This article orginally appeared on Medium.
If you’ve had a website long enough, chances are at some point you’ll make a change to a new language, platform or domain name. I’ve done it a few times and, trust me, it can be a scary experience when your organic search engine rankings and traffic are at stake.
Making the move without negatively affecting the site’s rankings in Google is difficult, but can be significantly minimized.
Let’s look at a current client project as an example
I’m working with an entity that is trying to modernize its website that was built in Dreamweaver about 15 years ago. Over that time the site structure became bloated and chaotic, so it needs to be reorganized into something that is more user-friendly. In the process, my team is moving the site to WordPress to make it easier for the client to maintain.
These are issues we’ll face during this move
- The site contains about 80 pages of content. Some of the content will be removed, some of it will be merged with other pages and some of it will be reorganized into more logical categories. Shuffling content can wreck havoc on organic rankings.
- Moving the site from the .html files generated by Dreamweaver to the friendly URLs of WordPress means that ALL of the page URLs will be renamed.
- Did I mention we’re moving from a .com to a .gov domain?
This is an extreme example, but there have been standard practices that we can use to minimize ranking issues and have the new, optimized content indexed by Google as quickly as possible.
Creating 301 redirects is NOT enough
Thankfully, Google has a step-by-step walkthrough to help you through the site move. You have the option to choose between “Site moves without URL changes” and “Site moves with URL changes.” In our case, we’re changing every URL so we’ll follow that path.
Prepare the new site
- Setup a robots.txt file for the new site so that Googlebot only crawls relevant directories on your site
- Provide for deleted or merged content by using 404 or 410 error response codes for deleted content and 301 redirect codes for merged content. Google warns of redirecting too many URLs to one irrelevant page. In other words, if you’re deleting 10 pages of content that will not be used elsewhere on your new site, don’t just forward those old URLs to your homepage. Google may still treat those as a soft 404 error which will be worse for your rankings.
- Ensure correct Webmaster Tools settings
Make sure the old and the new sites are setup in the same Webmaster Tools account. Double check things like settings and disavow links on the old site to ensure they are transferred to the new site.
Important: In the case of new domain names, you’ll want to be sure there aren’t any left over issues from the previous owner, such as removed URLs or manual actions (penalties) from Google. You can check for these in Webmaster Tools.
- Setup analytics
If you have Google Analytics on your old site, consider creating a separate profile for your new site to get clean separation of the data. This will make it easier to compare the performance of each site.
Prepare a URL mapping
- Determine your current URLs
The Google help document lists several ways to get these URLs. It’s important that you get ALL of your URLs, not just the pages.
- Create a mapping of old to new URLs
Simply put, map every old URL to a corresponding new URL or error code.
- Update URL details
This includes setting rel=”canonical” meta tags for every page, referencing language and mobile pages where applicable, updating internal links, creating sitemaps and link lists.
- Setting up 301 redirects
You’ll work with your web server administrator to put the redirects in place from your mapping. Google recommends avoiding “chaining” redirects. In other words, don’t redirect a URL to another URL that has already has a redirect.Here’s a quick example:
– on the old site, there’s an existing 301 redirect from a.html to b.html
– the new site has a page b/ that takes the place of b.html
– you’ll create a 301 redirect for b.html to send traffic to the new b/ URLIf you leave the original redirect for a.html in place, Google (and other visitors) that try to visit a.html will be redirected to b.html and then redirected again to the new b/ page. Instead, update the a.html redirect to point directly to the new b/ URL.
Start the site move
- Initiate the site move
This step involves making updates to robots.txt files on both sites, launching 301 redirects and submitting a Change of Address in Google Webmaster Tools (where appropriate). Google wants you to submit sitemaps for both the old and the new site in Webmaster Tools. This is a good trick that helps Google’s crawlers discover all of your redirects to make a smooth transition.
- Update incoming links
these are links to your website from other sites including social profiles and ads. Where possible, contact site owners that have pages linking to your site and ask them to update their links to your new URLs.
Monitor the traffic
Use Webmaster Tools and any other tools available to you to check the indexing and traffic of your site. Over time you will see the indexed pages on your old site drop to zero, while the number of indexed pages on your new site rises. You’ll also want to check for errors that need to be corrected and ensure that traffic is coming in as expected.
Moving a website is never an easy task, but trust me when I say the time and effort it takes to do it the right way is nothing compared to the months and costs from lost traffic it takes to recover when you do it the wrong way.