How to: Move a Website...Should You Fear 301 Redirects Hurting Your Rankings?

Jul 11th

SEO Question: I am considering moving my site to another domain name. Do I have anything to fear in moving it? What is the proper way to move a website to a new URL?

Answer: The best way to permanently move a site is to 301 redirect it. If you have a small site you will likely see few small changes with your rankings. The bigger your site is the longer it takes to move and the more drastically the shakeup will be.

301 Redirecting a Small Site Versus a Large Site

When I redirected my article about Search Engine History the pickup was almost immediate because it was only moving one page to another one page site. My friend Daniel recently 301 redirected the old scholarship site to College Scholarships.org. It was a good test to see how the various search engines would react to moving a 1,000+ page website. The site move started on May 30th. By June 3rd Google indexed 385 pages, and on June 6th Google indexed 509 pages. The old URLs ranked until the associated new ones took their place in the index.

When moving a large site make sure to use a find and replace feature to change internal links to point at the new site location. You can do so inside of HTML editing software like Dreamweaver or using freeware like ReplaceEm. Rebranding a site is also a good time to fix broken links. You can find broken links using Xenu.

Why Our Search Traffic is Still Down

Traffic volumes are still noticeably down from their all time highs, but that is largely a function of 4 factors

  • The site had not been actively marketed for month and we were busy creating other sites so we didn't add much content to the site for months. We were busy building out other high growth potential properties.

  • Right around when we moved the site I believe the traffic volume for that keyword universe dropped (people out of school are not looking for scholarships or grants as much, and people use the Internet less in early summer).
  • Before the site moved we had ads on the blog portion of the site. We removed those ads because we want our blog to be a more organic part of the web than it would otherwise be if it were cluttered with ads. Our page-view traffic stats below are for pages that had ads on them. The blog currently represents a small minority of our traffic, but we hope to change that ASAP.
  • MSN search sucks at 301 redirects!!!!!

Traffic Trends

The site was moved on the 29th of May, and you can see how the traffic was at its all time high in May (the red is the old site and the blue is the new site). In addition to a nice third party trend graph, here are some traffic numbers by date

Date Page impressions
Thursday, March 1, 2007 8,082
Friday, March 2, 2007 5,853
Saturday, March 3, 2007 4,321
Sunday, March 4, 2007 5,424
Monday, March 5, 2007 8,244
Tuesday, March 6, 2007 7,844
Wednesday, March 7, 2007 8,061
Thursday, March 8, 2007 7,594
Friday, March 9, 2007 6,387
Saturday, March 10, 2007 4,579
Sunday, March 11, 2007 4,936
Monday, March 12, 2007 7,877
Tuesday, March 13, 2007 7,898
Wednesday, March 14, 2007 7,739
Thursday, March 15, 2007 7,707
Friday, March 16, 2007 6,344
Saturday, March 17, 2007 5,090
Sunday, March 18, 2007 6,112
Monday, March 19, 2007 9,259
Tuesday, March 20, 2007 9,359
Wednesday, March 21, 2007 8,708
Thursday, March 22, 2007 8,924
Friday, March 23, 2007 7,102
Saturday, March 24, 2007 5,304
Sunday, March 25, 2007 5,169
Monday, March 26, 2007 9,061
Tuesday, March 27, 2007 8,955
Wednesday, March 28, 2007 9,068
Thursday, March 29, 2007 8,565
Friday, March 30, 2007 6,770
Saturday, March 31, 2007 4,760
Sunday, April 1, 2007 5,360
Monday, April 2, 2007 8,483
Tuesday, April 3, 2007 8,671
Wednesday, April 4, 2007 8,552
Thursday, April 5, 2007 7,882
Friday, April 6, 2007 6,390
Saturday, April 7, 2007 5,052
Sunday, April 8, 2007 5,100
Monday, April 9, 2007 9,579
Tuesday, April 10, 2007 9,863
Wednesday, April 11, 2007 9,768
Thursday, April 12, 2007 9,180
Friday, April 13, 2007 7,734
Saturday, April 14, 2007 5,874
Sunday, April 15, 2007 6,533
Monday, April 16, 2007 15,370
Tuesday, April 17, 2007 11,534
Wednesday, April 18, 2007 10,605
Thursday, April 19, 2007 9,895
Friday, April 20, 2007 7,375
Saturday, April 21, 2007 5,201
Sunday, April 22, 2007 5,597
Monday, April 23, 2007 9,955
Tuesday, April 24, 2007 10,064
Wednesday, April 25, 2007 10,461
Thursday, April 26, 2007 9,942
Friday, April 27, 2007 7,689
Saturday, April 28, 2007 5,129
Sunday, April 29, 2007 6,097
Monday, April 30, 2007 10,442
Tuesday, May 1, 2007 11,262
Wednesday, May 2, 2007 10,005
Thursday, May 3, 2007 9,262
Friday, May 4, 2007 7,486
Saturday, May 5, 2007 4,627
Sunday, May 6, 2007 5,744
Monday, May 7, 2007 9,642
Tuesday, May 8, 2007 9,968
Wednesday, May 9, 2007 9,686
Thursday, May 10, 2007 8,865
Friday, May 11, 2007 7,248
Saturday, May 12, 2007 4,858
Sunday, May 13, 2007 5,407
Monday, May 14, 2007 10,878
Tuesday, May 15, 2007 10,478
Wednesday, May 16, 2007 9,974
Thursday, May 17, 2007 9,568
Friday, May 18, 2007 7,724
Saturday, May 19, 2007 5,015
Sunday, May 20, 2007 5,579
Monday, May 21, 2007 10,053
Tuesday, May 22, 2007 10,725
Wednesday, May 23, 2007 10,085
Thursday, May 24, 2007 8,650
Friday, May 25, 2007 7,383
Saturday, May 26, 2007 4,997
Sunday, May 27, 2007 5,328
Monday, May 28, 2007 6,113
Tuesday, May 29, 2007 9,977
Wednesday, May 30, 2007 10,039
Thursday, May 31, 2007 9,650
Friday, June 1, 2007 7,424
Saturday, June 2, 2007 5,111
Sunday, June 3, 2007 6,016
Monday, June 4, 2007 8,876
Tuesday, June 5, 2007 7,378
Wednesday, June 6, 2007 6,599
Thursday, June 7, 2007 5,354
Friday, June 8, 2007 4,019
Saturday, June 9, 2007 2,809
Sunday, June 10, 2007 2,953
Monday, June 11, 2007 4,550
Tuesday, June 12, 2007 4,124
Wednesday, June 13, 2007 3,903
Thursday, June 14, 2007 3,824
Friday, June 15, 2007 3,231
Saturday, June 16, 2007 2,158
Sunday, June 17, 2007 2,459
Monday, June 18, 2007 4,441
Tuesday, June 19, 2007 5,154
Wednesday, June 20, 2007 4,978
Thursday, June 21, 2007 4,468
Friday, June 22, 2007 4,057
Saturday, June 23, 2007 3,086
Sunday, June 24, 2007 3,675
Monday, June 25, 2007 5,853
Tuesday, June 26, 2007 5,666
Wednesday, June 27, 2007 5,684
Thursday, June 28, 2007 5,214
Friday, June 29, 2007 4,032
Saturday, June 30, 2007 2,852
Sunday, July 1, 2007 3,501
Monday, July 2, 2007 5,461
Tuesday, July 3, 2007 4,925
Wednesday, July 4, 2007 3,402
Thursday, July 5, 2007 6,016
Friday, July 6, 2007 4,769
Saturday, July 7, 2007 3,351
Sunday, July 8, 2007 4,022
Monday, July 9, 2007 6,780
Tuesday, July 10, 2007 7,047
Wednesday, July 11, 2007 90
Totals 916,061
Averages 6,887

How Google Reacted to the Redirects

Google picked up on the 301 redirects for the core pages almost immediately. For core terms, that were heavily emphasized on-site and off-site, the rankings dropped slightly then rose back to their typical positions within about a month. Some of them dropped for as little as a week, while others stayed at #1, but for athletic scholarships the rankings are still a bit lower than they were before, with 4 sites still outranking the site, but then again I doubt we should have beat the NCAA for that term. ;)

At the low point, search traffic was about 50% of its high point, and now it is back up to about 70%.

For some portions of the site, Google took quite a while to pick up the 301 redirect. The sections of the site about state scholarship and grants programs, state student loans, and study abroad scholarship programs were slow to move because they each contained many pages, and were numerous few links from the homepage, requiring a bot to go from the homepage, to a category page, to the subcategory page, to each of the 50 or so pages in each of those sections. To help speed along that movement links to some of the deeper sections were added to the homepage.

Helping Deeper Content Get Re-indexed Quickly

We got about a half dozen average quality links after the site moved and changed the URLs in a few of our directory listings like Business.com to help show the transition of the site. The exact match domain name helped improve rankings for the core matching term, and changing the site architecture to place more emphasis on the deeper pages not only got them crawled again quickly, but also helped those pages rank better as well.

In addition to placing more emphasis on lower nodes in the site structure we also blocked some of the duplicate blog content in the robots.txt file and lowered the number of site-wide outbound links from about a half dozen to a couple. These helped focus more of the PageRank on lower pages to get them indexed quicker.

How Did the Engines Do?

Yahoo! Search

1 month later Yahoo traffic is about the same as what it was before the site moved, which likely represents a slight increase in traffic, given the seasonal trend.

Google

Google traffic is down slightly, but I think that is partly due to seasonality factors, as the site ranks where it used to for most of its competitive search terms.

Microsoft's Live Search

The big shocker is that MSN is so bad at following 301 redirects that they now send the site 0 traffic. The old site is listed URL only, while the new site is not listed.

MSN's failure to follow redirects can also be appreciated by seeing how they indexed 10,000 more pages on the SEO Book site than Yahoo! or Google do. Most of those additional pages are affiliate redirects. As of writing this, MSN also failed to index SearchEngineHistory.com.

I filed a re-inclusion request with MSN about a week and a half ago, but have got no reply so far. If it is still hosed near the end of this month I will ping a few people I know who work there.

What Should I Do Before & While Moving My Site?

  • If you have a seasonal site you can mitigate risk by moving your site early in the off season.

  • Buy ads for any brand related queries or other keywords that you feel your site must rank for.
  • Look for low information pages, and eliminate their ability to waste PageRank by blocking them from being indexed.
  • Take inventory of your most profitable sections of your site (from a search standpoint) and ensure your current internal link structure places emphasis on them. If you have a large site and some of your most profitable sections of your site are many clicks from your homepage consider raising their prominence in the site's navigational scheme to help them get re-indexed quickly. Heavily cross link toward the valuable sections whenever and wherever it makes sense.
  • If you are afraid of risking your rankings, you can try 301 redirecting one piece of your site to see how well the engines receive that, then push the rest of your site a month later if the results are good.
  • If your new site launch is a big deal ensure you submit a press release, and come up with a few good marketing / promotional ideas you can do when you launch your new site to help you build link authority and make the transition as smooth as possible. Also changing some of your better directory listings, your internal links, and any other links under your direct control to point at the new location is ideal.
  • I like to buy a bit of StumbleUpon traffic and ads on topical traffic source sites when the site moves.
Published: July 11, 2007

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Comments

Foliovision.com
July 18, 2007 - 4:48am

Hello Aaron,

My own experience is that it is 35 search places lost for 6 weeks. To my client on that terms that is probably tens of thousands of dollars. Thanks for sharing.

Cheers Alec

Bert
July 18, 2007 - 3:56pm

He Aaron,

Nice post.
Did you update the XML sitemap right after the move, later on or not at all?
Does updating the sitemap or using the old sitemap offer help with any of the search engines in your experience?
I'm about to redirect a 2000+ pages site next week: same domain, different (readable) URLs. I'll let you know what happened :)

Cheers, Bert

July 18, 2007 - 7:34pm

Hi Bert
I tried updating an xml sitemap for both new and old sites 17 days in, but noticed little to no change due to that.

Igor Berger
July 19, 2007 - 10:10am

Aaron you should fixs the canonical duplication for the site.
http://mail.collegescholarships.org/ 301 redirect to
http://www.collegescholarships.org/

Also, You forgot to mention when moving a site make sure to do a one to one 301 redirects.

If you have pages that you do not really want to use on the new domain that you had on the old domain, move them and do a disallow in robots text or noindex, follow meta tag, on the new domain.

Avoid having 404 errors as much as possible.

B10G
July 11, 2007 - 12:24pm

wow, great post aaron, a great insight into 301 redirecting a site, interesting to note how woefully poor msn are about 301's.

Judd Muir
July 11, 2007 - 1:18pm

One killer item to watch out for: changing links can lead back to the sandbox. On one site, I put in 301 redirects and Google happily moved over to using the new pages. But when I changed the site-wide links from pointing to "old" pages to point to the "new"pages, Google saw that as a mass of new links pointing to new pages, and bam! Took 6 months to recover from that one...

Hawaii SEO
July 11, 2007 - 1:49pm

Many people want to redesign the website as they move to a new domain. (Not a good idea to do both at the same time)

André Scholten
July 11, 2007 - 2:12pm

After the move you could submit your old url's with an XML sitemap. That way small unimportant pages will be crawled sooner and the 301 are picked up very fast. After that you could submit the new url's.

Vic
July 11, 2007 - 3:11pm

Moving the site from .de to .com extension, does is still hurt my rankings?

I've lots of links pointing to the .de location but I guess with 301 redirects it doesn't hurt, right?

Mack
July 11, 2007 - 4:18pm

Awesome post Aaron. I am about to move two sites. One to another .com and one from .co.uk to .com. That answered a lot of questions I have.

Tony
July 11, 2007 - 4:53pm

Normally what I do is put the new site up with page structure but no content. I wait for google to index all/majority pages in the new site and then 301 all old pages and add the content to the new site. It seems to be the quickest way to get all the new pages indexed and up and running. With no loss of traffic and minimal interuption. But then I haven't done any huge sites largest has been around 10,000 pages.

Steve
July 11, 2007 - 7:52pm

I've noticed that Google is quicker now to respond to new content and changes. About a year and a half ago, MSN was the quickest to respond. I guess Live wants to take time with changes. However, it is strange that Google is so quick to adjust its ranking only to shift things again shortly after the initial shuffling.

Lea
July 12, 2007 - 1:58am

I don't move a domain unless I really, really have to.
I always recommend moving it section by section, if at all possible.
Getting the linking between old and new domain right during the move can be tricky, technically

July 12, 2007 - 2:02am

One killer item to watch out for: changing links can lead back to the sandbox

Good point to look out for. That is part of the reason I kept most all of the URLs the same, and only added links in a few key sections to point at deeper parts of the site.

Moving the site from .de to .com extension, does is still hurt my rankings?

If your are in the German search results mostly because the domain extension you may not be included in that subset of results unless it is still obvious to Google that you have a German site (perhaps based on things like hosting IP location, inlink and outlink profile, and site language).

The .de can also be seen as another sign of trust and relevancy, so the local rankings may dip a bit too.

mark rushworth
July 12, 2007 - 3:08pm

yeah it can hurt but only for 3 weeks (in my experience) then google seems to pick up on the change.

Sourav
July 13, 2007 - 1:37pm

I would suggest 302 in the initial stages and then switching it to the 301...

This should be the ideal way...

July 13, 2007 - 8:55pm

Why and how would doing a 302 redirect first help?

Vic
July 14, 2007 - 12:15pm

Thanks for the help Aaron!

Wil Reynolds
July 16, 2007 - 2:22am

Aaron, thanks for the detailed review.

ramkish
July 16, 2007 - 5:33pm

wonderful article and timely. I have decided to move my static website to a CMS (Drupal). Fortunately, I have been able to figure out a way to preserve the old URLs and file extensions.

So do I need to apply the 301 riderect rule here?

January 28, 2008 - 6:50am

Unfortunately, I have no choice but to move (via 301-ing) an old, established, 8000-page website to a new domain (which is also an old domain - it's actually an older than my original domain - but doesn't have a fraction of the inbound links).

This comment above has really go me worried:

One killer item to watch out for: changing links can lead back to the sandbox. On one site, I put in 301 redirects and Google happily moved over to using the new pages. But when I changed the site-wide links from pointing to "old" pages to point to the "new" pages, Google saw that as a mass of new links pointing to new pages, and bam! Took 6 months to recover from that one...

Has anyone else experienced 301ing an entire website to a new domain and got put into the sandbox?

What should I do to avoid this problem? How do you know how fast you should move things over? How do you determine the rate in which you move pages and build new internal links without raising any flags with Google?

January 28, 2008 - 7:12am

I would suggest breaking the issue into two separate chuncks that were at least a couple months apart. Perhaps fix the link and content structure on the old domain, wait a couple months for that to get sorted out, and then 301 it to the new site.

You never know if/when a search engine might botch a redirect though.

January 28, 2008 - 9:09am

Hi Aaron,

Thanks for responding. But I don't understand your answer. When you say "breaking the issue into two separate chuncks" are you referring to breaking the site into two, and 301ing each of two sections like 2 months apart?

Also, when you say "Perhaps fix the link and content structure on the old domain", why are you suggesting I fix the old domain? I didn't think I needed to. What made you suggest that?

January 28, 2008 - 9:22am

I thought you were saying the old domain needs fixed up.

This is not a good issue to work through via blog comments though. You may want to hire a consultant to work with you on this OR move a small chunk first to test it and then move the rest.

February 27, 2008 - 8:17pm

As of today, 2-27-2008, MSN still only has the homepage indexed. Figures.
Have a happy day.
Jake

February 27, 2008 - 8:18pm

Heeh, err, only 1 page.oops

February 27, 2008 - 8:19pm

I see thousands of pages indexed.

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