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Websites need to be updated over time, whether that’s because you’re rebranding or your design needs to keep up with current trends and standards.
But not all updates are as simple as a design facelift. There are certain circumstances that call for a site migration, like moving to another server, changing the CMS platform you’re using, changing your domain name or URLs, or overhauling your site’s architecture.
A common cause for concern is whether this migration will affect your current site rankings, something you’ve likely spent years building.
The short answer is: yes, if done wrong.
But it doesn’t have to be detrimental for your rankings in the slightest. This is something that we’ve done ourselves at Superb Digital for numerous clients. And there are specific processes to go through to make sure that it’s handled the right way.
First, understand that there are two types of domain migration: a straightforward one (e.g. same CMS, same URL structures) and a full website redevelopment (e.g. moving content, removing content, changing URLs). Knowing what you need to do dictates the steps you need to take.
The former only requires adding redirects from your old page URLs to the new one (if this is your case, jump to the 301 redirect step in this article). The latter, however, requires more nuanced steps to make sure your site rankings won’t take a hit.
In this article, we are going to take a look at the steps involved for both types of domain migration.
Crawl Your Old Website
If you’re moving to a new domain as part of a redesign or website restructure, it’s likely that you may want to take old pages down or change page URLs. You first need to crawl your old website to have a list of all your URLs. There are several tools you can use for this. I personally recommend Screaming Frog.
Once you’ve crawled your old site, you can have that side by side with your new website structure. Plan out which of the old URLs are relevant to the new structure and how they should be redirected. Ask yourself: what page should the old page redirect to on the new site?
If a page is being removed, then you may want to give it an alternative. This could be a straight replacement, the best alternative page (in case there’s no replacement), or the homepage.
Create a Spreadsheet of Your Old URLs
To make this process more organised, create a Google Sheet with all your old URLs and map them to your new URLs. This is really important, especially if you’re changing the URL structure of your website. But if it’s just a straight migration, then this might not be necessary, especially if you’re not changing the URL structure of your site.
Once you have all this in a spreadsheet, it’s easy to just create the code for the 301 redirects.
Code for 301 Redirects
As I said in the beginning, this process will depend on whether you’re doing a straight up migration or if this is part of a website redevelopment. Let’s break this down into two parts:
301 for a Straightforward Migration
If this is a straight up migration — you’re keeping the same CMS and the same URL structure, but you’re mapping it onto a new domain — then you can mitigate 99.9% of all the effects by adding redirects from your old page to the new one. In fact, if you’re doing a straight migration, a lot of this can be handled with a wildcard redirect.
A wildcard redirect (a.k.a. wildcard subdomain or catch-all subdomain) will allow you to forward your subdomains that you haven’t created yet to another page on your new website. Through a wildcard DNS record, any matching user request for a non-existent domain will be redirected to your new website.
301 for a Full Website Redevelopment
If your domain migration is part of a full website redevelopment, start with crawling your old website and creating a spreadsheet of all your URLs.
Once you’re done with those, the code for 301 redirects with the help of a few tools. A pro version of the Yoast plugin comes with a 301 redirect function. You can also use another plugin called Redirection for WordPress which can pick up any 404 errors.
If you’re doing a website redesign, you just have to map that old URL to the best equivalent. If it doesn’t have the best equivalent anymore, then redirect it to the homepage.
Note that some plugins will not pick up 404 errors so it’s important to get these redirects right in the first place. This is something that we see quite a lot. Only recently did we have a client go away and redesign their website without any 301 redirects in place. The first we heard about it was when they called us up to say their rankings had tanked. Fortunately, we managed to catch it early and gave them a list of redirects to fix it.
Set it up on Google Search Console
After your 301 redirects, put them into your .htaccess file on your old domain.
When your new site is launched, go to Google Search Console, then set up a new property for the new domain. This will tell Google that the old domain is migrating to the new one. When Google bots crawl your old domain or somebody tries to access old URLs either from the browser address bar or from the search engines, then they will be redirected to the correct page on the new domain. It’s as simple as that.
Make sure that you triple check your redirect work. In fact, I would keep doing this, especially in the early days to make sure that everything is working as you’d expect.
Keep an Eye on Broken Backlinks
It’s also worth looking at those old URLs and seeing if any backlinks are coming to them using backlink checkers like Ahrefs or Semrush. This will help you minimise any broken inbound backlinks that you’re going to get.
Remember that a backlink pointing to a 404 page on your site will have no value to you. These are the ones that are going to have the most weight in terms of your site rankings. So keep an eye on those and make sure the redirects work when you find them.
Run a Technical Site Audit
Lastly, make sure you run the necessary checks across the new domain through a technical site audit. This will give you peace of mind that there are no broken internal links.
It can be the case where you might have an internal link buried within the content that uses an absolute URL which then links to the previous domain. If the redirects are not in place, then that will break. A site audit will pick up on these and will tell you which links you need to fix.
Should You Expect a Drop in Rankings?
It depends. Sometimes, if you have keywords in your old domain that are no longer in your new domain name, that could give you a drop in rankings. Conversely, if you have a keyword in your new domain that your previous domain didn’t have, then you can potentially see a positive result.
Moving to a new domain is not as big of a ranking factor as it used to be. As long as your content hasn’t changed in a huge way, then it’s not going to drastically change your rankings.
While it’s likely that you’re going to see some turbulence for a week or two, this should be short lived. It’s best to schedule your migration during a slow time of the year. For instance, an e-commerce site shouldn’t be doing this before or during the holiday season when there’s an influx of customers.
Follow the Process
Moving to a new domain is actually quite straightforward as long as you follow the process. It doesn’t have to have a huge impact on your rankings and could even pave the way to a higher spot on the SERPs — if you do it right.
The process may be simple, but if you skip a step or you miss a redirect, you’ll see a drop in your rankings that you might not be able to recover. If you’re moving your site to a new domain, then book a free strategy call with us today and we’ll make sure your site migration goes smoothly without affecting your rankings.