5 Steps to Protecting Your Search Rank During a Site Migration

how to protect search rank during site migration
You’re getting ready to launch a new site, or a new design of your old site—or maybe you’re just transitioning your previous site for one reason or another. In any case, this is an exciting time. Your customers will be excited to see the new layout, and your new technology will be more reliable and more aesthetically pleasing. You’ve gone to great lengths to make sure your new site will be as functional and appropriate for your brand as possible, but what efforts have you taken to protect your domain authority and search ranks?

Your domain authority is not set in stone. If Google detects something fishy going on with your site, such as severe infringements of duplicate content, new bad links, or indexed pages suddenly disappearing en masse, your ranks could potentially plummet. If you don’t take the necessary steps to protect your search rank during a site migration, you could suffer from such a drop.

Before undergoing any type of migration, follow these five (relatively) simple steps to prevent a possible disaster:

Step 1: Crawl Your Old Site

Before you do anything with your new site, you have to analyze your old site and get to know it well. Unless you’re doing an exact one-to-one redesign, it’s incredibly likely that your new URL structure will be markedly different from your old one. You’ll be adding new pages, deleting old ones, and renaming still others in your site map.

Simply deleting your old pages and replacing them with new ones can be a detriment for your SEO campaign, as those old pages have earned significant authority in their time in Google’s index. Still, a change may be required in order to update your site and please your visitors. There are a few tactics you can use to get the best of both worlds, which we’ll get to in step three, but your first step is noting the major changes that your site is undertaking. You can use your existing sitemaps as guides, or use a paid site crawler like Screaming Frog to make sure you don’t miss anything.

Step 2: Analyze Your Backlink Profile

backlinks profile
All the links you’ve earned thus far have been steadily building and supporting your domain authority. If those links suddenly point to 404 pages, or pages that no longer exist, that support could instantly vanish. Changing your URL structure demands your understanding of your site’s current backlink profile so you can ensure the survival and relevance of those older, established links.

The best tool I’ve found to analyze your inbound link profile is Moz’s Link Explorer, which has a free version and a paid version depending on your needs. Take inventory of your most valuable links, and take note of any links that might be disrupted by the transition. And if you find that you don’t have many links, be sure to invest in linkbuilding services – links are critical for good search engine rankings!

Step 3: Set Up Any Redirects or Canonical Tags Necessary

Now that you have a solid list of pages that will, in some way, change during the transition to your new site, you can start taking action to protect them. Your best friend here is going to be 301 redirects, which take inbound traffic to old links and point them to new pages. For example, if you move the content of your old “services” page to a new page called “build your plan,” you can redirect any user or search crawler traffic to the new page without losing any of the old page’s previous authority. Be sure to set up a redirect for any old link that’s no longer going to be crawlable by itself. If you need help with 301 redirects, Google has an awesome tutorial here.

You might also need canonical tags or new robots.txt setups, which tell Google which pages to index and which ones not to index. For example, if you have two pages with duplicate content (like one http://www. and one http:// ), you can use these tags to let Google know that only one page needs to be indexed, protecting you against any possible penalty or drop in authority.

Step 4: Ensure On-site Optimization on the New Site

Just because your new site is well-designed and intelligently developed doesn’t mean it’s automatically optimized for SEO on a page level. Double check all of your new pages for proper SEO structuring, including titles, meta descriptions, unique content, headlines, and so on before going through with the transfer. This is the best chance you have to get everything in order.

Step 5: Tell Google You’re Moving and Check Everything When Launched

ping update search engines
Google’s aware that transitioning your website can cause hiccups, so it offers a way to contact it when you’re ready to launch. Log into Google Webmaster Tools and under “Site configuration,” you’ll find an option for “Change of address.” Here, you’ll find helpful tools for transitioning your site, and an option to inform Google of a domain change. Follow these. Once launched, double check everything to ensure your redirects are functioning properly and all your meta data is live.

If you follow these steps closely, you should effectively minimize any disruptions you see in your search ranks or domain authority. Due to the nature of the beast, you may still see some brief volatility after launch—it’s almost impossible to ensure a perfectly smooth transition. Still, within a few weeks, you should be right back to where you started the launch, or even better. From there, it’s on you to continue adhering to ongoing SEO best practices.

Photos courtesy of us.fotolia.com

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