Blog: Website Migration for Marketers: Keep Your Traffic and Improve Performance
Updated: Nov 17
(Written for Pantheon)
So, you’re ready to migrate your website. Exciting! When done right, a website migration is a simple process, and companies are quickly able to attract more traffic and convert more customers. However, a botched migration can break your site in ways that affect both the user experience and your search engine rankings.
But don’t despair! By taking just a little time to get your web affairs in order before migration, you won’t have to spend as much time fixing things after the move. This brief guide will address the most common pitfalls in a site migration and outline the steps you should take to keep your site intact.
Step One: Housekeeping
If you’re moving your current WordPress or Drupal site to another hosting partner, it must mean your site is pretty solid. But even the best of sites can accumulate issues during years of use. Look in the dark corners of your web platform to make sure that nothing gets left behind and that you’re not moving stuff that your company outgrew ages ago. Making sure everything is in order before site migration goes a long way to ensure a smooth process and no 404 errors.
Clear Dead Pages
Chances are that your site has a few pages that have no live links to them. Don’t let the ghosts of past campaigns haunt your new site. Put them to rest. If you don’t know which of your pages are dead, compare the list of site pages to the pages tracked in Google Analytics. If the pages don’t appear there, they are dead. Also, it’s a good time to remove old web page drafts. While not technically dead, they might as well be.
Remove Unwanted Files
A site migration is also an ideal time to say goodbye to image and document files that aren’t linked to anything. And, while it’s been said that you can never have too many friends, the same does not hold true for image and document files. One version of each file is more than enough. If your files have gotten out of hand, there are tools that can help. In WordPress, plugins like Media Deduper can help manage duplicate files. And, if you’re using Drupal, the process to remove duplicate images or nodes is well-documented and surprisingly easy.
Fix or Remove Broken Links
Cleaning up broken links before a site migration makes things much easier. There’s no point moving something if it’s broken; it will only make a bigger mess in the move. If your site is currently pretty small, you might be able to manually check links. But for a larger website, you may want to employ a tool to help you quickly identify and fix broken links, or remove irrelevant links in bulk. If you’ve installed Google’s Webmaster Tools, crawlers are already set up to scan your site for broken links. Platform-specific options include the WordPress Broken Link-Checker Plugin and the Drupal Link-Checker Module.
Migration is an ideal time to optimize the content of underperforming pages. A common way is to create Mega Posts that combine multiple pages with little content—less than 500 words—into an authoritative, content-rich page that provides site visitors so much information on a topic they just don’t need to go anywhere else.
Done right, these Mega Posts—sometimes referred to as Power Pages, Content Pillars, or 10x Content Pages—significantly outperform pages that don’t cover a topic in-depth. Plus content-rich pages provide additional opportunity to generate buzz (e.g., social media shares) and backlinks. As an added bonus, the combination of fewer low-quality pages combined with higher-performing content pages can boost the overall authority of your site.
Map Current Site Architecture
To ensure easy website migration and to retain as much SEO ranking as possible, you’ll want to keep your current URL architecture when you transfer your site to your new hosting company. While it may seem like migration is an excellent time to modify the structure of your site, these changes may mean that Google sees your migrated site as an entirely different site, resulting in lost SEO. If you’re not sure where to find your current site map, you can download one from the Google Search Console, or by using XML sitemap module from Drupal one of the various WordPress plugins.
Step Two: Migration
Once you’re done with the basic housekeeping, you’re ready to migrate. Your host should make this process easy and will be your best resource for their particular process. However, here’s a brief overview of what you can expect.
Make Backups of The Old Site
Get a current copy of all your content, code, and media files from your old site. It’s also a good idea to make a copy of your Google Analytics data. This is just in case things don’t transfer over appropriately.
Upload Files To The New Host
Next, you'll need to upload your code—custom and contributed modules or plugins, themes, and libraries—to your new host. It is likely that you will need to connect to your new host via FTP to transfer the files. The codebase should not include the directory or any other static assets you do not want to be tracked by version control.
Export the Database From The Old Host
This should be easy. With most hosts, the default settings are usually for a “quick” export in the SQL format. This should be fine for migration purposes.
Get Database Credentials From The New Host
Before you can transfer anything over, you’ll need database credentials (username, password, and database name) for your new host. You may also need a home for your website installation on the new host. Some hosts will create a database for you or have an automated tool to set it up.
Edit Configuration Files For The New Database
With your new database in place, you need to configure your old site to work with the new settings. The editing process is contingent on the system that you are using. Check with your new host or read more about WordPress configuration or Drupal configuration.
Import Database From The Old Site
Now it’s time to import your old database into the new database. This should be easy. Some hosts use phpMyAdmin, some have their own import tool.
Replace Broken Links
Hopefully, with the pre-migration housekeeping, there won’t be too many of these. But once files are uploaded, you should do a search for links to images or pages on your old site that will be broken on the new domain. A tool like Search Replace DB can help automate the process if your site is too big to check manually. Many hosts support WP-CLI, which has a helpful search and replace command.
Canonicalize New Site to Avoid Duplicate Content
To “canonicalize” is to ensure that the new site is seen as the true site and is the version that appears in search results. This is done by adding a canonical tag (aka "rel canonical"). Using the canonical tag avoids issues associated with identical or "duplicate" content appearing on multiple URLs. More details can be found in the Google directions for consolidating duplicate URLs.
Step Three: Testing
After migration, comes testing. With the housekeeping you did upfront, the process should go more smoothly. Here are the things you’ll want to keep in mind to ensure optimal performance right out of the gate.
New Sitemap and New Robots.txt
The moment your new site goes live, submit the new sitemap and robots.txt file to search engines. Within your Google Search Console, it’s also a good idea to have both the old sitemap and the new sitemap. Requesting that Google crawl the old sitemap and discover the redirects can be a good way to get your new site indexed more quickly. It may take a bit of time for your site to be reindexed but if you’re still missing pages after a month, something has definitely gone wrong.
Here’s the moment of truth: are things redirecting as they should? You’ll want to ensure that all the redirects are 301s (not 302s) since that lets search engines know that the redirect is permanent and the page has moved to a new location.
When migrating a website from one platform to another, Google Analytics usually stays intact. But you’ll still want to take a minute to ensure everything is working properly. This data will be crucial for measuring the performance of your new and improved site going forward. If you have issues, contact your new host.
Test Search Audit
A tool like Screaming Frog’s SEO Spider can be valuable to crawl a list of old URLs to make sure that traffic is directing appropriately and not serving up 404 (not found) and 503 (service unavailable) errors.
Monitor Traffic and Address Problems
It’s a good idea to pay close attention to your search and referrals after a website migration. A daily check for at least a week will give you an opportunity to identify shifts in traffic and troubleshoot issues at a page level. If there are specific pages that have lost traffic, those are the ones that should be reviewed for crawl errors and linking issues. Also, it’s also good to closely monitor the performance on your most linked pages as those play a huge role in site authority and ranking.
With Pantheon, Website Migration Can Be Easy
Along with the right preparation, the right hosting partner can make website migration easy. With 100% successful launches across 200k+ websites, Pantheon is ready to be the right hosting partner for your WordPress or Drupal website. Contact us to learn more or to get started.