Blog post

Site migration SEO: common mistakes and how to avoid them

Date of post

20 October 2023

Blog categories

Read time

6 mins
Two members of the team sat together discussing a project

When preparing to migrate your website, it pays to plan for SEO, or you risk damaging your rankings. Website migration SEO can be scary and difficult (we get it!), especially when working on a complex site.

So, how do you mitigate the risk? In this post, we’ll look at how to avoid some of the SEO mistakes we’ve witnessed people make over the years.  

Unwarranted URL changes

URL changes are the most common mistake people make when migrating their site. If we were to list all the things to avoid when migrating your website, URL changes would be at the top!

URL changes can occur for several reasons, sometimes purposefully but more often due to a lack of SEO migration knowledge. If they’re not dealt with correctly, they can cause 404 errors. This can happen when cleaning up the URL structure or moving from one CMS to another. 

Content management systems (CMS) have their own folder structure. If you’re unaware of this, your URLs may change without you intending them to.  

An example of this is out-of-the-box Shopify. This platform uses /collections/ in its category URLs and /products/ in product URLs. 

https://example.co.uk/collections/category-name

https://example.co.uk/products/product-name

If you were to move to/away from Shopify, your category and product URLs may change without you realising it. Other platforms (out of the box) may not have the same URL structure and could easily become:

https://example.co.uk/category-name

https://example.co.uk/product-name

The SEO implications can be huge for many reasons.

  1. Search engines index your URLs. If these URLs change, search engines will notice that they have gone. They will then need to re-crawl and re-index the new URLs. This can result in a loss of organic traffic and visibility.
  2. Once changed, if redirects aren’t implemented, broken links can occur (internal links and backlinks). This can lead to bad UX (user experience) and a loss of link equity. 
  3. Even if redirects are implemented, they may not necessarily pass across 100% equity to the new page, which could have negative SEO implications.

Learn more about the Shopify platform in this blog from the Marketing Labs team.

Unnecessary content changes

It’s good practice to make minimal or no changes to your content during site migration. Search engines have already indexed your web pages and developed an understanding of the content. It can be dangerous if you start to amend it, as Google will need to re-crawl and analyse the changes, which can then impact your rankings. 

Risks to keyword performance

Content changes can have a significant impact on your keyword visibility performance. If you don’t exercise caution when migrating your site, and content changes occur, the keyword focus and relevancy can be impacted. This can result in reduced keyword rankings, having a knock-on effect on your traffic and conversions.

Considering this, we strongly recommend a cautious and strategic approach to content changes during a website migration. If changes are necessary, ensure you align them with your SEO migration strategy.

Broken internal links

If URLs are changed, or content has been amended or removed, broken links will naturally occur. On top of this, if your website structure changes (main navigation, footer or breadcrumbs), you may inadvertently break internal links.

Internal links are essential for search engines to crawl, discover and index your website’s content. If internal links break, your content is less discoverable both for users and search engines, which can restrict search engines from crawling some of your content.

Search engine crawlers have limited crawl resources, so if internal links break, crawl resources are wasted. This can lead to lower search engine rankings, reduced organic traffic, decreased search visibility, and fewer eyes on your content.

As well as discoverability, internal links contribute to the distribution of page authority (link equity) across your website. When internal links break, the flow of authority is interrupted, potentially leading to certain pages losing their authority and rankings.

We recommend that you refrain from changing too much content, URLs, breadcrumbs, navigational menus, etc., to reduce the likelihood of internal links breaking. If they have to change, you should implement redirects where needed and make the necessary internal link destination changes.

Find out how to find and fix broken internal links in this guide from Search Engine Land.  

Incorrect or missed redirects

Check, check and check again. When it comes to redirecting your URLs, ensure you implement all of your redirects correctly and to the nearest matching page. Don’t just redirect all of your changed pages to the homepage! 

Carry out crawls on your live site, carry out crawls on your staging site and make sure you map any changes. Also, make sure you gather data from other sources: Google Search Console, backlinking tools like Majestic SEO, and scrape the URLs indexed in Google.

This will give you a much bigger data set, ensuring all pages are included.

Once your new site is live, ensure you carry out another crawl to ensure nothing has happened that may have caused a need for further redirects.

Be cautious of redirect chains

When implementing your redirects, you need to ensure that any existing redirects on your site are also considered. It’s pretty easy to redirect one URL to another, forgetting that there may already be other redirects in place that affect the source URL.

If a redirect is created without taking these into account, you can easily create a URL redirect chain. 

A graphic that illustrates the link equity lost from a URL redirect chain

As mentioned, redirects won’t necessarily pass 100% of equity to the destination page, so if the link goes through numerous redirects, the amount of equity will be significantly reduced. 

Block Google from staging environments

One mistake I have unfortunately seen quite often is staging sites being found by Google. If Google finds your testing environment whilst your live site is running, it can cause SEO issues.

The confusion caused to Google, alongside the duplicate content across the two sites, is enough to pull your rankings down. 

We recommend considering these three points. 

  1. Use your robots.txt file to disallow search engine crawlers from indexing your staging site.
  2. Implement noindex meta tags to the pages of your staging site to instruct search engines not to index them.
  3. Use a password protection or IP blocker to prevent search engines from accessing your staging site.

On the flip side, we also see people pushing their site live without changing its “noindexed” or “nofollow” status. If you don’t notice and this status is left in place after you’ve published the site, it can hit your rankings hard.

The key takeaway on site migration SEO 

There is always a risk when migrating a website. A slight decline in visibility in the early stages of migration is typical, but you can minimise the risks by following some of the practices outlined in this post.

Overall, you have to be careful when migrating your website. Many things could occur, accidentally or out of choice, which could negatively impact your SEO.

Tiny changes can have a significant impact on your site’s search visibility. We highly recommend ensuring you are aware of all changes and the possible implications. Make sure you have a sound strategy in place, and hire an SEO migration expert if you aren’t sure.

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