Thinking about restructuring URLs or migrating your website to a new domain? Don't worry! Here's how to do it successfully without losing any traffic.
Are you rebranding or redesigning your website? Maybe you’re in the middle of a rebrand, or simply want to use that sweet new domain name you finally acquired. You might also be switching to a new content management system (CMS), converting your site to HTTPS, or changing your URL structure. While these are all exciting changes, you’re right to be concerned about the potential loss in traffic and rankings, or visitors being unable to find your website at a new address.
After all, you’ve probably spent a lot of time building up the domain authority of your old site through link building, quality content, and careful attention to SEO strategy. When moving to your new site, you want to make sure all that hard work doesn’t go to waste.
Instead, you want search engines and existing customers alike to know that your new site should carry just as much authority as the old one. In effect, you want to make it clear that your new site is the old site at a new address, not just a brand new thing on the internet.
While migrating your website can seem like a major challenge, there’s no reason to be anxious. Search engines understand migrations as a legitimate change, and there are very clear steps you can take to make this move with little to no loss in traffic. Depending on what type of migration you are doing, there are different ways to handle the task. Here are a few common use cases:
Let’s look at the proper way to migrate your site in each of these situations.
Let’s say that your migration involves changing your CMS (e.g. from Hubspot to Wordpress, or Wordpress to Webflow). You may want to redesign the colors, page layouts, themes, or even just rebuild the same site.
If this is the only thing you’re changing, and your domain name and URL structure will all remain the same, you don’t have to do anything extra. You just need to complete the redesign or move to a different platform as planned. Search engines aren’t concerned about which CMS you choose to run your website on if the URL structure and page content remain the same. Your rankings and inbound traffic shouldn’t change.
More often, you might find yourself in the middle of a rebrand. When you do this, you will likely want to update your root domain as well. For example, you might change your domain name from www.example.com to www.newexample.com.
In this case, let’s say that everything else within the URL structure still remains the same - you are only changing the root domain. Each individual page such as www.example.com/blog/how-to-do-something will be forwarded to the equivalent URL on the new domain, such as www.newexample.com/blog/how-to-do-something.
While this is not a complicated move, you will want to make sure that search engines and users alike know where to go for the same content (as it is still a new page on the web). That said, the solution is pretty simple, with only two important steps:
First, you want to create a wildcard redirect. Wildcard redirects can be used to forward large numbers of URLs at once to a new domain. For instance, a wildcard redirect in this case would tell browsers and search engines to redirect from any page with the example.com domain to the newexample.com domain. This takes care of all of your pages at once, with each one keeping the same path. For instance:
Second, you will need to file a change of address with Google Search Console (GSC). Doing this will ensure Google understands that you have moved the site from one domain to the other. This process tells the crawlers to scan and index your new site instead of the old one.
For larger sites, the transition process can take up to 180 days, allowing the search engine time to fully recognize the change and finish indexing your new site. As the index gets updated, so will the text displayed in the search engine results for your webpages.
While the above examples are possible, it is more likely you’re going to be changing a lot more than we’ve described so far. If you are changing the primary domain and anything else within the URL structure, there are a few additional steps you’ll need to take to ensure you maintain your traffic and rankings.
Let’s say you want to change your primary domain name and the URL structure at the same time. In other words, let’s say you want to change from example.com to newexample.com (domain change), and you also want to change how you organize and write out specific URLs for other pages (URL structure change).
As an example, you may want to move a group of articles to a new folder (also called a subdirectory). For instance, you might move one article from www.example.com/resources/guides/how-to-do-something to www.newexample.com/blog/how-to-do-something and so on for each blog post. Because you have changed the URL structure beyond the root domain, you have also created an entirely new subdirectory for all articles that fit under www.newexample.com/blog.
To maintain site traffic in this case, there are four main steps:
First, you need to create what is called a URL map. A URL map is a document with two columns that indicates how one URL will redirect to a different URL that is meant to be the new version of the same page.
We’ll talk more about redirects and URL mapping later. For now, it’s important to create a URL map that you can reference throughout the process as you make redirects, and later submit to GSC. Usually this takes the form of a simple spreadsheet.
Second, you need to implement permanent (301) redirects from the old URLs to the new ones. While this may be a tedious task, it is important that each URL is accurately redirected on the individual level. Be sure to do this exactly as it is within your URL map.
Third, you’ll need to file a change of address just like before to ensure Google knows about the change.
The last step in the process is to submit your URL map to GSC, along with your sitemaps for the old and new sites. As an extra precaution, you can also create a self-referencing canonical tag for each new page, pointing back to itself as the primary location for the content.
Redirects are the most important part of a successful site migration. They can also be somewhat confusing.
Basically, when a user tries to access an old URL, a redirect will automatically forward that URL to the new one so that the user is taken to the new address instead. To be sure this is clear, let’s take a look at how a redirect works in the context of a site migration.
Both 301 and wildcard redirects are permanent redirects from one URL to another. This is different from a temporary redirect that only moves users and crawlers to the new site for a certain period of time (this is sometimes used for website maintenance).
In other words, both 301 and wildcard redirects indicate a URL has been permanently moved from one location to another. Be sure the new site is ready before you set them up.
The difference between a 301 and a wildcard redirect is simple. 301 redirects are for individual pages. When you visit a specific URL, a 301 redirect automatically forwards you to the new URL instead. On the other hand, a wildcard redirect will redirect a number of pages at once.
Keep in mind that this only works when changing a single variable in your URL. This is usually used at the domain level, but it can also be used at the subdirectory level. For instance, you might want to move all the pages under www.example.com/resources to www.example.com/blog instead.
In this case, you can use a wildcard redirect to move the article “How to Do Something” along with all other blog posts under the same subdirectory to the new subdirectory. This moves users from the old URL www.example.com/resources/how-to-do-something to the new URL www.example.com/blog/how-to-do-something. Again, this is possible to do in one move because only a single variable changes.
A URL redirect map serves two main purposes in a site migration. First, you will need to use it as a guide (for yourself) to create 301 redirects between all of the old and new URLs. URL Maps help you keep track of each change so that you don’t redirect to the wrong page by mistake.
You will then submit the map to GSC to help Google understand the full scope of the changes. This will avoid any confusion around which page should be indexed and displayed in the search results.
If you have never created a URL redirect map, it can often be done in a simple spreadsheet. As we said, a URL redirect map basically shows which of the old URLs are being redirected to new ones. The left column shows the old URL. The right column shows the new URL that is meant to be read as the same page at a different address. It might look something like this:
When creating your 301 redirects, be sure to avoid redirect chains. This means you should avoid redirecting once to a new URL, and then again from that URL to another URL. Here is an example of a redirect chain:
Some browsers will flag this as suspicious behavior and not load your page, because this technique is frequently used by malicious websites. It can also negatively affect how fast your page loads, which affects your search rankings over time.
While a single site migration usually won’t create this type of extra jump, it can happen if you have already done a site migration before and you now want to migrate again. For instance, if you have already redirected from a previous website like www.example.com to www.newexample.com, redirecting again to a new site (with the old redirect still in place) will create a redirect chain.
You can, however, redirect multiple pages to a single page. For instance, here is an example of two URLs redirecting to one:
This example is not flagged by search engines because it consolidates two locations into one, rather than making the user jump around multiple times before landing on a page.
Now that you know the basic steps to completing a site migration, there are a few other things regarding SEO that you will want to consider to set your new site up for success. Not all of these tips will apply to your situation, but it is important to cover your bases.
Just in case you still need to move from HTTP to HTTPS (seriously, if you haven’t already done this, get on it), it’s important to ensure the non-secure version of your site automatically forwards to avoid losing traffic. While you will need to create a wildcard redirect for this, moving to HTTPS does not require filing a change of address. However, be sure to add the HTTPS property to GSC when making the move, as some versions treat this as a separate entity from the HTTP site.
Once you complete your site migration, GSC will automatically create a coverage report. Reviewing this report will help you make sure your new pages are indexed correctly and help you spot any pages that may have been excluded.
If any page on the new site is not indexed, there is no chance of it ranking at all. Luckily, the index coverage report and sitemap report will often show not only the error or exclusion, but also the reason it is occurring. You can then take steps to correct the issue, and request that these pages be re-crawled.
Hopefully you had a good base of referring domains (other sites linking to yours) from before the migration. If you did, and have done your migration correctly, those same links are now lending authority to your new site.
However, if you rebranded from one name to another, and have links which used your old name as the anchor text, it may be worth reaching out to the site owners asking them to update the link to reflect the new name.
Otherwise, there’s no need to worry about reaching out to every referring domain asking them to update the links. You’re likely to get ignored, and as long as you have permanent redirects in place, the authority is already being passed to your new site.
While inbound links from other sites are largely out of your control, you can (and should) update all of the internal links on your own site to the new URLs.
This may not be an issue if you are already using relative links in your CMS. Or, if you built a new site from scratch, you probably never had a reason to link to the old site in the first place.
However, in some cases this won’t be updated for you. For instance, if your website was custom-coded or uses an older CMS, you might still have links on your new site that point to the old domain.
This might not seem like much of a problem. After all, your redirects will still send users to the new site. However, links that send users away from your domain then redirect back again may not pass link equity on to the new version.
While you may be tempted to cut the cord from the old site or perhaps even sell the old domain right away, don’t do it just yet. Google recommends that you maintain control over the old website for at least one year after migrating. This allows the search engine to fully understand that a migration has occurred.
This will also allow everything to be fully indexed and for all traffic and rankings to transfer to the new site. While it is acceptable to sell the domain after this period of time, consider maintaining control of the site indefinitely. That way, your redirects remain in place for anyone that accidentally visits the old site (e.g. via a link from a blog post written in 2012 when the world ended).
Migrating a website can be daunting, but it’s actually quite achievable. If you do your research ahead of time and pay attention to the details, your migration should be relatively pain-free.
Implementing redirects and communicating your changes to Google Search Console is where you will focus most of your efforts. After a successful migration, you’ll be operating your new site with just as much traffic and authority as before.
Migrating your site is a great opportunity to improve your site design and technical foundation in one fell swoop. If you need help making a smooth transition or want a partner to help you grow your new site to even greater heights, contact us today.
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