Website Launch and Migration Guide

Website launch and migration guide by Sukh Singh

Introduction

Whether you are launching a brand-new website or migrating to another platform (and/or domain), these projects can end up very stressful and often ridden with mistakes. As a result, you may have to resolve these issues either just before site launch, causing delays, or after site launch.

However, like any big complicated project, if you have a good checklist and team who knows what they are doing, with realistic deadlines you can succeed and seamlessly transition to a new site with no hiccups.

Trust me. I have been a part of numerous site launches and I have learned a great deal from each experience and the knowledgeable partners and colleagues I have worked with over the years!

Jump to topic:

Introduction
Common Mistakes
Examples of it going wrong
Planning
Map out the project (example)
Before site launch
Content migration
301 redirects
HTTP to HTTPS redirect
Tracking Code and Goals
Google Search Console
Sitemap.xml
Robots.txt
Address performance issues
Perform a technical SEO audit
Site speed
Mobile usability
Test the UX and conversion points
Site launch and after
Launch in a low visitor time of day
Monitor Google Analytics
Monitor Google Search Console
Monitor rankings
Conclusion

Common mistakes

Before I get started, I thought I would list some common mistakes I have found during the many web build/migration projects I have taken-on after they were started, or while observing with a limited capacity to action changes myself.These are some of the few recurring issues I have come across, however, I have listed a checklist of the main things to consider below to help you through this process.

IssueEffect on website / campaign
Tracking codes missing / not properly implementedData skewed, can’t fully report on effects of project via historical data
Not migrating contentLoss in authority, rankings, traffic, conversions/sales
Existing / proposed new content doesn’t fit new website template designsMigrated content may lose its context / may not be as engaging with new layout
Redirects missing/incorrectly implemented (e.g. mapped to wrong pages / 302 instead of 301 redirects)Loss in traffic, rankings, site authority, increase in 404s and soft 404 errors
Google Analytics Goals not updated for new confirmation pages/call-to-actionsData skewed, can’t fully report on effects of project via historical data
Robots.txt file not updated for new domain / site structureRendering previous statements redundant and potentially making hacking easier / effecting indexation
Not leaving enough time!Unrealistic timescales have a knock-on effect on the whole project, causing a rush of work towards the end which can lead to complacency

These are some of the few recurring issues I have come across, however, I have listed a checklist of the main things to consider below to help you through this process.

Examples of it going wrong

Here are some quick examples of site launches going wrong:

A reduction in indexed pages from 8,000 to 2,800

Bad site launch drop in indexation
In this example, a site went live with a large amount of 404 errors from missing pages and as a result the number of indexed pages reduced significantly. We also saw a drop in keyword/brand visibility and organic traffic too.

Vast increase in 404 errors reported in Google Search Console

Bad site launch 404 errors

As a result of missing 301 redirects, the 404 errors have increased from 800 to over 100,000 which need resolving after site launch. When users were hitting these 404 pages, whilst both browsing the site or entering it from external links (from content marketing, email shots, bookmarked pages) they tended to not continue through the site. Not knowing how to find the next related material, this caused a rise in bounce and exit rates, reducing engagement and conversions.

Over a longer period of time there was a drop in returning visitors as trust was lost.

Reduction in organic traffic year on year

Bad site launch reduction in organic traffic year on year

We see data from over two years; with an initial drop in organic traffic in October 2015 (the time of the migration) and a continued drop due to a project ending and no recovery work being done. This looks more alarming when comparing against the previous year.

A reduction in goal conversions

Bad site launch reduction in goal conversions

Here, goal conversions dropped off completely as a result of event tracking not being reconfigured once the switch to the new site was completed.

A reduction in eCommerce transactions

Bad site launch reduction in ecommerce transaction

An example of an eCommerce site reducing in transactions by -64% in the period after site launch compared to the previous year. Due to loss of traffic from missing content and poor indexation. 

A reduction in keyword visibility

Bad site launch drop in keyword visibility

In this example, the organic keyword visibility score (blue dotted line) dropped significantly due to pages with optimised content not being migrated and redirected to a new site and meant a significant reduction in organic visibility. 

Planning: “failing to prepare is preparing to fail”

I find the best way to plan for a website launch or migration is to:

  •          List all of the actions relevant to your project by priority scores
  •          Identify all of the people responsible and assign them to each (consider assigning multiple people on crucial tasks in case someone is unavailable at a crucial moment in the project)
  •          Map each action to a deadline along a “realistic” timeline

Map out the project (example)

Plan tasks for a site launch or migration

Consider a Gantt chart or similar to properly map this out and consider the proper time needed for each task. Be generous if you can, allow some leeway for unexpected hiccups, which there always tends to be. My example above is quite generous in time scales, but people do commonly underestimate the time needed for the below tasks:

  • Design stage: sometimes there might be a lot of back and forth and amends
  • Redirect planning and mapping: this almost always goes wrong if you don’t spend time on it!
  •  Content migration: particularly for very large sites where you need to evaluate content first and choose what to migrate or redirect. Also, platforms like Magento 2 might make it difficult to migrate certain pages

Consider using project management tools to keep a centralised communication hub for all stakeholders, emails alone can get messy! Two of the best ones I have used are:

https://trello.com/

https://basecamp.com

Before website launch

Typically, before site launch you will have chosen a domain/platform, gone through template designs, navigation mapping, UX design and so on. As this is a separate beast we won’t cover that part in this post, instead we will focus on a core checklist for a site launch.

Content migration

Content is a key part of any website whether you are doing PPC (helps quality scores), SEO, to help maintain and build on existing organic visibility, or simply to offer a valuable user experience

There are two typical ways you could migrate content:

  1. You can opt for a straight like-for-like migration, where all pages are moved across to a new domain/structure and redirects can be applied afterwards
  2. Or you can use the opportunity to audit each page to see which are worth migrating, consolidating or simply redirecting. 

For example, I may be tasked with migrating several websites into one single domain, this means consolidating and redirecting a lot of content and pages. How do I decide which get moved/redirected? By auditing the pages to determine their value to users and Google using analytics and website crawling tools to highlight good/bad points of each page and decide based on the results.

The steps I take here are to:

  1. Use a tool (Deep Crawl / Screaming Frog) to pull each page on these sites and the status of those pages (any 404 pages, word counts on them, load times, internal links, external links, is there any duplicate content and so on)
  2. Use Google Analytics and gather all landing page data including organic visits, bounce rates, average session duration, pages viewed per session, conversions/sales and conversion rates
  3. Use Ahrefs Batch Analysis tool (or similar) to gather page authority data, estimate social shares, backlinks, domain links
  4. We can then collate all performance data to one Excel sheet through a Microsoft Excel INDEX and Match function, see the link for the function and example if this done below:

Site launch - audit pages for migration using Microsoft Excel INDEX and MATCH function

Note: you could also use tools like Supermetrics where the browser plugin will pull data from several sources into one sheet. It is much easier but you do have to pay for the tool.

The result after you do all of this is can be seen in the screenshot below where I have data from Analytics, Ahrefs, Screaming Frog and Deep Crawl. Using some conditional formatting in Excel this can then tell me if a page has, for example, a good page authority, bounce rate, number of visitors and conversions/conversion rates amongst other performance metrics. I’ll sort these by best performing metrics and look for patterns in the URLs for which sections of the site are the best. 

Site launch content audit - list of pages against performance metrics in Excel

So here I have a list of landing pages and performance metrics from four sets of data (different tools) to give me an idea of which pages hold value to the user and to Google. I will want to migrate most of these pages as they have a good amount of content, page authority and engagement and redirect the rest to relevant pages.

If you are looking at pages that discuss near identical topics and see weak performance metrics on them, consider consolidating them into smaller pages. This re-purposing and consolidation of the content can make two weaker pieces into one stronger and more effective piece.

In addition to the actual content, all of the elements within these need to be migrated too as these will affect rankings, click through rate and engagement. These include:

  • images
  • rich media
  • headings
  • image alt tags
  • title tags
  • meta descriptions

301 redirects

Now redirects are a real big issue and a personal bugbear! Most people make the same mistakes with this task.

If your domain or website structure is going to change, you will need to account for this by creating a redirect plan, essentially mapping the old pages and folders to their new locations. This will prepare your developers to then create the redirect rules that physically take the user from “old pages” to “new pages” should they still try and access the old page via a bookmark or external link.

You also need to make sure that if you are moving pages to new permanent locations that the redirects need to be a “301” redirect. This type of redirect tells Google and other search engines that this is a permanent new destination and so to assign all of the SEO authority gained from the old destination to this one. If however, you are moving to a holding page or other temporarily destination you can use a “302” temporary redirect, this passes on no SEO authority and informs Google that the destination is temporarily, thus do not permanently select these pages to rank for any search queries. 

Sort out 404 existing errors before you start!

One crucial consideration before this however: do you have any current 404 errors on the site? If so, include these into your new redirect strategy and point them to the new pages so as not to create redirect chains.

  • Check in Google Search Console under for 404 errors (filter out old errors)
  • Use a tool like Deep Crawl or Screaming Frog to check for 404s (focusing on any internal broken links)
  • Combine both data sets and de-duplicate them in Excel – that’s your final list

Include existing 404 errors into your new redirect plan, that way you are taking the user directly to the new page on the new site, rather than redirecting them from “Page A” to “Page B” then to “Page C – new site”, thus avoiding a redirect chain which can take website authority away and slightly effect your website load speed.

The redirect plan

  1. Map out all like-for-like page redirects in excel side by side
  2. Ensure the new destination pages are discussing the same topic as the old ones, if they do not they may have been flagged as soft 404 pages by Google and the redirect may be ignored
  3. Keep your list of old and new pages – this will help you later when you are checking the redirects after they are live

Consider an HTTP to HTTPS redirect while doing main redirects

If you are creating redirects during this site launch/migration process and you do not have a secure website why not consider adding this to your task list too, as you would have to do redirects again later anyway.

Consider these steps:

  1. Based on what type of site you have (lead gen, ecommerce, small/large) look for an SSL Certificate package that suites your needs with your developer, an example is from: https://www.123-reg.co.uk/ssl-certificates/
  2. Once purchased, a developer will need to install this onto the site (see this guide to help: https://www.123-reg.co.uk/support/answers/SSL-Certificates/SSL-Explained/how-can-i-add-an-ssl-certificate-to-my-domainwebsite-627/)
  3. You will then need to redirect all HTTP (non-secure) URLs to the HTTPS (secure) URLs via 301 redirect rules, this should be very straight forward with re-write rules, just replacing the un-secure URL versions with secure versions

Tracking Code and Goals (with call-to-actions)

Whether you are just using Google Analytics, Tag Manager or other tracking methods, these need to be moved across to all new pages. You also need to migrate or re-created event tracking on call-to-actions and add eCommerce tracking to confirmation pages for eCommerce sites.

Consider these steps:

  1. Take note of all tracking codes (say you have Analytics, HotJar, ResponseTap etc) and add them to your template files on the new site
  2. Take note of all current Goals set up in Google Analytics and change any current event tracking on call to actions or confirmation URLs and replicate/migrate to their respective new locations
    • Use this opportunity to evaluate the goals you are tracking and add any new Goals needed for any new layout changes / new call to actions.
  3. Ecommerce tracking needs to be migrated to any new “Thank You” or “receipt” pages. If you have done this via Google Tag Manager, then either the Data Layers or Custom JavaScript also needs to be moved. 
    • If you have not implemented Enhanced Ecommerce Analytics yet, consider doing this during migration by setting it up in Google Tag Manager. The benefits of this more powerful form of reporting includes seeing shopping and purchasing behaviour, product attribution, merchandising behaviour, economic performance and much more. See this guide to get started.

  4. If you are not using Google Tag Manager already consider using this opportunity to consolidate all of your tracking into Tag Manager. This platform is so powerful and convenient when making changes to anything on your pages such as tracking, meta tags, CSS file additions etc. View this guide from Google to get started.

Google Search Console

It’s important that the data in your Search Console Account is constantly flowing before and after site launch. During site launch and after you want to look for discrepancies in indexation rates, 404 “page not found” errors, 500 “server errors”, check if the site goes down, sitemap.xml performance and Search Analytics data and so on. This will help you monitor website performance to gauge how well the site launch/migration went. 

Consider these steps:

  1. Remember to re-verify the site once migrated either via Google Tag Manager, Google Analytics or manually by placing the verification code in the head section of your template pages
  2. If you are changing your domain then at the time of the site launch use the “Change of Address” process and re-verify the site using head tag or analytics
  3. If you are migrating to HTTPS, create an additional account for this domain version
  4. Re-submit your XML sitemap file once generated. Hit “test” to see if there are any validation errors and check back to see if enough pages have been indexed from the list of URLs
  5. Re-submit your robots.txt file once regenerated/edited for new layout, check for any validation errors by hitting “test”

Sitemap.xml migration

A simple task in most cases, especially if you have a Content Management System (CMS) that will re-generate a new sitemap (WordPress, Magento etc). This file helps search engines find your pages and index them and it helps you keep track of how many pages are getting indexed in Google Search Console, this helps you optimise for your Crawl Budget (see link that explains this).

Consider these general steps:

  1. Ensure an up to date sitemap is created and is set to update automatically when new pages are added / or re-generate every week/month (depending on whether you have a large/regularly updated site such as an ecommerce site)
  2. Add the sitemap/s to the robots.txt file
  3. Re-submit the sitemap/s to Google Search Console 

Useful tools:

XML Sitemap Generator – https://www.xml-sitemaps.com/ – Quickly generate a sitemap if you have a small website (under 500 pages).

Robots.txt file

An important file that helps you restrict what search engines see and index on your site. If you are changing the structure of your site you need to change the references to files/folders and the sitemap if this file name changes.

Consider these steps:

  1. Change any disallow /allow statements that refer to old pages / folders / files with their new destinations
  2. Add any new pages/folders/files from the new site structure to help improve your crawl budget
  3. Add the new sitemap at the bottom to help Google find it
  4. Upload the new robots.txt file to Google Search Console and test it for any errors

Address performance issues

Set up a BETA test site test functionality, UX, speed, mobile usability and responsive design, technical and on-page SEO elements. Address any website issues before launch to avoid them occurring when the site goes live. 

Perform a technical audit of your site

You can flag any current issues (like the 404s discussed earlier) beforehand provided you have a BETA test site to play with. Using a tool like Deep Crawl (do I sound like I work for Deep Crawl!?) you can easily flag issues and fix them beforehand, such as:

  • Duplicate content
  • Missing title tags, meta descriptions
  • Multiple H1 tags
  • Mobile usability reports
  • Thin content 
  • Code vs text ratio
  • And a load of other things!

Technical SEO audit with Deepcrawl before site launch

Site speed

If you have a slow loading site why not address some of the issues causing this during the migration.

Common issues that can cause a slow loading site include:

  • Images not optimised for web
  • Render blocking javascript
  • Uncompressed CSS/JavaScript/HTML
  • Too many landing page redirects or redirect chains
  • For large multi-regional sites; lack of a Content Delivery Network (CDN) 
Useful tools to start diagnosing issues:

https://testmysite.thinkwithgoogle.com/

https://tools.pingdom.com/

Mobile usability

The Google index will prioritise mobile websites first when indexing your site moving forwards, with the desktop version prioritised second. Together with the fact that mobile users outweigh desktop visitors now, it’s important to ensure the new site is mobile friendly.   

Useful tools to start diagnosing issues:

https://search.google.com/search-console/mobile-friendly

Test the UX (User Experience) and conversion points

You could use an existing client base and send them the new site to test elements or use internal staff and look through:

  • Usability
  • Conversion points
  • Navigation
  • Responsive design across a sample of browsers/devices
  • As for a rating of the new site’s design, layout, functionality (consider setting up a free Survey Monkey questionnaire and incentivise the survey if you need to)

Site Launch and After

Assuming all the tasks have been covered in the previous section you can now consider the following.

Launch site in a low visitor time of day

Relative to the time zone you serve, you should consider the ideal time to launch your site. Typically, it’s better in the early hours of the day, though consider the industry you are in. For example, if it’s a betting/video on demand site for example, you will need to just check in Google Analytics when this is. 

Analytics check:

  1. Go to “Customisation” and “Custom Reports”
  2. New Custom Report
  3. Add a metric for “Sessions”
  4. Add a dimension for “Hour” and hit save
  5. Choose a generous date range (ideally 1 year minimum)

In the graph below traffic is lowest between 00:00 to 05:00, in this example I would choose 04:00 to 05:00 to get things uploaded.
Launch website at low visitor time of day

Monitor Google Analytics

It’s important to get an idea of the performance trends in Google Analytics before you migrate your site to get an idea of the normal behaviour and any recurring quirks (including seasonality) so you know what you’re looking for when monitoring after site launch.

  • Keep in mind any changes in site content; if you have consolidated a lot of content and/or redirected a lot for example, then you would expect to see a drop in organic traffic and rankings.

What you want to look for in this monitoring period is:

  • All traffic channels (in particular, organic traffic will focus on how the site now looks in Google, diagnosing any indexation/optimisation issues relating to content and technical issues)
  • Compare year on year to clearly spot any differences from before and after site launch
  • Any drops/spikes – check real-time session data too in the first few hours after migration is complete
  • Session durations, pages per visit, bounce rates (if you have a drastically new site design these might change for the better or worse)
  • Conversions and conversion rates (changes in layout and calls to action might affect this too)

If you see any drops in the above that you didn’t account for then we would recommend going through the changes you have made to content, optimisation, layout, calls to actions and so on and working backwards to see how you can improve these performance metrics.

Monitor Google Search Console

This free and powerful tool becomes indispensable in situations like site launches, especially if you have previous data to compare to.

You want to ensure that the number of pages indexed is in-line with the pages existing on the site, and that rate of indexation is constant and unaffected against the previous rate. 

Pay attention to these key metrics:

  • Look for messages: you might have a message indicating the site was down for a period of time, or that there was an increase in 404/500 errors
  • Monitor new sitemap submission status and pages indexed from it – look for discrepancies in pages “submitted” vs “indexed” and compare against historic data
  • Check the indexation rate and compare against previous periods on the same graph
  • Monitor crawl errors and add-to your redirects based on this data
  • Especially if you have designed a new site; check for render blocking scripts to see if any important visual scripting has not been “allowed” in your robots.txt file

Monitor rankings:

  • If you are tracking keywords for SEO, use a tool like “SEO Monitor” tool or similar, monitor rankings and visibility scores and look for drops/climbs
  • If you see drops, look for the specific pages affecting this and check if they are on your migrate list, consolidate or redirect list, you may need to reinstate pages of value

Monitor keyword visibility after site launch

Conversion optimisation

You could monitor ongoing performance of user activity through software like HotJar and tag call-to-actions and other elements like videos in Google Analytics that will show you:

  • Heatmap data
  • Clicks
  • Visitor funnel data
  • Visitor journey recordings
  • Conversions and conversion rates for call-to-actions

You can see where visits drop off or what elements do not perform well and adjust the design based on this.

Conclusion

There are a lot of things to consider when launching a new site and it may seem daunting when reading this checklist. However, if you plan for this and have a team around you with expertise that are dedicated to the goal of a smooth launch then you should have no problems.

We can help!

Anicca Digital’s Technical SEO team have launched many websites, you name it: small, medium, large, ecommerce, lead generation, and complex international sites tied into external marketing campaigns. With planning and expertise we have been able to launch websites smoothly and we have the references and reviews to prove it.

If you would like our help launching or migrating to a new site please call us on 0116 298 7482 or contact us using the form below and we will be happy to talk this through with you. 


Written by

Head of Technical SEO