Website transfers are tricky and they can be devastating if done incorrectly.
To avoid any unnecessary drops in traffic and the painstaking recovery process that inevitably follows those kinds of drops, plan your website transfer carefully. Here are my best tips for a website transfer that’s as painless as possible.
Keep in mind that “website transfer” can have more than one meaning. It can simply mean redesigning your site, upgrading the CMS, changing domains (or subdomains) entirely. I am writing this as a general guide for all kinds of transfers.
Basic Website Transfer Checklist
To make a transfer work you must be sure you’ve moved each piece of optimized content.
Even if you’ve done this before—and I have, many times—work from a website transfer checklist so you can be sure you haven’t missed anything. Here is part of the checklist for optimized content that I use.
Check to make sure that your old and new content locations are completely connected. Each old URL should point to its new counterpart. Use 301 redirects or rel canonicals (also canonical tags) for this. For permanent moves 301 redirects are typically the best choice.
Titles, descriptions, h1 and h2
You worked hard to optimize all of your titles, descriptions, h1s and h2s, so make sure they all make it to the new site. If during the transfer you see some flaws in these components, you have the chance to improve them in the move. Screaming Frog is the easiest way to crawl and verify this.
The rel=canonical tag tells Google what URL you want them to rank.
You can also use rel canonical cross-domains when you have more than one page that is very similar and you only want one to rank. However, the best option for redirecting Google is the 301 redirect.
The robots.txt file tells spiders and crawlers which of your website pages they should visit. As soon as a crawler comes to your site it looks for the robots.txt file. Each site can have only one, which should be placed in the corresponding document root. Make sure you have a robots.txt file on your new site. Also, make sure it is not blocking search engines.
Sitemap XML, HTML, copy, images, videos, news
Every website should have a sitemap.xml at a minimum (however, there are 9 different types of sitemaps you might want to consider). If you don’t have one, create one for the new site. When you are transferring and you have a sitemap.xml file, include it in your robots.txt file with the updated domain name and other information.
Generally, you want to have an XML sitemap, HTML that is linked to in your footer, an image sitemap and a video sitemap. All of this comes from the Google SEO starter guide.
Viewport meta tag
To optimize each of your pages for multiple devices you must use a viewport meta tag is you website is in responsive design. This tells browsers how to show each page in terms of scaling, width and dimensions.
Schema.org is a markup collaboration project between Bing, Google, Yahoo! and Yandex. Schema.org allows you to create “rich snippets,” and convey more information to search engines. You should be adding structured data markup to each property and page that’s important to your business because Google says rich snippets can improve your search rank.
As you transfer to your new site, make sure you use Schema.org to connect it to the rest of the search engine world. For more information on this, see Schema.org’s instructions here.
Here is a list of things to consider
- Transfer all
- Page Titles
- Meta Keywords
- Image alts
- Image descriptions
- Schema Markup
- Make sure website has
- XML Sitemap
- Image XML Sitemap
- Video XML Sitemap
- HTML Sitemap
- txt file
- Google Analytics
- Webmaster Tools
- 404 Page
- No Canonical URLs – A URL should only render one way. Not multiple ways.
- Rel net and rel prev in pagination
- Page numbers starting on the second page of pagination
- Works in all browsers
- Absolute URLs
- Link title tags
Try to keep the URLs the same
Changing URLs adds an additional level of complexity to your transfer. If you can keep your URLs the same, you don’t need to implement a comprehensive 301 redirect mapping strategy. Always try for keeping your current URL structure, unless it’s in bad shape and isn’t ranked well. If the URLs are different, the 301 redirect mapping strategy is the next step.
Use 301 redirects
These are absolutely essential when you are changing URLs and permanently transferring your site. Google’s Matt Cutts recommends 301 redirects and indicates that they are generally just as good as direct links as far as searches go.
301 redirects tell Google that the move is permanent, rather than the temporary redirect a 302 provides. That’s why 301s maintain your link juice; 302s are just temporary. Create 301 redirects using either the PHP method or the .htaccess file.
If a domain changes, change all external links
As you transfer, check both internal and external links to your site’s pages. Your internal links will hopefully all work since you’ve just changed them for the new site. As far as external links go, you’ll ideally get the webmasters of the sites that link to yours to change the links so they go to your new domain.
Of course if you have thousands of links (or millions) this might not be practical without the help of a SEO company.
Transfer every single URL and all on page info
You need to redirect your entire site page-by-page. I know, you’re tempted to avoid all of this work by using a blanket redirect, but don’t do it. It’s a poor user experience, simple as that, and it will kill your rankings.
Instead, do a page-to-page redirect. This means every page on your old site is redirected to either a corresponding twin page on the new site or, if you’re eliminating that page, a page with very similar content on the new site.
Keep the correct version of the site
Google recommends that you keep your old site domain for at least 180 days (but I recommend forever).
This allows you to really be sure everything is working before losing any of your old work. You should also use Google Search Console to keep verified versions of both your old site and your new site. This way you can check for crawl errors, 404 errors, and other issues with your 301 redirects regularly.
https or http?
Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure (https) is a secure version of the standard http. When a user goes to an https site, the session is encrypted with a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate; in other words, it’s a secure connection.
Google recommends that you migrate to https/SSL if you’re not there already, and your transfer is a great time to do this. Remember, when Google endorses something, it ranks better in search results. Even if you have certain secure pages on your site (like checkout pages) your rank can only be boosted in this way if your entire site is https.
Remember a few key points about changing to https as you transfer. First, you’ll need an SSL certification, preferably a 2048-bit key certificate. Second, make sure your https site is still accessible for crawling with robots.txt. Finally, allow your https pages to be indexed by search engines, and avoid the noindex robots meta tag.
Watch out for www and non www
So, your new website can either have “www” in the display or the “naked” version without the “www.” I recommend the “www” domain.
Whatever your choose, make sure you only have one version live. If both are live, you will run into duplicate content issues.
Watch out for mobile subdomains
Hopefully you already know that optimization for mobile use is critical to your business today, and this isn’t going to change. Mobile optimization can even impact your rank on Google, especially after mobilegeddon. Make sure your new site is in compliance with Google’s mobile guidelines. For more on Google’s guidelines for mobile optimization, see their post on the subject here.
But also, if you do a website transfer make sure you account for your mobile site if it lives on a subdomain (m.example.come). You will need to transfer that subdomain using the same principals as your main domain.
Being well-prepared and covering all of your bases carefully is the key to making your website transfer successful. Good luck with the process!