Content migration is in the webmaster world both common as it is feared. When poorly handled it can result in otherwise entirely avoidable search engine visibility loss. However, when tried and tested best practices are followed content or domain migration has also the potential to boost website rankings.
The following content migration guide is a blueprint to be adapted to individual website requirements and used for planned migrations. As a precaution it must be mentioned that even the best planned migration, regardless whether it is a content, domain, CMS migration or a combination of all the above will result in SERP fluctuations and likely a temporary decline in organic search visibility. If a migration happens to be mismanaged that drop often turns to progressively declining search performance, eventually spiralling out of control. The reasons why migrations fail include most often poor or no preparation due to short term planning, legacy issues magnifying upon the migration and/or -most problematic of all- attempts to roll-back migrations that did not proceed as smoothly as projected.
Despite many pitfalls and dangers associated with migrations, there are valid reasons why they should be pursued, including moving to a new domain in relation with rebranding, website acquisition and consolidation, improving site architecture or transitioning to a new, better CMS. Balancing the dangers often going hand in hand with migrations is the fact that a migration conducted properly bares the potential for new, previously unimaginable growth and newly found visibility in organic search results.
Website migration gone poorly often has prolonged negative consequences for its organic visibility in Bing Search
In preparation a number of factors must be considered, chiefly among them the scope of the migration ahead. Full as well as partial migration are possible as well as content merging migrations, in between different locations of the same website such as sub domain and a directory or the other way around. Combinations of the different courses of action outlined, such as partial migrations which hover include transitioning to a new CMS are also distinctly possible and are subject to the specific requirements of an individual website. Each and every of the possible scenarios includes therefore individual risks from a search engine perspective. Covering all possible alternative courses of action would go far beyond the scope of this universal guide, which is why its focus remains on a specific 1:1 migration scenario. Nevertheless this guide can be adapted to reflect other and more complex migration initiatives.
In any case it is paramount to conduct a technical on- and off-page audit prior to the migration. Several commercially available third party tools can help to augment the compelling data already provided in Bing Webmaster Tools. The objective is to prevent any legacy SEO issues to be transferred to the new location.
Once the audit is complete and actionable results available, the migration can be planned in the specific context of an individual website. This is a critical phase in the process, especially for commercial sites, since any major change to the website, whether it is a major site release or a migration is ideally planned much in advance to commence at the end of the high season to leave ample time for the changes to be crawled and indexed for the next high season.
Some aspects which may contribute to the migration’s success in a critical way such as legal implications around acquiring a new or aftermarket domain must be at this point thoroughly sorted out. A domain migration can only be planned with a new domain secured and its past thoroughly investigated and cleaned up.
Step 1 – Initiation
Once the migration is underway a copy of the existing website, e.g. https://www.example.com/, must be created and hosted on the new destination, e.g. https://example.ai/. At this point it is critical that this new copy isn’t accessible for search engine bots. Hence all search engine bots must be blocked using robots.txt, and -additionally, when possible- by limiting access with a login and/or password form.
Subsequently all critical changes identified during the SEO audit performed on the original site must be applied to this copy of example.com. Critical elements required during that period additional attention and scrutiny. Among these are:
- Site Speed
- HTTP Status Codes
- Internal Linking
If for any reason the two sites, www.example.com and it’s new equivalent example.ai, are supposed to operate for any period of time in-tandem, the canonicals become particularly important. However be mindful that the approach of operating two essentially identical sites at the same time is not recommended.
In that process the Bing URL Inspector Tool provides invaluable assistance to website operators when checking for SEO errors, structures but also for indexability of a URL. Upon completion of updating the website, perform another technical SEO audit by recrawling and verifying the accurate implementation of the migration. Be sure to also update the protocol when switching from HTTP to HTTPS addresses.
Step 2 – Server Logs
In the next step the server has to be configured in a way that the server log files are easily accessible and can be easily pulled when required.
Double check the log files for any URLs of your website search engines may have visited in the past and are currently not present in your Sitemaps and/or internal link structure. Include these URLs in your SEO audit when recrawling during the migration process.
Log files are critical to a coordinated, orderly migration process and must be monitored on a daily basis once the actual website migration has been initiated for a period of at least three months, in order to detect any unforeseen search engine bot problems, including yet not limited to issues with canonicals or server up time, which both have the potential to jeopardize an otherwise well planned migration.
Step 3 – Redirects
In the next step all current redirect rules from www.example.com must be copied to the new copy on example.ai. Crawling the new website thereafter will reveal any unexpected errors, such as unnecessary redirect chains or error pages. This is one of the key elements of a successful migration and only when all URLs are correctly migrated with redirects and no unexpected errors from crawling the known URLs pop up can the next phase of the migration be started. When investigating redirects again the Bing Webmaster Tools comes handy with the URL inspection Tool, which provides accurate insights on URL signals..
Step 4 – Moving
Provided that the website copy has been updated and placed on the example.ai hostname, and crawling was blocked in the robots.txt, now is the time to unblock the robots.txt and implement redirects from www.example.com to example.ai.
RewriteEngine on RewriteRule ^(.*)$ https://example.ai/$1 [R=301,L]
Websites having additional redirect rules, can benefit to include these additional redirect rules before the wildcard redirect to the new domain. Keep in mind that the redirects on the old domain need to remain live for at least 1 to 2 years, preferably longer. To improve server resources for example.ai, a new separate minimal server or load balancer with the redirect rules can be set up and configured, e.g. on Azure, and point the DNS of www.example.com to this instance to handle all redirects of the old domain going forward without it impacting the server of the new hostname.
Step 5 – Disavow & Site Move Tools
At this point in the migration process, it’s time to deal with legacy backlink risks, which must be mitigated for both sites, old and new, using the Bing Disavow Links feature. Bing as most major search engines both frown upon but also allows webmasters to deal with presumed low quality and spam backlinks. If undesirable backlinks are left to linger and possibly constitute the majority of a website’s backlink profile, they have the potential to hold the site’s organic rankings back. Consequently, this risk is to be taken seriously and mitigated in order not to hamper an ongoing migration unnecessarily. The task of building a compelling disavow file can, depending on the size and quality of an individual website’s backlink profile, be both time and resource consuming. Therefore it is best conducted in advance as part of the preparatory steps.
Subsequently the move should be made known to Bing using the Site Move Tool – Bing Webmaster Tools. The latter step requires verifying website ownership with Bing, which most webmasters have done at this point.
Step 6 – Monitoring
At this point the website migration is mostly completed. However, as mentioned previously server log files must be monitored with decreasing frequency, at first on an hourly basis, later on a daily basis. The objective is to look out for unexpected errors like:
- Excluded URL Patterns
- Structured Data Markup
- Server errors
And when any unexpected errors pop up, these need to be fixed without delay. Be sure to dedicate developer resources to have on standby and tackle any of these potential errors in a timely manner.
Step 7 – Stabilizing
Now that the website has moved, we can monitor using Bing Page Traffic Report how the website’s search visibility progresses from one domain to the other. Typically after a migration it takes however some time to complete the transition of all authority signals from one domain to another domain as search engines often need to recrawl a critical mass of known URLs before all authority has been transferred. However, following the steps outlined above is likely to speed the process up considerably and significantly improve how Bing processes the site migration when crawling both the old and new URLs. In addition, Bing enables webmasters to submit up to 10.000 URLs per day for crawling, which can depending -on the size of the website in question- significantly speed up the indexation process in Bing.
Step 8 – Aftercare
Once the migration was successfully completed, reach out to most important business partners and update online references, including yet not limited to backlinks from social media channels, from third party websites of business partners and from other websites from one’s own portfolio. Also utilizing the Link Report inside Bing Webmaster Tools can provide some guidance here as well.
Similarly updating settings for any third party tools used on-site e.g. for analytics solutions often require updating the old location and point to the new location instead.
Website migration done properly has the potential to substantially improve SEO signals and thereby boost Bing Search visibility
Despite statements to the contrary, website migrations do not have to be traumatizing horror stories. Instead website and/or content migrations can pose a great opportunity to review and refine SEO signals in the process and to unleash previously dormant organic search visibility.
Of course, as mentioned previously every website is different and must be seen in the context of its vertical and the organisation built around it. It is fair to say that no website migration is an easy or simple task. It is among the most advanced challenges for a website operator in fact. This migration guide, while applicable to many situations, can not include or adequately predict many crucial factors such as organizational limitations or unexpected sales spikes. Most website operators should be able however to use and adapt this blueprint to the specific needs of their operation. All website operators however should take full advantage of the Bing Site Explorer which can be used to check and compare how Bing reads website signals before and post-migration.
Lastly, while not an integral part of the migration plan, it is recommended to perform technical audits periodically some six to twelve months after the migration was completed. As part of online due diligence, introducing annual site review cycles, promises regular performance and thereby allows for periodic search visibility boosts in the ever evolving world of user behaviour, technical SEO, search engine algorithms, web development and continuous changing content of the Web.
Job Title: SEO Expert
Social Profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/filiwiese
Fili is a technical SEO consultant, ex-Google engineer, frequent conference speaker and was a senior technical lead in the Google Search Quality team. At SearchBrothers he offers SEO consulting services with SEO audits, SEO training and successfully recovers websites from Google penalties.