Webmasters often face the problem of having to move some pages in their website,
or moving the entire site to a new domain name. Sometimes the goal is to restructure the site
so that the URLs are more user or search engine friendly, and sometimes the website's current domain
name has to be changed because the name of the business has changed Both of those situations mean that the
URLs of the website's content will be changing, and requires some consideration of how that will affect your site's
position in the search engines. This SEO Tips article shows you the steps you should take before you change your
domain name, or move any pages within your site to help maintain your search engine rankings. This process
also has implications for your users, of course, but this article is primarily concerned with how
best to deal with moving content in a search engine friendly manner.
Whenever you move content to a different URL, it will take some time for the search engines to absorb the changes. They know where your site's content is now, but you need to give them the strongest signals that you can that you've moved the content to new URLs and that it's not just a transient problem with your website. Otherwise, the trust and link value that you've worked so hard to build will seem to evaporate, at least for a time, and the transition to the new URLs will be slow and painful. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, at the start, the search engines might see identical pages on your site and begin to filter one of them - the so-called "duplicate content" filter (there is no overt penalty for occasional duplicate content). If the wrong page gets filtered in this process, it can disrupt the flow of link values through your site and impair your rankings. The search engines calculate this value on an ongoing basis, and so it can take quite some time for them to figure things out as your URLs change - especially if you don't give them some guideance. Second, by the same token, you want to capture the value of any links that point to the old URLs that you are changing. To make this process as painless as possible, you need to do some preparation.
If the server that hosts your site uses Apache server software, then you can use a server control file called ".htaccess" to install the 301 redirects for moving your content. This file is a simple text file that the server will always check before serving any content from your site. The syntax can be a bit difficult for inexperienced webmasters, so I've included a couple of examples. The first example is for moving your entire site to a new domain name. Change the text below to reflect your situation: change "oldsite.com" to your old domain name, and "newsite.com" to your new domain name. If you want your site indexed without the "www." subdomain prefix, simply remove it from the last line.
If you're just moving content to a new directory, you can use the example code below, but again changing it to reflect the directory names on your website:
The .htaccess file supports versatile pattern matching for redirects using what's called Regular Expressions, but that's beyond the scope of this article. If the changes to the URLs are more complicated than a simple domain or directory name change, then you should consider using these more sophisticated methods. Many freelance web developers are available to handle a job like this for a modest fee, including me (see the link above).
If your website is hosted on a server that relies on Microsoft IIs software, then you should contact your hosting service for help. Insist that they use 301 redirects. IIs software seems to rely heavily on 302 redirects and that's not suitable for this task. Again, freelancers can help you here if your hosting service doesn't offer help with your move.
Moving your content to a new web address does require careful attention to details so that neither your users nor the search engines have any difficulty in finding what your site has to offer. It can take weeks or even a couple of months for the search engines to accomodate the changes I've discussed here. It depends on how many pages you have on your website and how deeply linked they are. Be prepared for a period of time where your site doesn't perform as well as it used to. If your business has a busy season, like Christmas or Mother's Day, or if your website focuses on a local event, like the Minneapolis Aquatennial, it's best if you can delay the deployment of major changes to your site until after that season has passed, or push it forward to at least a month before it begins. You can count on the search engines continuing to attempt to crawl your old URLs for as long as there are links somewhere on the web that point to them, and often years beyond that. So be prepared to maintain your redirects for a very long time.
In the end, the process boils down to being fully prepared for the changes when you move the content of your website before deploying them and making them available to the public and the search engines. Once you do deploy your changes, take care to properly redirect everyone to the new location. It doesn't have to be a traumatic process as long as you do everything carefully and take the necessary steps to accomodate the search engines. Google has published an article on this topic: Best Practices When Moving Your Site. It gives step-by-step advice for sites of different sizes and structures. Check it out.
This page was last updated on February 26, 2015
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