SEO Best Practices When Moving a Web Site

  |  December 16, 2009   |  Comments

How to move your site to a new domain and remain on the search engines' radar.

When moving a Web site to a new domain, the primary objective is to make the transition seamless to users and search engines alike. It's important that the search engines receive the same quality score signals as the pages shift from old to new domains.

Test the relocation process by moving the contents of one directory or subdomain first. Then use a 301 permanent redirect map to transfer authority from your old Web pages to your new destination online. This tells the search engines that your site has permanently relocated and that old URLs indexed by the engines should be replaced by the new URLs that will eventually encompass the new site.

There are several options for producing the 301 map. You can crawl the site with Xenu or GSiteCrawler and then pattern match each old URL to its new URL, assuming you have already set the URI patterns in stone. Another way to get started is to download the pages indexed by the three engines, deduplicate the indexed URLs listed, and then pattern match the URLs of the indexed listings to their equivalents on a one-by-one basis.

Once the 301 mapping is in place, you should audit indexation levels to ensure that the pages on the new site are appearing in Google, Yahoo, and Bing search results. Web CEO or Rank Checker can help verify that rankings have been passed along to the new URLs. When you're satisfied that the test went well and all freshly moved pages are working correctly, you can schedule a series of staged releases for moving the rest of your site's content.

It's not in your best interest to just do a blanket redirect of all old URLs to the home page of the new site. You really want to avoid producing any volume of 404 errors that could produce a poor user experience and signal the engines that your site isn't healthy or cared for. Page-by-page redirects, where each page on the old site gets redirected to the corresponding page on the new site, is a lot more work, but doing so provides search engine spiders and users with a consistent and transparent path to the new site location. If there aren't one-to-one page matches between the old and new site, try to make sure that every page on the old site is at least redirected to a new page with similar content.

Also, it's a good idea to check internal links within the old site and update them to point to the new domain. Once the content is in place on the new server, use a link checker like Xenu to ensure there aren't any broken legacy links on the site. This is especially important if the original content included absolute links instead of relative links. Depending on the content management system (CMS), it's relatively easy to use the "find and replace" feature to change internal linking structures. If not, you can use freeware like Text Replace to make the changes.

Add the new site to each of your Webmaster Tools accounts and verify your ownership of the new domain. That way, when you are ready for relaunch, you can readily create, validate, and submit XML sitemaps listing the URLs for the new site. At the same time, you can take down existing XML sitemaps that include URLs that have been redirected. Doing so will help send another strong signal to the search engines that the old content is now available at a new location. The same holds true for any product feeds to shopping engines.

You'll want to keep both the new and old sites verified in Webmaster Tools for a certain amount of time. Doing so allows you to review crawl errors regularly to ensure that the 301s from the old site are working properly and that the new site isn't showing unwanted 404 errors. To prevent confusion in the engines, retain control of the old site domain for at least four to six months. It takes approximately one to three months before the content's previous rankings stabilize in Google, Yahoo, and Bing. Limit duality as soon as you see that the old domain's authority has been transferred to the new domain.

Check external links to pages on the old site. The most accurate listings can be downloaded from Webmaster Tools accounts with Google, Yahoo, and Bing. Ideally, the Webmaster of each site that links to yours should be contacted with a request to update the links pointing to the new pages on your new domain.

If this isn't practical, which it often isn't, target the top referring links. Review the analytics for the top 200 to 300 domains sending traffic to the old pages and contact as many Webmasters as possible about changing their links. Or review Yahoo Site Explorer links to the old site. Because Yahoo tends to show more important links first, Webmaster contact can be prioritized in a nearly optimal order.

Remember to write a post in the Google Groups Webmaster Central forum, indicating the sites are moving and why it's being done, in the hopes that doing so will help Google recognize the new domains are legitimate.

Also, monitor rankings for the content, comparing old to new over time. If site rankings appear to drop and not rebound in two weeks or so for the new sites, post an update in your original thread at Google Groups with details about the specific shifts that are problematic. Ideally, ranking reports for targeted keywords and phrases should be benchmarked for at least three months prior to the site moves so rankings can be closely monitored as search referral traffic and conversions.

Launch the new site in tandem with a media and online marketing blitz. The goal is to get as many new inbound links pointing quickly to the new content and attract a high number of branded search referrals for the new sites at the same time. Doing so will help rebuild the link authority of the new site. Other support strategies include, but are not limited to:

  • Buy ads for any brand related queries or keywords that you feel your site must rank for during the site transitions.

  • Produce press releases about the new site launch.

  • Unleash a series of e-mail marketing promotional campaigns and/or contests and promotions.

  • Unleash a social media blitz in Twitter, Facebook, etc.

  • Update all business card contact information, Web addresses, e-mail signature lines, etc.

Summary

Moving a Web site is never easy, but if you take a phased approach and complete at least one trial run you will be better prepared to overcome any search engine obstacles. That way, design and development resources can be efficiently allocated and it will be much easier to diagnose any potential issues, should they arise. Unfortunately, no one can just flick a switch with the search engines to let them know the sites have moved to new destinations. At the very least, the SEO (define) best practices recommended here can be implemented to help make the transitions as trouble free as possible.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

P.J. Fusco

P.J. Fusco has been working in the Internet industry since 1996 when she developed her first SEM service while acting as general manager for a regional ISP. She was the SEO manager for Jupitermedia and has performed as the SEM manager for an international health and beauty dot-com corporation generating more than $1 billion a year in e-commerce sales. Today, she is director for natural search for Netconcepts, a cutting-edge SEO firm with offices in Madison, WI, and Auckland, New Zealand.

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