How to Re-Launch a Website and Avoid a Website Migration SEO Disaster

Do an SEO audit now to avoid major problems later.

Relaunching your website? Making significant changes to the site architecture? Website Migration SEO is tricky, but not impossible. Attention to detail is key.

We’ve seen it more times than we care to remember. It goes something like this: a client has invested many tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in an entirely new web design and content management system (CMS) platform.

That’s when we get the email…

“We just migrated our website and deployed a new design. We also migrated to a new CMS. Right after we flipped the switch on our new site, all of our traffic from organic search completely disappeared!”

This is exactly what you should not do. Instead, follow these steps for an easy, DIY SEO audit to make sure that you don’t damage your hard-earned SEO credibility and PageRank equity.

Pre-Launch SEO Audit: Start Three Months Before Goal Launch Date

The process starts before the new website is launched, to minimize any errors that might be carried over in the import. It doesn’t really end until well after the new site has been launched and you can confirm that traffic is growing as it should.

Step One: Crawl the version of the site that will be folded.

This is necessary for records and SEO analysis later on.

Use Screaming Frog (the basic version is a free download), Moz, or a similar tool to crawl the entire site before any changes are made. This will show all of the URLs that are currently visible to Google and data points like internal and external links.

Digital Sapien Interactive uses both Moz and Screaming Frog. We recommend both, but each tends to serve a different purpose.

We recommend Screaming Frog for quick, one-off needs or for SEOs who require a desktop solution. It also has some pretty advanced spreadsheet export capabilities that you can take advantage of by firing up Microsoft Excel. Moz is much more user-friendly. It has a monthly fee, but they offer do offer a free trial. 

If you can justify spending $99+/month and offset it with expected revenue gains from your SEO efforts, go for it. Otherwise, you can make do with some of the free or less-expensive tools. They’ll do just fine.

Step Two: Confirm that You’re Collecting the Right Data

The data collected from this step should be saved to compare to the site after the migration. It’s likely that in the immediate term, the site will see a drop in organic traffic. This will be due to missing content, improper backend architecture, formatting, or improperly implemented 301 redirects.

If the site loses traffic, comparing the old site crawl with a crawl of the new website will show which URLs were removed or incorrectly mapped, allowing you to quickly fix it.

Step Three: 301 Redirect Mapping

Map new URLs to existing URLs. This is the most important step. If not done properly, your beautiful new site may as well not exist. And if the old site is off-line, the user will see a 404 “page not found error.” Traffic will subsequently drop causing the website domain authority to decrease. This will result in the loss of page or domain equity.

Locate the URL that corresponds to the URL that is to be migrated over to the new site. Your webmaster or develop can provide a list in an excel document. In the first column list all URLs (pages) on the existing version of usta.com. In column b, list the URL that will exist on the new site.

Because the category and URL structure (And story titles) are changing, it is vital to ensure accuracy when mapping content. This map shows Google the ‘location’ of the content in the new directory structure. If 301 redirects are incorrectly assigned (e.g. one is missing), the user receives a 404 error page whenever that URL is accessed. This is important because Google understands this as poor UX and takes it into account when deciding where the site ranks.

Example: The URL to the old Professional Coach Certification page for a client was mapped to the URL for the new youth tennis page; any user would land on a contextually incorrect page and click off. In the loss of equity from both the youth tennis page and the coach certification content, This would affect users in all traffic channels (organic, email, internal, direct, etc.)

If a page without a redirect is linked to on an external website or email (A blog, publication, promotion…wherever), users will receive a 404 page not found error. Google will penalize the site because it won’t be able to access the content associated with the user search query (search keyword). Alternatively, if the page is The user will see a 404 error when they click, and Google will penalize the site when it discovers the broken link.

Step 4: Determine which existing pages need to be excluded from the migration.

Pages that you’d like to kill—or not include in the migration—should render a 404 error, just ensure that no pages link to a broken URL elsewhere on the new site. If a page is receiving a lot of traffic, deleting it without replicating/importing the content and setting up a 301 redirect would only cause a decrease in Domain authority and site traffic.

Referring to the crawl, linking to a page that has been eliminated will result in lost traffic and authority. Visitors will land on a 404 page when they click, and Google will penalize the site when it discovers the broken link (as it has not matched up with what the user was searching for).

If a page exists that has decent equity (revealed in the pre-launch crawl) but is no longer relevant, the best practice is to implement a 301 redirect to a similar page, so that page value is not lost.

sea-website-migration-traffic
This is an ideal traffic trend. Unfortunately, SEO rarely works out this way after a website migration.

After the Launch, Perform a Post-Launch SEO Audit

Benchmark your key metrics to track SEO growth or decline after the site relaunch

Include rankings, pages indexed, organic traffic (unique users, sessions) organic conversions (email signups or product purchases from organic traffic) and any others that are essential to performance measurement. Expect an initial drop in rankings after the migration (which should recover).

Design and deploy a customized 404 “Not Found” page.

Include a free download in exchange for an email address, or embed a variety of links to content that will appeal to the largest amount of your target audience. This not only keeps people on your site, improving your site’s reputation; it re-engages what would have been a lost opportunity.

Register Google Search Console

Make sure the site is properly activated within Google Webmaster Tools Search console. Include both www and the non-www, plus HTTP and HTTPS versions of each site, if applicable. You will need to verify and sometimes resubmit the site to Webmaster Tools after you launch the new version of your website.

Create a new robots.txt file to include any changes to the site directories Google crawlers can and cannot index following the launch. Failure to update this file could result in penalties due to unfinished or unintended duplicate content made available to Google bots.

When you’re ready to launch your new site, activate the 301 permanent redirects and carefully monitor inbound traffic. Remember, it’s normal for as much as a 20% drop to occur, but if you see your visits indicator plummeting, something is definitely wrong.

Perform a Website Crawl After the Launch

Crawling your website after the relaunch will itemize and prioritize any errors that crawlers encounter. This will enable you to quickly correct them so that your website doesn’t get dinged, or significantly decrease in PageRank for a given keyword group.