately £2m in profit
  • 60% of their sales revenue came from Google organic search (£25m in annual sales, £1.2m in profit)
  • The new website they launched at the same time as the new ccTLD cost £100,000 to develop
  • Organic visibility dropped 40% but wiped out almost all of their page 1 organic rankings dropping their online sales by 90%
  • To replace the lost traffic using Google PPC they needed to spend an additional £100,000 per month
  • They needed to spend a further £60,000 on the website budget to recover their organic traffic which would not happen overnight

Total cost of project: £760,000

This retailer was 38% worse off in profitability for the year, or – to put it in real terms – a company operating at a 4.8% profit margin will record a 2.9% profit margin for the year. It’s not unusual for large companies to blame their online sales performance in their annual reports, so if you’re managing a digital budget, I’d advise you to spend very, very carefully.

Here’s what you’re actually looking to achieve. A seamless migration from old domain to new with no loss in visibility as a minimum deliverable. No drop in visibility thanks to carefully-mapped site-wide code 301 redirects to the new pages.

How we make sure a domain migration is successful for SEO

1. Objectives and benchmarking: track the metrics that matter from the start

It’s vital that from the very beginning of a migration project that objectives and KPI’s are established and well documented.

Why is a migration happening and what is the scope? A domain (hostname) name change, a ccTLD to capture international markets, a brand new website launch? IP location? Technology? A HTTPS migration? All of those things?

Obviously maintaining the status quo (thus saving your client’s neck and your own) is the underlying point of the project, but in my view there are always opportunities to make gains. In a project like this, we identify opportunities by establishing facts about the project (scope), consulting on objectives (what is possible within the scope of this change), and benchmarking performance (taking a baseline measure of the site prior to the change) and setting expectations on a successful outcome (KPI’s).

2. Perform technical site audits on old and new sites

A site migration is *the* opportunity to mop up all of those difficult legacy site issues that have been kicking around in the task list for years. But what a lot of companies neglect to do is audit the original site as well as auditing the new.

But why audit the old site?

If you review a platform from its log file data, you can see how Google is interacting with the technology as a whole.

Are there rogue JavaScript files receiving unusually high numbers of Googlebot requests per day? Broken image URLs? Legacy errors from previous platforms such as broken index.php files? It’s amazing what you find in the logs, and if those surprises aren’t preempted during the early stages of a migration they will come back to haunt you and your brand new platform down the road. Old websites leave a footprint that is beyond the scope of simple redirect mapping.

There’s a huge amount of data to be collected, all intended to answer one question: “when we move from this site to the new, what will happen?”. If you feel you have a complete answer to this, then you can be confident things will go with few, if any, problems. For our agency, this is the opportunity to really demonstrate expertise.

By the way, it’s good to perform a content audit if you’re going to be changing the existing content significantly.

3. Big brands need big experience

It’s important to note the importance of global brand experience.

The sheer scale of modern platforms is astonishing. Large organisations have multiple languages, mobile considerations, integrations and middleware issues, app indexing issues, almost certainly a prior use of legacy JavaScript libraries and more. Large scale migrations for global brands are serious projects that need scoping, planning and control. A project can involve hundreds of people or more on the client side which poses a unique and incredibly rewarding challenge.

Buyer beware: free ‘Migration Checklists’ on SEO Blogs

It’s easy for SEO writers to list all of the things you’d probably look for in a “migration checklist”, but in the real world experienced SEOs find the problems through their tried and tested audit methodology. Then they write the checklist! Predefined checklists are insulting to our experience, inadvertently restricting, and are frequently irrelevant to an individual project considering all of its uniqueness and idiosyncrasies.

Putting all of the learning from this stage together will yield a scoping document (or roadmap), completely focused on the biggest opportunities and the key risks and potential pain points you might encounter during the process.

4. The migration plan

Using everything you’ve learned, it’s wise to create a domain migration plan.

We create a step-by-step timeline of events with checks and conditions that should be met before progressing to the next stage during the technical execution. Along with the audit recommendations, this is a project plan that is developed, documented and discussed in tandem with the clients.

Close working relationships at this stage are pivotal to success and it’s not unusual to find Builtvisible staff working onsite with their clients and made sure the plan is understood and has commitment from all parties involved.

The key to success – identify the variables

When a domain or site platform changes in some way, what are the variables? What are the flags that might tell a search engine that something significant has changed? This concept has underpinned my thought process for a long time.

Check and double check for the variables. Test your migration plan before execution. Identify what will change, when and how – does your migration plan catch these changes?

If you’re migrating soon

You might have noticed this article doesn’t tell you how to run an effective site migration. It tells you that we do. Here’s some proof – contact us if you’d like more.

There are of course plenty of articles on the Internet that you can read. Many of them are written by the talented consultants at Builtvisible, so here’s some further reading on the subject:

HTTPS Migration – Common Pitfalls, Maria Camanes.

Mapping 301 redirects for SEO-friendly site migrations, Will Nye.

Why re-pointing high value links matters, Luke Berry.

Planning for mixed content during HTTPS migrations, Tom Bennet.

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