Planning and Executing a Succesful Site Migration

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There may come a time when your business decides, whether through desire of necessity, to make wholesale changes to the back-end of its website. These changes can be performed in a few different ways, but in most cases, it will have to undergo some sort of site migration process.

A site migration can take on a lot of different forms, which we will get into, but they all have one thing in common – a large overhaul like this can (and mostly will) create issues that the stakeholders who demanded it did not plan for. The good news is that issues coming from a migration to a different overall website can be mitigated if planned for at the very beginning of the project.

Different Kinds of Site Migrations

The actual term “site migration” can mean a lot of different things, and it’s important to categorize your particular situation in order to plan for potential missteps. We will discuss some of the most common migration situations.

The following categories can be mixed together depending on certain situations, so make sure you do not ignore every aspect of the migration plan.

Each of the “things to look out for” are identified by where they may have the most impact.

Domain Migration

Changing a website domain name is a common migration that we see on a regular basis. Whether triggered by an ownership change, a rebranding, or simply finding a new domain that aligns better with the intention of the site, a domain change is a possibility in the future of just about any website.

Website assets are called from a URL, a specific address that identifies where a file is to be found. This relates to web pages, images, CSS and Javascript files, back-end processes that process contact forms, and countless other resources. Most of the time, these resources are called with a relative link, coded like the following:

Sample of a domain migration code

Other times, they may be direct links, explicitly stating the domain name as part of the URL:

Sample of a domain migration code with direct links

Any time that the domain name changes, you have to ensure that anything referencing a direct link gets changed to the new URL. If they do not, they will return a 404 error (file not found), resulting in a ton of different problems that you will not want to deal with.

Things to Look Out For in a Domain Migration

  • New 404 errors – TECH, SEO
  • Increased number of 301 or 302 redirects – TECH, SEO
  • Internal links – SEO
  • Image paths – UX
  • JavaScript calls – TECH, UX
  • CSS files – TECH, UX
  • Previously established redirects – TECH, SEO and UX

A CMS (Content Management System) like WordPress will be able to change many of the references when a domain change is performed, but probably not all. While CSS files and images should get updated, internal links in the content pointing from one post (or page) to another will normally not be automatically updated. Plugins like Velvet Blues can help change these links quickly in bulk.

Note: At the writing of this article, Velvet Blues has not been updated in over a year, but still works with most WordPress installations at least up to 5.4.

Template Migration

Visual representation of a business is important, and sometimes the layout or elements of the website can seem stale by current standards. When this point is reached, a decision may be made to redesign the site template. While the concept of a template is normally applied to a CMS, it can also make a difference in homegrown sites and one-off installations.

Any time changes to a template are considered, there are many sections to look at. Each template is different but they commonly have these areas in common:

  • <head> code including CSS and JavaScript
  • Header area
  • Navigation
  • Main content
  • Related (internal linking) content
  • Footer
  • Inline scripting
  • Additional scripting before the </head> tag
Diagram of a template migration process

Each of these areas will have different links and associations within them, and those need to be paid attention to. The main thing to focus on is the removal or change of internal links – something like the removal of a link to an “About” page can have unforeseen consequences for SEO.

Things to Look Out For in a Template Migration

  • All meta and title tags are the same – SEO
  • Check all relevant CSS, JavaScript, and 3rd party scripting like Google Analytics – TECH, SEO
  • Include navigation that was already there, including the footer – adding new navigation is fine – TECH, SEO and UX
  • Keep the order of elements the same if SEO is working – if not, change the order of elements to try for new results – TECH, SEO

CMS Migration

Switching from one CMS to another, such as from Wix to WordPress, can present many challenges. The first is the actual process of migrating the content from one platform to another. The vast majority of CMS platforms have an export and import function, which help, but there can be hiccups along the way.

Wix to WordPress CMS Migration diagram

One of the challenges of switching to a new CMS is that the internal procedures you have for publishing and updating content will all have to change. This adds the additional cost of retraining employees on how to use the new system.

Things to Look Out For in a CMS Migration

  • When setting up the new platform, ensure that the paths (full URLs with folders) and any file extensions (*.html, *.asp, etc.) will be the same – TECH, UX and SEO
  • Exporting: include not only the textual content, but also media – TECH, UX and SEO
  • Import to the same folder names – TECH, UX and SEO
  • Validate all posts, pages, and media are in their correct places before going live with a crawler like Screaming Frog – TECH
  • Everything from Template Migration, since the new CMS will have a new template

Hosting Migration

Changing hosting providers may be a good idea if the benefits of the new host outweigh the possible cost of migration. Some of those benefits could be a lower yearly cost, faster computing power, or other added features like a user dashboard that gives more control over the server.

These can be the easiest migrations when performed correctly, and many hosting companies offer to transfer your site when you sign up with them.

Things to Look Out For in a Hosting Migration

  • Make multiple backups of the original website, database, and media – TECH
  • Website is connected to the database(s) – TECH
  • PHP and other language versions are the same, or compatible – TECH
  • Hosted scripts run properly – TECH
  • URL structure is the same – TECH and SEO
  • Media is served correctly –  TECH

Wrapping Up

Performing any one of these site migrations can cause headaches and downtime if not implemented properly, so be sure to have a plan in place before starting one. Before making the decision to migrate your website, be sure to weigh the pros and cons – if it is truly not necessary, perhaps it would be better to stay with your current solution.

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Jared Bauman

Jared Bauman is the Co-Founder of 201 Creative, and is a 20+ year entrepreneur who has started and sold several companies. He is the host of the popular Niche Pursuits podcast and a contributing author to Search Engine Land.