When you move a website in a way that will change the URLs of the pages, it is important to ensure that search engines and other traffic to your site can follow the old URLs to the new URLs or:
- visitors to your site, either through bookmarks or links on other sites, will find broken links and probably leave your site;
- links set up to help with your search rankings will be broken and lose their value; and
- your pages themselves will lose out on any ranking they have on search engines.
There are a number of ways and reasons to move your site:
- If just moving to a new host, but keeping the domain and site exactly the same with no change in URLS you shouldn’t have any change in URLs and you shouldn’t have any issues with pages indexed by search engines or bookmarked by visitors. To keep your rankings on search engines, ensure that there is no change to the spiders access with the new hosting.
- If moving to a new content management system (CMS) it is likely that the redeveloped site will have a different URL naming structure and this is when you have to take action to avoid a drop in rankings and visitors getting the dreaded “Not Found” error page.
- If rebranding and changing the domain of your site, it’s likely that you will want the old pages to redirect to the new domain.
- You may also decide to change the URLs of your pages to something more user or search engine friendly — i.e. www.yoursite.com/pages1.html to www.yoursite.com/move-a-website.html. The new name may be more search engine friendly, but you need to ensure that the search engines can follow the old url to the new url to keep any ranking you already have and to avoid dead links.
I find that most website owners do not consider these issues when deciding to move a site and that there are still a number of web developers that don’t know how to minimise the impact.
You can never be sure that such changes will not effect your search rankings, but there are a number of things you can do to get the best result possible:
- Even if using a new platform or CMS for your site, try to keep the URLs the same. This is an important consideration before chosing a new platform for your website. In WordPress you can use ‘Permalinks’ to indicate how you want the URLS to be formed. The normal page structure is www.yoursite.com/?p=64 but in the Permalinks settings you can change it to use a more search engine friendly structure, like www.yoursite.com/move-a website/. There are plugins where you can customise the url to include “.html” (www.yoursite.com/move-a-website.html) so that you could have the URLs match your static site after the changeover. If there are a lot of pages on your site you’d probably want to hire a developer that can write a program that can take care of this for you, but there still may be a lot of inputting to do manually.
- Add “301 redirects” to your .htaccess file. The .htaccess file sits in the root directory of your website and provides the server with information on your site, like passwords and how to handle file requests. In this file you can indicate with a file should redirect to another and also if the file has been removed permanently. A “301 Redirect” provides information that one url has permanently moved to a new url.
- If you are using a CMS, like WordPress, there should be a plugin or add-on that will help you do this easily. I use the Redirection plugin for my WordPress sites, but in the past manually added the code to the .htaccess file. Click here for step by step instructions on manually creating 301 redirects.
- When using 301 redirections take care to do a few then check they are working properly to avoid redirections to the wrong location or a never ending loop of redirections that brings a your nowhere.
- After your site is moved, use Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics to see if visitors are getting error pages and update your redirections acording.
- If you have URLs on your existing site that are ranking well on Google, proper redirects will help to bring some of that value to the new URL. There is a question of how much of the value is passed to the new URL, but it’s definitely a great benefit to set up the redirects.
- Don’t be tempted to redirect all the pages from the old site to the homepage of the new site alone. It’s better for visitors and search engines if you redirect to the relevant page on the new site. If you weren’t using search engine friendly URLs on the old site, take this opportunity to use them on the new site.
- Create a great “404 Page Not Found” page in case visitors do still use an old URL. Apologise and explain that you are in the process of moving the website. Include a search box and/or a link to your site map so visitors can find what they were looking for more easily. You can also use this page to include links to the sales pages of your site to try to get better conversion.
- Use Google Webmaster Tools “Change of Address” when you are moving from one domain to another. This needs to be done in addition to the 301 redirections to get the best result. You need to have the new site in place and verify ownership, before you can do this. Click here to learn more about Google Webmaster Tools.
- Contact all of the sites that have the old links to your site, notify them of the change and request that they update their links to your website. While you are at it, check if the link text used is the best for you — i.e. “Online Marketing by Ann Donnelly” vs “www.annonline.com” — and if not, ask them if they can update the link text to something more relevant while making that update.
- Promote and Advertise the new domain name (if that’s the case) through your usual marketing channels – online and offline – to be sure that people are aware of the change. Use it as a PR opportunity.
Please note that you should do ALL of these things together to get the best possible result. Only doing one of these will probably not do enough.
Don’t take down the old site until the old URLs are no longer showing on the internet. It can take a few months for search engines to pick up on these changes completely — picking up on new URLS and dropping old URLs — so plan accordingly.