It’s a common warning—replatforming or migrating your ecommerce site to a different backend commerce platform likely means taking a hit to your store’s search performance.
Basically ecommerce site replatforming and/or migration, if poorly executed, can negatively impact your site’s SEO presence and prominence in search results.
But there are things you can do to minimize the disruption, and most of these things, (while involving a level of technical know-how), follow some simple, common-sense rules.
Here, we’ll take a deep dive into the ins and outs of site migration, and look at site migration through the lens of SEO and maintaining your rankings.
Done right, a refresh of your site and restructuring of your ecommerce web presence can be done without a loss of SEO authority—and, in the long run, actually provide a valuable boost to your ability to rank. Great news if you’re migrating your ecommerce storefront to gain more flexibility.
Table of contents
- What is website migration?
- How does website migration affect SEO?
- Phase 1 of website migration
- Phase 2 of website migration
- Phase 3 of website migration
- Ecommerce migration SEO checklist
‘Site migration’ can be a loose term in writing about ecommerce. It can mean anything from a light-touch rebranding to a full-scale backend replatforming.
While any type of migration can disrupt your site structure and how your pages look, feel, and appear to Google, small-scale changes to your site will have much less of a disruptive impact on your SEO than a wholesale website change that involves URL and site structure alterations.
In this post, we’ll talk about how to preserve your SEO authority when moving your site from one place to another, whether that’s a domain name change or a complete migration of your backend platform as part of a move to a headless architecture.
Ultimately the advice and tips will be valuable regardless of the type of site migration you have planned.
But whatever scale of migration you’re doing, bear in mind that, while getting the technical things right is important when it comes to SEO, nothing beats great content and a fantastic customer experience—which we’ll cover too!
While there are a good deal of myths associated with a site migration, when you move from an old website to a new one, keeping the visibility and organic traffic that you’ve spent years building up is definitely important.
Site migrations can be complex processes, and if you’re not methodical about it, with a clear plan and roadmap to follow, you can lose your hard-won SEO credibility in an instant.
And once your store’s rankings take a hit, there’s no guarantee they’ll bounce back in the short term. Once lost, it can take months or even years to build back the authority you previously had.
Poorly executed site migrations can mean:
- Loss of authority: Google rewards sites with lots of traffic and lots of links from other authority sites. If you don’t get your migration right in the planning and launching phase, signposting your changes to Google in good time, the search engine can struggle to associate the authority your existing site has with your newly launched one. It requires proactive signals from you to get this right.
- Lower rankings: If your site authority slips, so do your page rankings. If your new site is hard to crawl or confusingly structured, Google will penalize you for this by awarding you a lower ranking in search results.
- Loss of visibility: If your rankings suffer, or your site is poorly mapped out in a migration, your potential customers won’t be able to find you as easily. And the fewer people who are served up your site in search, the fewer sales and conversions you have the chance to make.
To avoid these costly mistakes and preserve and even bolster your site’s SEO when migrating, you’ll want to follow the full, step-by-step guide on SEO site migration below. We’ll also provide an SEO checklist, with practical, actionable tips on how to get these SEO site migration steps right.
So let’s get into the details of how you should go about migrating your site to maximize your SEO potential.
Before you launch your new site, there are several things you need to have in place to ensure things go smoothly. Planning is the most important part of any site migration, and where Google is concerned, the more you can plan and map your changes, and make the search engine aware of said changes, the more SEO authority you’ll keep.
Set up Google Search Console
If you’re not already familiar with this, Search Console is afree product offered by Google that helps you monitor your site’s performance and detect errors. It’s an incredibly useful tool when trying to maximize your site’s SEO performance. It allows you to:
- Submit an XML sitemap
- Audit your new and existing site
- Crawl your new and existing site
- Show Google how to index your new site
- Become aware of any errors—unsuccessful redirects, broken links
Audit your existing site
Before you start creating and testing your new site, you should audit your existing site’s SEO to see how it’s performing. This will allow you to benchmark your current metrics and have something to compare your new site’s performance to (for benchmarking tools we recommend, see the SEO checklist below.)
As part of your audit, you should crawl your existing site to find all your indexable pages. A crawler is a bot that scans your pages to see if they are discoverable by Google. This is important as it will let you know which of your pages are currently active and need to be mapped to your new site. For more on indexing and crawling, see our SEO checklist.
Re-work your content if necessary
Re-launching your ecommerce site structure is a good time to take stock of how your content is working out for you. If you’re relaunching, you’re probably re-designing too, so it makes sense to optimize your content.
This is where you start to go beyond the technical aspects of SEO site migration, which is what will ultimately lead you to a higher standard of SEO.
Full-service ecommerce agency CEO, Isaiah Bollinger explains that content is a bigger driver of traffic than technical SEO:
“Google’s algorithm is constantly changing, so one thing [can] become less or more important over time…There are some basic, technical SEO things you can do (and that every website should prioritize to some level), but eventually, you get diminishing returns if you’re spending all your efforts on these tiny optimizations. At a certain point, you’re better off spending that time and money in other ways. Your brand is more important for SEO than trying to do everything perfect from a technical perspective” — Isaiah Bollinger, CEO of ecommerce agency Trellis
Building your brand with SEO in mind means concentrating on things like backlinks and the overall noise on the internet about your business.
Focus on keyword research and develop a strategy to ensure you’re optimizing for the right keywords. On the more technical side of getting your content right, it means building a site structure that’s intuitive and easy to navigate.
Try to put yourself in the mind of your customers: can they get what they need from your site quickly and easily? Are they having a good user experience while doing so?
To take an example: If someone is shopping for shoes, they want to see a ‘Shoes’ category, with clear subcategories like ‘Sandals’, ‘Running Shoes’, etc. These categories should be reflected in your page titles.
The page title should also come with a clear, simple meta description (e.g. ‘We sell men’s sandals’).
These page titles and meta descriptions display on Google in search results and will help guide your customers to where they want to go.
Isaiah adds “It’s about taking a common sense approach to thinking about who’s buying and what they want all the way from homepage to product page”
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Make a test site
When you’re designing your new site, you’ll need a testing environment, (often known as your staging environment) that’s invisible to search engines. This will allow you to experiment and make changes without impacting your SEO.
Your staging environment is where you test your URL redirects to make sure your new pages map correctly. Doing thorough testing here will flag any pages that haven’t redirected properly before you go live.
Make a sitemap
A good sitemap is the foundation of any successful migration. Your sitemap will consist of all the pages you want to be indexed by Google, and will set out:
- Site taxonomy: How your content will be structured. It should be logical and easy to understand, so search engines can easily see how your site is organized and visitors can easily navigate around it.
- URL structure: This is the site governance, or the rules by which your web pages are named. Your URLs should be easy to read and intuitive. They shouldn’t contain long strings of letters and numbers that won’t mean anything to visitors. Instead, use common sense rules to structure your URLs, with product pages nestled under categories or sub-categories.
When you make your sitemap, you will need to map all your existing pages onto your new pages. Audit all your existing pages to make sure you’ll be able to redirect them to new ones. Doing this in the planning phase and surfacing any issues early on will save you a lot of work later on in the process.
Your sitemap will be formatted in a special file called an XML sitemap.
You can make one manually or automate the process. If you have a substantial number of pages (i.e. more than a few dozen) you’ll want to automate.
If you do want to do it manually, it’s a relatively straightforward process that involves attaching a bit of HTML code to the names of your URLs. You can find a step by step guide here.
If you’re automating, Google provides this list of software that can generate it for you. Some of them are paid but there are plenty of free options on the list.
One of the most popular pieces of software on the list is Screaming Frog, which, while offering a premium service, has a free version which allows for up to 500 URLs. They have a guide on how to generate sitemaps here.
Isaiah says creating clean URLs is crucial, and that to optimize their structure, you should apply common sense:
“Some of it can be manually thought out and written by a person, some of it you [ideally] create rules around. Let’s say you have 100,000 products: you may need to have a rule because you wouldn’t want to manually create the URLs. But the rule might just be the name of the product as the page title”
Set up your redirects
Redirecting your pages is one of the most important technical SEO considerations to get right in site migration. For Google to understand your redirects, your new URLs should be as near identical to your old ones as possible.
This is because when Google tries to understand your new site, it will start at your old pages and follow the links from there.
It’s important that it can easily understand your new URL as the same page as your old ones, therefore preserving the authority and link equity associated with it.
As Isaiah shares, this will mitigate against a drop-off in traffic:
“In theory, if all your URLs are exactly the same, there shouldn’t be a drop-off because Google should just see the same site with the same site map. Everything should be identical from a URL perspective. Maybe the content will change, but that should be getting better if you’re doing a migration or redesign…When the URLs change dramatically, Google has to re-crawl the website and it can take Google a while to figure out the new structure.”
You should set up your redirects as 301 redirects to help Google with this task.
There are different ways to do this, and how you set up your redirects will depend on what type of web server you have. But it will most likely involve editing your .htaccess file.
Ahrefs has a how-to guide if you want to take on the task yourself, but as setting up your redirects as 301s is crucial for the maintenance of your ability to rank, you will want to coordinate with your hosting provider and technical teams.
When you’ve tested your site, verified your links, and are satisfied that your site is mapped properly, it’s time to launch!
This is when you submit your XML sitemap to Google, which you can do through the Search Console. You need to be happy with it when you submit, as this file is the map that tells Google everything it needs to know to make sense of your newly launched site. It tells Google that your new site is here, how its pages are linked together, and shows it all the pages it should be indexing.
On launch, you should also conduct live testing to make sure the redirects that worked in the lab are working in the real world.
After you’ve launched, the testing doesn’t stop! You need to constantly monitor your site’s SEO performance week over week and month over month following a migration.
In particular, you should keep an eye on how quickly Google is indexing your site’s pages, and how your keyword rankings are performing. Again, the best way to do it is to use Google Search Consoleby generating an Index Coverage Report.
Now you have an idea of the general process involved in maintaining your SEO during site migration, here’s our actionable SEO checklist to help you with some of the more granular technical details.
✅ Collect your benchmarks using Google Search Console
Before you move on to your new site, you need to audit your current one and benchmark your metrics. If you’ve set up Search Console already you can use it to perform your initial site analysis.
Key metrics to include are:
- Organic traffic
- Links from other sites
- Keyword ranking
You can find them by generating a performance report from the ‘Performance’ section in Search Console.
There are some other useful tools you can use to find out how you’re performing for the keywords you’re targeting.
Some of the best SEO tools are:
- Moz – Lets you perform keyword analysis, research, backlink analysis, rank tracking, and site audits. You can crawl your site with Moz Pro to uncover issues that are damaging your SEO. Pro pricing starts at $99 a month.
- SEMrush – Another powerful SEO tool with more of a focus on content marketing and a huge database of keywords that will help you better target your online marketing. Their Guru plan, aimed at SMEs, gives you access to their content marketing platform and is priced at $229.95 a month.
- Ahrefs– Also combines the ability to crawl and audit your site with keyword analysis tools. Their Advanced option, aimed at scaling brands, gives you access to their site explorer, which analyzes your site structure and HTML code. It’s priced at $399 a month.
✅ Set up regular crawling
You should crawl your new site to make sure it’s indexed properly, and schedule regular crawls for a period after your new site goes live.
This is to make sure any issues that crop up immediately after launch have been resolved, to catch new problems as they arise, and to monitor the indexing process.
You’ll need a ‘spider’—a tool that crawls your site. You can use it to check for issues that will block search engines from indexing your site – i.e. if your URL is blocked by a robots.txt file, returns an error code, or has another command blocking indexing.
You can also set it to check for other errors that affect SEO, like:
- Broken links
- Redirect chains and loops
- Duplicate content
There are a lot of good crawling tools, Screaming Frog offers one as part of its package and has a wealth of how-to guides that will walk you through the process.
You can crawl your whole site all at once or, for large sites, break the process down into more manageable chunks.
This is the best way to do it for ecommerce stores with thousands of product pages, it will reduce the risk of crashes and save memory space.
You can break down your crawl by:
- Uploading a list of URLs
✅ Double check your indexing
Indexable pages are pages that Google can access or see and index, which means they can serve them up in search results. So if your pages are non-indexable, they won’t show up to customers searching for products. To make your pages indexable, they need to:
- Be HTML pages
- Return a code 200 from the server
- Be without a noindex meta tag (which tells the crawler not to index the page)
- Be internally linked from your other pages
If you have a large number of pages, it will take time for Google to crawl them all, but you should check that your priority pages have been indexed soon after launch.
You can use Screaming Frog or another crawling tool to do this.
Most importantly, have a sitemap that is auto updated and in Search Console. The way you do this will vary depending on the sitemap generator you’ve used, so it’s best to check you’ve set it to auto update while you’re creating it.
✅ Set up and confirm your 301 redirects
If your existing pages have substantial authority from traffic and backlinks, and you don’t redirect them to new pages correctly, that authority can be lost. It also means your customers will struggle to find you. When they navigate to the old page they’ll get a 404 ‘page not found’ error code rather than being redirected to the new version of your URL.
Use 301 redirects, that tell Google the new URL is the same page as the old one, to preserve link equity and SEO authority.
After launch, check that your pages have been redirected properly and that your most important pages are not returning 404 errors.
There are a few different ways to check for 404 errors. For example, you could use your crawler to identify them. But the failsafe way to do it is to use the Search Console, as this will provide a list of every URL with a 404 error.
Go to Diagnostics → Crawl Errors, and click on the ‘Not Found’ tab to see the list.
✅ Ensure mobile-friendliness
Since 2020, Google has been using mobile-first indexing to index all websites. This means it uses a mobile web bot to crawl and index sites, so your site needs to be responsive to mobile layout.
Google now advises against using separate URLs for your mobile site.
Google has a checker that will tell you if your site is mobile friendly or not.
To make sure your site is optimized for mobile, make sure you:
- Use a responsive theme
- Compress your images
- Don’t use pop-ups on mobile
- Hide big images from mobile visitors
Google Search Console also offers a mobile usability report, so you can keep updated on your mobile performance. Go to the ‘Enhancements’ section and open the report from there.
✅ Set up Canonical tags
A Canonical tag (sometimes called rel=canonical) is a tiny bit of code in your page’s HTML that tells Google it is the master version of a page. This prioritizes the page in situations where multiple versions of the page exist.
Make sure your new pages have canonical tags and they are ‘pointing’ at the new page rather than the old one (i.e., are self-referential).
Optimize your content with a frontend platform
Getting your SEO right when migrating your site is a delicate balance of technical SEO and optimizing your content generally with on-page SEO (think: your store’s product meta titles and descriptions, along with how it’s structured on-page).
But while you’re working through the technical details, remember to apply common sense and try to see things from the point of view of your customers. They want to be able to quickly find what they’re looking for and enjoy the experience of browsing and buying from your store.
Overall, the site structure your customers will make sense of, is likely pretty intuitive to Google too.
If you’re re-working your content in search of higher rankings and a migration, it’s likely that full storefront flexibility is what you’re trying to achieve. For this, pairing a frontend platform with your new ecommerce backend can boost site speed, performance, and facilitate outstanding customer experiences. This, coupled with your content optimization and technical SEO work, can help you climb the rankings when you migrate your site.
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Rhys is a writer specializing in enterprise software, ecommerce, and SaaS. He describes himself as a geek and a wordsmith and relishes making complex, technical topics come to life in easy-to-understand web copy.