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How To Move Some Webpages
or Your Entire Website

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.


Tips for Changing Your URLs or Domain Name

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.

Checklist for Moving A Website

  • Start by making the content to be moved available at the new URLs, but block them from the search engines in your robots.txt file until you're ready. The search engines are always on the lookout for new content and you don't want them crawling your new URLs before you're ready. You don't want them to see malformed links or other errors that can cause needless problems for you down the line. I speak from experience here.

  • Test the new URLs to make sure they're responding properly. At the same time, be sure that the links on the "new" pages are updated to reflect the changed URLs. Automated tools like Xenu Link Sleuth can help sniff out bad links in your new domain or in a single directory. Web developer plug-ins for browsers like Firefox and Google Chrome can display a list of the links on any page, and that can help you see if your links are correct. If your business has moved, as I recently moved from San Francisco to Minneapolis, be sure all of the references to your business location have been updated. Once the new pages are installed properly at the new URLS, you can unblock them in your robots.txt file.

  • Set up 301 redirects for the old URLs pointing to the new URLs. This is a vital step, and one that you need to take care in doing properly. When you're changing your domain name or moving more than one directory of content, many experts suggest that it's better to move in batches (usually directory-by-directory). That's probably a good idea, but it's not always possible or practical.

  • If you can't install server 301 redirects, add rel=canonical tags to the pages at the old URLs pointing to the new ones. For more information, see my SEO Tips article on the rel=canonical tag.

  • If you're moving content within your website, be sure to update the XML Sitemap, if you use one, and your HTML sitemap for users… remember users? And be sure to update all of the internal links on your site to reflect the new URLs. A link checker like Xenu Link Sleuth can be an invaluable tool for checking the internal links for your website.

  • If you're changing your domain name or changing from HTTP to HTTPS, use the "Change of Address" form in the Google Webmaster Tools and Bing Webmaster Tools consoles to inform the search engines of the change directly.

  • Check the Google Webmaster Tools console and Bing Webmaster Tools to find links from other websites that are pointing to your old URLs. Then contact the webmasters of those sites, and ask them to update the links with your new URLs. Be sure to set up 301 redirects on individual URLs that have a lot of links pointing to them if you're just moving a few pages.

Installing Redirects on Apache Servers

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.

RewriteEngine On
RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} ^(www\.)?oldsite.com$
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ http://www.newsite.com/$1 [R=301,L]

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:

RewriteEngine On
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_URI} ^/old-directory/(.*)?$
RewriteRule ^/old-directory/(.*)$ http://www.yoursite.com/new-directory/$1 [R=301,L]

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.

Summary

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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