If you casually ask an SEO how to redirect traffic to a new site, you can expect at least an eye twitch. If you announce out of the blue that your site is moving to a new domain, expect serious gnashing of teeth and possibly warnings of doom and destruction for your organic search presence. For an SEO, this is the stuff of nightmares.
While there can eventually be tremendous benefits if the site has made improvements that will increase conversions, an improperly managed site migration can take your site back to ground zero in terms of organic indexing and visibility. Despite the downsides for SEO, site moves and massive redesigns happen frequently.
It is important for the mental health of your SEO team that you provide them with adequate time to prepare for the transition to help mitigate loss of traffic, rankings and link authority. Get your SEO team involved early in any plans which involve a) moving to a new domain b) any site redesign which involves changing URLs. This includes any update which involves changing file extensions (i.e. .asp to .php).
Steps to Move a Website
- Debate the need for changing the domain. If the change isn’t mandated, seriously weigh the pros and cons. If the domain must be changed, evaluate the new domain. Does it have any existing authority or age? Check its backlink profile to be sure its history doesn’t include serious negatives (like a previous life as an adult oriented site).
- Map your existing site. Use a crawler like Screaming Frog to accurately capture all the URLs on the site along with the existing titles and meta data.
- Identify critical pages for organic traffic and conversions. Provide analytics data to the Web design team and make sure these pages stay intact with as little changes as possible to content, calls to action and meta data.
- Identify pages with the most links on your site. Use your favorite link tool or Google Webmaster Tools. Take some time to understand who links to these pages and why. Be prepared to fight to keep these pages on the site and help the Web development team understand the type of content needed to generate links.
- Loop in the paid search team. Provide a list of changing URLs to the paid search team so they can update destination URLs at launch. Ensure the PPC team is notified well in advance of changing URLs, page content and the launch date.
- Develop page to page redirects. Create a spreadsheet with the old URLs matched up to the best new URLs on the site and walk your developers through setting up SEO friendly 301 redirects. If possible, test these in staging.
- Ensure all analytic tags are on the new site prior to launch to avoid losing critical performance data. At launch, update the URLs of any goals you already have set up in analytics. Don’t forget to annotate site changes in Google Analytics.
- Generate and submit an XML sitemap to Google and Bing.
- Let everyone know you’ve moved. Send a press release to help the engines find your new site. Contact your most important link partners and ask them to update your URL. Take time to log in to accounts at major directories such as Yahoo! and update your URL. Update the URLs on social media profiles, such as on your Facebook info page. Don’t forget about email signature lines and print docs.
- Keep the old domain live until the new site has been completely indexed and you see that link authority and rankings have transferred. The timeline on this process varies. Dumping the old domain before the engines have had a chance to process the change is not recommended.
The tasks above will add to your development timeline, but they can help avoid major losses in organic traffic. They will also help your SEO team sleep well at night.