Whether you’re going for a complete website overhaul or planning to leave it untouched, changing your website domain is a big deal. It makes sense to leverage the opportunity to improve your SEO ranking — something that’s often overlooked in web redesign.
Audit your site before you change your website domain.
Start by running an SEO audit to find out how your current website is performing. There are useful online tools for analysing content optimisation, including:
These tools will give you thorough reports of your site’s SEO situation, and from these, you can make strategic improvements as part of your domain change — whether small tweaks or major redesign.
Additionally, use tools like UserTesting.com or UsabilityHub to take a look at where people are clicking. Examine their conversion paths to improve the design and make it more intuitive. Strip out anything that’s bad or unnecessary. Build on the stuff that’s most viewed and that gets the most links; quality content is important in SEO.
And if you are re-launching your brand with a new website, make sure you are creating timely, compelling content to build up backlinks to the new domain.
It’s worth noting that retaining the URL structure for the old and new websites will make your life much easier! It will also have a serious negative impact on SEO if you fail to replicate pages people expect to find.
In many ways, moving your website to a new URL is the simple bit. Afterwards comes all the real work of telling everyone about it and protecting your hard-earned SEO ranking.
Once you’ve thoroughly prepared your new website, check it over thoroughly and test out all the links before it goes live. You’ll then want to register and verify your old and your new website domain with Google Search Console (previously Google Webmaster Tools).
Redirect traffic from your old website domain.
Setting up redirection is a vital thing to get right. If you don’t, you’ll snuff out all the valuable “search equity” you’ve built up and lose the search engine authority signals from your old URLs. When that happens, as Glenn Gade writes, “your rankings drop, organic search traffic drops, sales drop, revenue drops, and heads roll.” Use a 301 redirect and no other redirection format.
Thoroughness is key. You have to remember all the different routes people take to find your web pages — not just through the website itself, but also through links and shares from other sites, bookmarks and search engine results.
Step 1: Create an XML sitemap.
The first part of redirection involves creating an XML sitemap of your old website. The easiest way to do this is by crawling through it with an online tool such as Xenu Link Sleuth or Screaming Frog. Once you’ve got an automated report listing all of the title tags and meta descriptions across your website, go through it manually to check that every page is accounted for.
Create a sitemap that ranks these links in order of domain authority and relevance.
Step 2: Match the pages.
Once you have the listing of old URLs, you need to decide where you want each one redirected. You’ll need to create an XML sitemap of the new website, and then match up the old pages to the new.
Give users what they expect when they click on a link.
If you’re not making many changes, this process should be quite straightforward. However, if you don’t have a 1:1 match of old to new pages, it’s important to ensure that all redirects are relevant and seamless. Users should always get what they expect when they click on a link.
Step 3: Set up the 301 redirects.
Once you’ve tested the redirects from the old to the new domain (in a test environment) and you know they’re working, set up HTTP 301 redirects on your server. This will automatically transfer the old URLs to the relevant new URL. 301 redirects also inform search engines that the link has permanently moved. It’s worth keeping the 301 redirect on forever to avoid confusion.
Step 4: Notify the search engines.
Once your 301 redirects are in place, re-submit your old sitemap to Google and Bing to register the changes. Then upload the sitemap for the new website. As you do so, check that the updates have been properly registered and look out for crawl errors in the Diagnostics section.
You should also keep an eye on search engine rankings, which will help you to discover URLs that aren’t working properly.
Finally, you’ll need to fill out Google’s “Change of Address” form, which you can find through the little gear icon in the Search Console. This will notify Google of your preference to display your new website in the new search results instead of the old.
Follow up and check your work.
Phew, you’ve done it! But don’t sit back just yet. After you move the site, check that everything is properly linked and 301 redirected. Go through the top keywords and inbound links to ensure they land up in the right place and use a tool that monitors 404 errors to spot any unsuccessful redirects.
Keep up this vigilance for the following few days and even weeks, until you’re confident that everything’s working smoothly.
If you’ve followed the right process, you’ll build on the successes of your old website and mitigate the risk of SEO fallout. Welcome to your new website domain!