An SEO’s Guide to a Painless Website Migration
It can be a daunting and scary experience to migrate a website to a new server or web host, especially when sites are extremely large and require some significant amounts of additional time planning the migration. Even with the best intentions and exhaustive planning, some things can still go wrong. A website migration is one of those things that can be very costly as a result of a few mis-steps in the planning process. Luckily, there are ways to plan around such issues and ensure that your website migration experience is a good one that does not cause any significant rankings loss in the SERPs.
So now the time has come. You have a brand-spanking new server or web host that you wish to move your website over to. With all of the SEO that you have performed on your website, you’re developing a nervous twitch about the rankings you have gained. You have no idea how to migrate a website to a new server to ensure that rankings remain secure without any lasting effects on your SERP results. Thankfully, there are quite a few things that you will want to consider doing to ensure that transferring a website over will not harm your rankings (or your conversions).
A framework for site migrations
Here are a few steps and items to keep in mind for a successful website migration that will have very little impact on your rankings, AND conversions:
1. 301 Redirects And Your URL Structure
First of all, check all of your 301 redirects and your URL structure. If you are changing your URL structure, it’s important to itemize all of your existing URLs and map out any changes that might occur. This is especially true if you are going to change your domain name.
- Do you know if you currently have any 301 redirects or you are not entirely sure you don’t have any? Check your .htaccess files for all 301 redirects to ensure that your current 301 redirects remain the same on the new server.
- Are you also changing over to a new domain name? This will take awhile and is not a quick fix depending on how many redirects you have and how many internal links you have, as well as how they’re structured. Are you using absolute URLs instead of relative URLs? Absolute URLs (http://www.domainname.com/file.html) will take a lot of work to change.
Are you working on a behemoth 10,000 page website where all of your URLs are linking to pages like that instead of just page.html (relative URL)? There are still some interesting ways around this.
You CAN use find and replace in order to replace all of these URLs. But, it’s still a mountain to climb when you’re doing these manually. So, use something like Mass ReplaceIt for Mac (or similar program for PC) in order to replace all of these lines in hundreds and sometimes thousands of files in a couple of clicks automatically. Using a program like this you will be able to make many URL changes across a large number of pages in a few seconds. But, while some automation is fine, you need to go through manually and check every URL. It’s always a good idea to ensure that all URLs are going to where they are supposed to go. You don’t want to have a new website launched on a new server that has mis-directed URLs from your most valuable authority pages.
Check your robots.txt files for any directives that you want to port over to the new server. Ensure that any absolute URLs are changed over to the new domain name. If you don’t have a new domain name, then you don’t have to worry (much) about this since most of this is going to take place automatically.
3. On Site Links
Once you have considered all of the server fundamentals above, and that they are in place, you want to ensure that you are not going to lose rankings for any of your on page stuff. By that, this means going through all of your pages manually to ensure that all absolute URLs are going to the correct pages. To do this, you can use a tool like Xenu Link Sleuth or Screaming Frog, in order to check all URLs on your site to ensure accuracy of these links.
Once all of these factors in place have been changed and modified as necessary, transfer your files over from your computer to your new server. Ensure ALL files have been transferred by double checking and triple checking your FTP. This is important. If you have any content pages missing, this will have a negative effect on any keywords you may have gained rankings for on your previous server.
4. Ensure that you know of all of your valuable pages
It’s important to ensure that you run a report to find out which of your pages are the most valuable from an inbound link perspective. You have to be in a position to watch the SERPs to ensure that any of your most valuable pages are not missing and don’t provide errors for long periods of time. This can have a serious, detrimental effect on any page rankings that you have built up, and can it can be difficult to recover from such blind spots in your site migration strategy.
5. Planning for Conversions and Client Contact
404 error pages are a good place to start with this. Have custom 404 error pages complete with all of your branding and contact information so that clients can still contact you. And, you can go so far as to include a contact form on these custom error pages. In addition, ensure that your standard navigation is on these 404 error pages so that potential clients can navigate through the rest of your site anyway. Nothing’s worse than going onto a website from Google, finding a 404 error page, and then seeing that there is no way to contact the site owner or go to the rest of the site without going through a few hoops.
Website traffic is all well and good, but if they don’t have a way to contact you to purchase your products or services and convert, what good is any SEO effort?
Make SURE that all of your contact forms are working, whether they are PHP, CGI/Perl, or any other server side programming language. Ensure that all form actions are referencing the correct domain name and files, and if you have changed the names of these scripts on your server, double check all forms again before the final switch over to the new server. The last thing you need on your hands is to find out that during the switch, you forgot to ensure that your conversion point – your contact forms – were working in an attempt to convert the traffic that arrives on your website.
For conversion considerations, are you using E-Mail that is setup through another server that is not routed through the same server as your web host? Ensure that you have the MX Records for your E-Mail server, otherwise E-Mail can go down momentarily as you switch over the domain name, because name server changes are global changes that trickle down and can affect every record of the domain. So, once you have the MX Records for wherever your E-Mail is hosted, along with the name server records, then it is time to start making the switch.
First of all, update your Name Server settings to the settings that your new website host gave you. Then, update your MX Records, C NAMEs, @ records, and any other records that are required by your specific website hosting setup. This will ensure the fastest, painless website migration that you will have. If you do it the opposite way, by updating the MX Records, C NAMEs, @ Records, and A records first, then your Name Server change is going to be a world of hurt for you. All related services could go down unless you made the prior changes necessary in order to guarantee a smooth transition.
6. Final points to consider after the switch
Once the switch is over, you’re not done by a long shot. Continue keeping a close eye on your Google webmaster tools accounts for crawl errors and anything else that might pop up as a result of a website migration. Keep checking to ensure that any of your form scripts weren’t corrupted somehow or were not correctly transferred over to ensure that conversions have a way to happen on your website. The one thing that can cost a website a conversion is the lack of contact information or a properly functioning contact form.
While this is not a completely thorough list of everything, these considerations are the major ones that should be considered to ensure a successful website migration without (much) of a loss in rankings and client conversions. If any part of the foundation that has been built thus far in your SEO efforts is lost, then the rest of the SEO plan can crumble.
EDITORs note; Hi, Dave here. I just wanted to stress how important monitoring the 404s (and making appropriate redirects) is over the first month or so after migration. It’s paramount. Do it. Also, fellow SNC author Barry Adams also has a great post about this on his blog; SEO Concerns When Migrating Your Website – be sure to check that one as well.