Free hosting services provide the aspiring webmaster with the
opportunity to build their first web site without making a financial commitment.
But free hosting service comes with some baggage that usually includes having
advertisements inserted into your web pages and limited services and without
access to tools such as the Apache .htaccess server control file, PHP or ASP scripting,
or access to a domain control panel. With paid hosting so cheap now, the lure of moving a site
to a conventional paid web host is stronger than ever, but you will be leaving your old site's search
engine ranking behind if you don't take steps to preserve it when you move.
There are two factors you must keep in mind whenever you move your web site. The first is the link popularity. It's one of the most valuable assets of your original site and you certainly don't want to leave it behind. The second is duplicate content issues. The natural tendency is to simply transfer the identical web pages to the new host, but you can run into duplicate content problems as long as the original site on the free host remains in the search engines. Fortunately, there is only one thing you need to do in order to deal with both of these issues.
For more than five years now, the search engines have supports an HTML tag that lets you specify the canonical URL of any page. This is now the best way to tell the search engines where to find the new location of a page when you cannot set up a server response code 301 redirect. See my SEO Tips article on how to Specify Your Canonical URL for details. The balance of this article discusses the <META> refresh tag, which is still a method of automatically sending users to the correct page when you've moved a website and can't use a 301 redirect. But you should always use the rel="canonical" tag as well to insure that the search engines understand your intent when you use a <META> refresh tag.
You need to make it clear to both search engines and users that your website has left the original location on the free host and moved to a new URL. In the case of a conventional host, this is done by using server controls to issue what are known as HTTP code 301 redirects. If the host uses Apache web server software, these redirect commands are controled through the .htaccess file. If the host uses Microsoft IIs server software, the site control panel can handle the job. But free hosting services normally leave users without access to these controls. So the question remains, how to handle this situation. One answer is the much-maligned Refresh <META> tag.
The Refresh <meta> tag lets you issue a command - well, more of a suggestion - to the user's browser to move to a new web page after a specified delay period. It was once a tool of search engine SPAMmers who would use them on keyword-stuffed "doorway" pages to lure search engine traffic. The problem reached a level where the search engines started to penalize sites for using this <meta> tag. But it is sometimes the only tool available, such as on a free host where you cannot issue server redirect commands. It goes in the <head> section with the other <meta> tags.
NOTE: Google now strongly discourages webmasters from using <meta> Refresh tags for redirects. They still generally accept them, but you should do your best to avoid them and only use them on a page-to-page basis.
The structure of the Refresh <meta> is very simple:
There are three pieces of information that you need to deal with here. The first is the "http-equiv" attibute that you need to set to "refresh", and the "content" attribute that consists of two parts - (1) the delay (in seconds) before the browser should move to the target URL and, (2) the target URL itself. The target URL is, of course, the key. You want the search engines to know that the page has been moved.
You need to install a Refresh <meta> tag (and a rel="canonical" tag!) on every page that was on the original host. If the same page exists in the new site, then by all means set the target URL in the content attribute to the URL of that identical page. If the page does not exist in the new site, then just set it to the root URL of the new site on the new host, but only as a last resort. This will not only update the search engine index in terms of the page content, it will also (over time) transfer the link popularity.
As an added precaution to insure that the old pages are not penalized, you need to strip them completely of the original content, leaving only a message to users (you remember users, don't you?) notifying them of the move and including a plain HTML link to the new site using the same URL that you used in the Refresh <meta> tag. Something like:
And change the page <title> tag to simply the name of the site, with no additional keywords.
There is a tool in Google's Webmaster Tools console that allows you to tell them that you are moving your site to a new domain. This should help smooth out the transition, so that the dip in rankings that almost all sites experience when changing their domain name is minimized. You'll find this tool in the "Site Configuration" section, labeled "Change of Address". Once again, however, this tool only helps in Google, so you'll still want to use the <meta> Refresh or 301 redirect when moving to a new domain name to accomodate the other search engines.
Moving a website is always a difficult task, and you want to preserve all of the hard work you've put into the site in the past. Using this simple approach will help insure that your site will continue to thrive in the search engines. Keep in mind that you will probably have a substantial drop in your rankings until the search engines completely absorb the changes you've made. You should do your best to ask anyone who is linking to your old site to update the URL to the new site. And redouble your link building efforts to build your site's ranking strength.
This SEO Tip by Rainbo Design was last updated on April 25, 2016
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