When to Involve SEO in your Site Migration Strategy

01.30.19 // Carly Schoonhoven

When you hear about site migrations that went wrong, they usually have one thing in common: the SEO team was not alerted in time for a proper site migration strategy to be put in place.

At this point it should be common knowledge that SEO is critical when going through a site migration, it’s been written about plenty (If you still don’t know, Obility wrote about it here and here). So why do SEO professionals still struggle with getting the proper notice from their clients?

A big part of the reason site migrations continue to cause issues is the way we communicate about them. Not all site migrations are the same, and different types require different strategies that take varying amounts of time to put together. In spite of that, we continue to talk about site migrations as if they are all one and the same.

By establishing a shared understanding of the different types of site migrations, the different types of strategies those types might require, along with the amount of time it might take an SEO to put that strategy together, we can make sure your next site migration doesn’t result in a horror story.


Defining Site Migrations

The term ‘site migration’ is used by SEO professionals to describe a wide variety of website projects. Broadly speaking, a site migration is, “…any event whereby a website undergoes substantial changes in areas that can significantly affect search engine visibility — typically changes to the site’s location, platform, structure, content, design, or UX.”

The key point to notice here is that this is the definition used by SEO professionals. To the average person, a change to a site’s platform, navigation, or messaging might not fall under their personal definition of a site migration.

Jono Alderson talks about this differing definition in a great blog post for Moz. Jono proposes that if we can address the gaps in our stakeholders’ knowledge by educating them about the different types of site migrations, we have a better chance of being involved earlier in the process moving forward. Like Jono says, “by challenging the language, we can challenge the thinking.”

Defining the types of migrations is the first step. We need to take this a step further by communicating not just the difference in types, but also the amount of warning your SEO needs to properly help you prepare for that type. So let’s get started!


The Five Types of Site Migrations

Obility groups the types of site launches into five main categories. Some SEOs choose to separate these types out slightly different, but these categories are generally agreed upon and cover all of the types you are most likely to come across.


1: New Site Location

url structure example

A site location change can involve a domain name change, a protocol change (like moving from HTTP to HTTPS), a top-level domain change (e.g. .com to, or moving/merging parts of the site (for example, moving a blog from a subdomain to the main domain).

When Should You Involve an SEO?

When changing a site’s location, it is important to involve SEO early on in the process as this often involves structural and branding changes as well. Whenever URL structure is changed, redirects need to be put into place as well.

If changing your site’s location, I recommend starting work with an SEO professional around 2 months ahead of time. For an especially large site, or if other changes are being made as well, more time may be necessary.


2: New CMS/Backend

Moving to a new CMS (for example, migrating from Drupal to WordPress) can lead to other design, functionality, and URL changes based on the technical limitations of different platforms. Integrating different platforms or upgrading to a new platform version can sometimes require an SEO strategy as well.

When Should You Involve an SEO?

When changing your site’s backend, one month will generally be sufficient time to put a strategy in place. However, if CMS change requires URL or design changes as well, 2 months or more could be required.


3: New Site Architecture/Template Changes

Changes to your site hierarchy, navigation, or page structure can affect your sites internal linking structure, and change the user journey. SEO should be involved early on to help ensure the new structure is compliant with SEO best practices.

When Should You Involve an SEO?

For site navigation changes, involving an SEO about a month ahead of time should be sufficient.


4: New Design/UX

Design changes can vary from a minor look and feel changes to major changes to messaging, media, and code.

When Should You Involve an SEO?

The timing for design/UX changes depends on the extent of the changes. For minor look and feel changes, a week of notice may be sufficient. If messaging is changing substantially, new keyword research and content recommendations may be needed which will likely require a month or two of prep. If major changes are being made to code as well, more time will be needed.


5: Acquisition

Although an acquisition can trigger a variety of other site migration types, Obility separates it out due to the unique type of migrations that often accompany an acquisition. One example is an organization consolidating an acquired business’s website into its own. Two sites merging together is also a common result of an acquisition.

When Should You Involve an SEO?

When merging two sites or consolidating an old site into a new one, there are many potential SEO risks. A well-prepared SEO strategy can help make sure the content is moved over properly, and all redirects are put into place. Allow at least two months for this strategy.


Bonus: Any Possible Combination!

It is important to understand that most site migrations will be a combination of several different types. For example, a client might take advantage of a CMS migration to also make UX changes. It is important to get clarity on exactly what changes are being made.

These timelines are meant to be a general guide. The exact amount of time needed to properly prepare for a site migration depends on the scope of the changes as well as the size of the site. When in doubt, ask your SEO manager for advice, or reach out to Obility today.


Questions to Ask Before a Site Migration

Because site migrations often involve a combination of different types of site changes, it is important to get clarity from all stakeholders on what the site migration entails. Here are some questions you should ask to get started:

  • Are you launching a new site any time soon?
  • Are you doing a redesign?
  • Are you changing your site structure? Navigation?
  • Are you changing hosts?
  • Are you switching to a new CMS?
  • Are you changing domains?
  • Have you updated to HTTPS? Are you planning to?
  • Are you removing any content from the site?
  • Are you planning on changing your messaging as part of the site launch?

If you get answers to these questions early on you can help make sure your strategy goes well.


SEO is Part of Successful Site Migrations – From the Beginning

We all know the dangers of not having an SEO strategy for a site migration. By alerting an SEO professional at the right time, and communicating exactly which type of site migration you are planning, you can make sure your next migration doesn’t become a horror story.


SEO Site Migration Strategy Infographic

About Carly Schoonhoven

Carly Schoonhoven is a Senior SEO Manager at Obility. As a member of the inbound marketing team, Carly drives SEO strategies to grow organic traffic and build backlinks for her clients. In her spare time, you can find her doing karaoke. View all Carly Schoonhoven’s posts >