Why you should audit your website before a website migration

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The benefits of carrying out an audit before a website migration to help you bounce back with a stronger search presence.

The big concern when migrating a website is losing your search presence and having to build everything up again. And, while it’s perfectly normal to see a slight drop in search visibility immediately after moving your website, a properly managed migration will help you bounce back with an even stronger search presence.

To ensure your site rebounds as quickly and strongly as possible, the first step of every migration should be a website audit. This highlights technical issues that need addressing and identifies opportunities to improve your site, allowing you to reclaim and build upon your existing search visibility.

Think of it like moving house

A website migration basically moves your website from one place to another, but it’s also an opportunity to show Google (and other search engines) that your new site is improved and worthy of ranking higher.

It’s a bit like moving house: you don’t just take everything with you; you clear out all of the junk you don’t need and start again with your new life.

With a website migration, you tell Google that information has been moved from point A to point B by using the proper redirect protocols. However, you can also improve the quality of this information by running an audit before you move anything, not only showing Google which pages have been moved where but also telling it that this information deserves to rank higher.

This is especially important as there’s always a drop in search visibility immediately after migration.

Typical post-launch decline and growth trend
Typical post-launch decline and growth trend

By improving the quality of your pages before moving them, you’ll regain visibility faster and bounce back with an even stronger search presence. So, instead of migration being a headache where it takes months to regain traffic levels, it’s a worthwhile investment that actually improves your search ranking.

What is a pre-migration audit looking for?

This depends on what kind of migration you’re managing (eg: HTTP to HTTPS or adding new domains for foreign languages) and the current state of your website.

Essentially, you want to carry over all of the ‘good’ to your new location and get rid of anything bad. So, if your audit detects a bunch of nasty links pointing towards your homepage, then you want to get rid of these before you migrate.

The good news is, the more fixable issues your audit picks up, the greater your ranking boost is going to be after migrating your website.

There is a caveat to this due to the technical nature of migrating a website, which means you don’t want to change too many things at once. So key essentials like cleaning up your link profiles, fixing any bloated code and removing low-value pages are the kind of things you should focus. But you don’t want to redesign your entire site and bring a bunch of unknown variables into the equation.

Our team uses an extensive checklist for running audits before migrating a website but essentially, we’re looking at two main areas:

  1. What needs migrating (pages, internal links, inbound links, etc.)
  2. What can be improved or removed to increase post-migration search ranking

For more complex migrations, such as expanding a multilingual website, the technical workload is generally much larger. For example, you need to choose the most suitable domain structure for delivering content in each language, in each location and use hreflang tags to ensure the right page is delivered to the right audience.

It’s really important that you get this stuff right the first time around because you’re sending a lot of signals to Google that complex things have changed on your website and instructions on how to handle these changes. If you then start retroactively fixing issues, you’re sending confusing signals to Google during a migration where everything needs to point in the right direction.

Why not run an audit after migrating?

Search engines need time to recrawl your website, detect any changes and then re-index content. So there’s always a delay between every change you make and seeing its impact on your search visibility. Which means, if you wait until after migrating to audit your website, you’re simply extending the time it takes to recover search visibility and see any improvement.

By the time you launch your new website, you want every change in place so Google only needs to recrawl your site once and understand exactly what has changed.

Making post-migration changes only confuses the situation by repeatedly telling Google that it needs to rethink where your pages should rank. This results in unnecessary volatility, makes it harder to diagnose any technical issues you run into and increases the time it takes to recover your search presence.

The traffic light system

Websites naturally grow over time and years of producing content leads to multiple pages covering the same topic, which end up competing against each other. Meanwhile, certain pages never gain enough traction to add value to your website and some even cause more harm than good – eg: pages with high bounce rates.

A website migration is the perfect opportunity to clean these issues up.

When we run a website audit for our customers, we analyse the purpose and performance of every page on their site and use a traffic light system to illustrate which pages should be killed, combined and kept.

Website migration audit traffic light system to kill, combine or keep content

Every page of a website is placed under one of these three categories and decisions are based on performance data, not opinion – all with the aim of improving the website’s search ranking and completing marketing goals effectively.

Kill: No value, low-traffic pages

Website migration audit traffic light system - kill

Sadly some pages have to go and the prime candidates are those that add little or no value, generate no significant traffic or actually hurt your search ranking due to poor performance.

Once again, you have to be careful about simply looking at performance data, though. As we explained earlier, you don’t want to kill important content like your privacy policy and you may find certain pages are better off being moved than killed off entirely.

One of our clients is a major UK university and a lot of academic content is uploaded to its website by publishers, such as research papers, studies and reports – something that’s fairly typical for educational websites.

The problem is there isn’t always a great deal of search demand for content like this and education websites can hurt their overall ranking when performance pages are diluted by specialist content that’s only of interest to a different, much smaller target audience.

This was the case for our university customer, which had this sprawling website filled with marketing information, Q&As, information about the university and, then, a vast amount of research content that’s not necessarily relevant to its priority audiences: potential and existing students.

This research content is still important (vitally so) for its intended audience, though, so the solution was to place it behind a sign-in page, which allowed the university to optimise its online presence as a high-performing marketing website that maximises student applications.

Combine: Merging pages to improve performance

Website migration audit traffic light system - combine

When it comes to combine, we’re looking for pages that currently add some value that could be merged with other information to become more valuable. The most common scenario is when you have multiple blog posts covering the same topic and some of these might not differentiate enough to justify having separate pages.

In this case, you’ve got pages that are competing against each other and you’re splitting your search ranking between multiple pages instead of having one, single page that contains all of the relevant information.

For example, we ran an audit for one of our eCommerce customers and discovered they had five versions of a Christmas blog that could have been combined into one post and, then, updated every year. So the emphasis here was moving from five individual pieces of content competing for the same keyword and condensing it into one really strong page that receives all of the ranking gains.

This is often where you’ll see the biggest lift from your pre-migration audit.

Keep: Your best-performing content

Website migration audit traffic light system - keep

Topping the list of content to keep is your best-performing pages and, from a search perspective, we’re generally looking for pages that have generated a lot of traffic over a twelve-month period. However, sometimes, we have to analyse data beyond the past 12 months to get an accurate understanding of performance – for example, highly-seasonal pages that may only perform for three months of the year.

We don’t only look at performance data when categorising pages, though.

Most websites have essential pages that generate little traffic, such as privacy policy pages or T&Cs. For example, one of our customers is an industry body that, among other things, provides courses and runs industry events. This customer’s website has pages containing legislation, guidelines, privacy policies – essential pages that don’t always perform particularly well. Clearly, these are all keepers but a basic performance report could flag these up for removal so it’s important to also have some critical thinking throughout the audit process.

How long will it take to recover our search ranking?

This depends on the kind of website you’re dealing with and which type of migration you’re trying to perform – eg: domain name change, HTTP to HTTPS or launching international sites.

There are several reasons for this, one being that internal links are suddenly pointing from and towards URLs without any ranking history. Google needs time to recrawl your site, detect your page redirects and then pass along the historical ranking points to your new page.

With a successful website migration, the aim is to minimise the initial drop in search visibility during the first few weeks after launch. Then, you should start to see a more gradual recovery over the next few months  before visibility grows beyond pre-launch levels.

Generally speaking, with all other things being constant, you should see recovery within three months.

NOTE: These timings are a rough guide and can differ site to site.

The most important thing is to ensure the migration itself is handled properly. We’ve had customers in the past who have come to us after migrating from HTTP to HTTPS, thinking the job was done, but they’ve actually used temporary 302 redirects instead of the permanent 301 redirect protocol.

This sends the wrong signals to Google that a temporary change has been made and then you have to tell Google again that actually these same pages have now been moved permanently.

Let the data lead decision-making

Another common problem you’ll come across with website migrations, especially if you’re killing and combining pages, is that toes may get trodden on. Content is created by people and it can hurt to find out your piece is being dropped or combined with someone else’s but this is another perk of letting the data lead decision-making.

When you let the data guide key decisions, there’s nobody to blame for content getting dropped or moved.

Data-driven reports also help stakeholders see the performance benefits of implementing changes. You don’t want to fall into this scenario where the marketing team thinks this content isn’t good enough or feels this page so-and-so spent months working on shouldn’t be carried over to the new site.

When every decision is informed by data, performance is the priority and results are measurable for everyone to see.

Need help?

Find out more about our SEO audit services and website migration services or if you’d like to speak to one of our SEO or website specialists, contact us on 02392 830281 or submit your details here.

Mel Soutar profile picture
Mel Soutar

Mel is a Senior Business Development Manager at Vertical Leap. She is highly-experienced at advising companies on how to use SEO and PPC to maximise their visibility online and drive leads to their business.

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