Small changes in design, content and structure typically pose no harm to your Google rankings. However, when the change involves migrating the site, you risk hurting your Google rankings. The need for site migration may arise due to various reasons. Perhaps you need to change your domain due to a change in company name, or on a larger scale, completely revamp your website. In any case, there will be instances when a site migration is unavoidable. Luckily, you can avoid the harm to your rankings (or at least minimize it) as long as you move the site properly by following the steps below!
The 4 steps site migration process
Step 1: Create a sitemap for your old site (if you already have one, great!)
A sitemap lists the pages on your site, much like how a directory lists the stores in a mall. When submitted, it helps Google to better understand your site structure. This will ensure that important pages on your site are successfully discovered and included in Google’s database. In this case, it enables you to keep track of all the pages that need to be migrated. You can create the sitemap manually or generate it using third-party tools depending on your needs. Alternatively, you can find the pages which are on Google’s SERPs by searching “site: <your site>” on Google Search.
Step 2: Monitor and note all the changes (especially if you have a big site)
With multiple elements involved during site migration, it is easy to lose track of the changes that need to be made. Use Excel to monitor and map all changes to prevent missing out on any of them. Here is a suggested list of categories to keep an eye on:
- Old pages and their equivalents on the new site
- Old pages without counterparts (Obsolete pages)
- New pages
Tracking these categories will ensure that the redirects, which are especially crucial for a smooth site migration, can be done properly (more on that in the next step).
Step 3: Redirect your pages using 301 redirects
Redirecting your pages is the most important step in site migration. Fail to do this and all your Google rankings will go plummeting down to the depths of the Marianas Trench, no kidding.
Redirects are important due to two reasons:
First, they ensure that the people who click on your old link (since it might be impossible or tedious to update every single one) are directed to the new site. Imagine shifting store location. Redirecting serves the same purpose as placing a signage at your old location to direct your customers to the new location. That prevents you from losing both prospects and return customers. Same logic applies for redirects.
Second, they help to transfer most of the “link juice” of your old pages to their new equivalents. (Link juice?)
“Link juice” refers to the ranking power passed to your pages by links. Picture this, whenever another website links to your page, you get a vote. These votes increase your page’s ranking power. Yes, it influences your Google rankings directly, so make sure you do your redirects well!
Here are two ways to do redirection:
- The generic way – ask your web developer to set up 301 redirects using the .htaccess file.
- The faster way – if your site is built on WordPress, lucky you! You can easily set up the redirects using plugins such as “Redirection”. There is no coding knowledge needed which means the entire process is fairly simple.
- Old pages to new equivalents
- Obsolete pages to new homepage
Keep in mind to use only 301 redirects (not 302 redirects). 301 redirects tell Google that the move is permanent. On the contrary, 302 redirects confuse Google as they signify that the move is temporary.
Step 4: Inform Google about the changes
Now that the redirecting is done, the final step is to update Google regarding the change. In order to do so, you need to make use of a tool called Google Search Console (GSC).
- Add and verify both your old and new site on GSC
- Submit your old sitemap to GSC by selecting “Crawl” –> “Sitemaps” –> “Add/Test Sitemap”. This will enable Google to discover the redirects and update their database accordingly.
- Submit your new sitemap to GSC in the same way (under the new site account). Google will look through and update their database with the new pages and changes.
Note: In order to submit the sitemaps to Google, you must first add the sitemaps to your website.
Do monitor the performance of both the old and new site using GSC. A proper site migration means traffic to the old site should decrease subsequently while traffic to the new site increase.
The fact is, during large site changes, it is inevitable for Google rankings to be affected in the short-term. However, by following the steps listed above, you can minimize the damage. Most importantly, stay organized and systematic while making the move to avoid missing out on important pages or steps.
Moving a site without any prior knowledge may seem intimidating so if you feel like you need more help, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us!