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!!!!!
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
|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|
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?
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 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
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.
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