Migrating your website is never a decision to be taken lightly. Moving from one domain to another domain is a real pain in itself, and you have to make peace with the fact that your ranking and performance will suffer from the change. It's simply unavoidable.
With all the things that need be done with your migration, admittedly SEO might not be the first thing on your mind. Planning for the future is important and there are some things that you can do during the migration that your future self will be very grateful for.
Before doing anything, back up your entire website and any databases or additional core elements.
Here is a list of must-do tasks that will help your SEO efforts on your new domain:
1. Protect the New Domain
This is your first line of defense against someone messing with your site while you are migrating. There are multiple ways to accomplish this and most CMS platforms can assist with it or you can get a plugin that will.
Alternatively, you can make an under construction page and redirect to it, but then you have to make sure to remove the redirect when you launch the full site.
2. Block Crawlers and Indexing With A Robots.txt File
Since Google ranking is extremely important, you need to ensure that your incomplete site is not crawled by search engine bots. Besides having your staging site rank in Google, the indexation can lead to duplicate content and make your migration job much harder.
Important Note: both password protection and these robots.txt changes are only there until you finish the site migration.
3. Annotate and Document Metrics
Save any reports and include notes for whatever metrics are important for you. This will give you a reference point during and after the migration to help identify anything you may have forgotten or needs updated again.
4. Create a 301 Redirect Map
A 301 redirect is a permanent redirect that points people to a new URL when they visit an old one. Even though there are other redirect types, this one is considered the best from the SEO perspective, as it passes between 90-99% of ranking power to the new URL.
If pages are going to be deleted (not migrated from one site to the other), remember to add redirects for these URLs, too. Redirect to the new page that is similar to that one, or to your homepage, if there is no similar content.
5. Create Metadata
Optimize for SEO by using new URLs, alt tags, and meta title, and write (or copy old) description. Even though most CMS platforms, including WordPress, can autogenerate meta tags, it is strongly advised you create them manually.
6. Create a 404 Page
Creating a custom 404 page is often overlooked, but it can actually play an important role in your website performance. A 404 “not found” page is seen when your visitors click on a broken link. During migration, these are to be expected even if you were really thorough in your 301 mapping.
Having a quality 404 page can increase visitor engagement. You can make visitors feel more valued if there is a nice or comedic apology about a broken page. You can also add an option to contact site administrator, which would help hunt down how they found the 404 page.
7. Set Up Your Robots.txt File
A good starting point is your old robots.txt, particularly if you put a lot of effort into optimizing it. If you are using WordPress, you can easily edit it with a plugin.
If you don’t have a lot of experience with customizing a robots.txt, Google support has good documentation on it, but we highly recommend consulting a professional. If you don't setup your robots.txt file correctly - it will render everything else irrelevant to your search engine optimization efforts.
Since your migration is done now, you must update the file so the new site can be crawled and indexed.
8. Create .xml and/or HTML sitemaps
Sitemaps, or site trees, are lists of all the pages on the website and their relationships that are available to search engine crawlers.
There is some discrepancy in the industry whether or not an HTML site so is necessary. If you don't want to spend the time making one, then don't. However, an XML sitemap is required if you want to reap the benefits of your efforts within the search engines.
9. Identify Authoritative Backlinks
While this is tedious, it is extremely important to your SEO. These links carry a lot of your ranking power, so be sure to make a list of all the high-authority sites that are linked to any of your content.
This way, after the migration, you can contact the webmasters of those sites to update their links to your new content.
10. Update Your Domains
This is done by using the “Change of address” tool in the Google search console. This way, Google is notified that your content has new URL addresses, which updates the Google Index.
Before you can change the domain, you need to completely finish the migration and also verify the new domain address. There is a similar feature in the Bing, so be sure to do that one too.
11. Update URLs in Your Social Media
Be sure to change the URL on all levels to avoid problems; if your ad copy and sitelink extensions do not match, the ad might get disapproved. Change the URL in you profiles too, to ensure users are visiting the right address.
While you are technically done with the migration, there is still some troubleshooting to be done. Crawl your new website to locate and fix any SEO issues; duplicate content, test redirects, lack of meta data, and so on.
13. Submit and Test the New Sitemap
You can do this by going to sitemap page in the Google search console, and clicking on Add/Test Sitemap. When the test is done, you can view the results and see any errors or conflicts. After you have fixed all the issues, you can submit the sitemap and Google will approve it.
14. Switch from HTTP to HTTPS
You might have noticed that more and more sites have the HTTPS instead of HTTP, along with a little padlock in your browser’s address bar.
This is for two main reasons:
- HTTPS is a much more secure protocol.
- It helps your Google rankings, as using HTTPS is considered a ranking factor.
15. Reverse Steps 1 and 2
As stated above, since your migration is effectively done you can remove password protect, as well as general noindex and nofollow attributes and disallow in robots.txt. Be sure to just remove the ones you have added. Too often these steps are forgotten and sites can disappear from the index.
16. Watch for Discrepancies
All that remains is to keep a close eye on your new site. Track site behavior and performance, while monitoring crawl errors in Google Search Console. Pay attention to visitors’ feedback because there might be some bad redirections, internal backlinks, and other issues crawlers might not locate.
Follow this checklist and you will minimize the negative impact on your SEO when migrating to a domain.
A very important note - this is by no means everything you need to do when migrating, only the steps that are important to your SEO. Just because you follow these steps doesn't mean you won't have a negative impact from the switch. This list only minimizes that impact.