For any number of reasons, you may need to migrate your website from one host to another. This may be because you are dissatisfied with your current web host or because you’ve decided you need a host that offers certain features. Website migration might also entail using a new domain name or redesigning your entire site. Whether you are changing web hosts, domain or both, there are certain technical challenges involved in migrating a website. One concern, however, that is especially important if your website has any significant traffic and search engine rank is what effect, if any, migration will have on SEO.
Migration can, in fact, cause your ranking to go down if you don’t take certain precautions. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to protect your site’s SEO when migrating. SEO is not the only potential problem that can occur with migration. Another is downtime. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, as having any significant downtime is likely to cause a drop in the search engines. So some of the measures that will prevent downtime will also protect your site’s search engine standing. Let’s look at some of the most effective steps that will make the transition from one web host to another as smooth and problem-free as possible.
One mistake that website owners often make when migrating is to cancel their old hosting before the migration is complete. You may be anxious to cut your ties with the old host, but you should always wait until your website is safely established with the new host before canceling.
Canceling too soon can result in the loss of essential files, downtime and a drop in the search engine rankings. Once all of your files have been uploaded to the new server, you can safely inform the old host that you are taking your business elsewhere. The other side of the coin is that you should make sure your new hosting is active before you attempt to upload files from your website.
Before making the migration, take the time to gather all relevant statistics about the current state of your website’s SEO. You can get this information using Webmaster Tools or any other tracking tools you might use.
For best results, you should have a comprehensive plan in place for the migration rather than proceeding in a haphazard manner. You don’t want to schedule the migration at a time that’s especially busy. Depending on the website, this might be weekends, nights, a holiday season or summer vacation. If you’re working on your own website, arrange it at a time when traffic tends to be lowest. If you’re doing this for a client, you should consult with them to find out when downtime would cause the least harm.
If at all possible, make sure that your new host uses the same type of control panel as your old one. This isn’t usually an issue nowadays, as most hosts use cPanel. Some, however, use PleskPanel or other applications including proprietary software, so always make sure you know what you’re getting into first. Assuming that you are working with cPanel, you will have to locate the setting “Backup,” where you will be able to back up the site’s main files and download the backup. You can download the entire site or by subdomain. You can also obtain backups of MySQL databases, which should be compressed and later uploaded to the new server. Don’t decompress any files, as this is done by the new server.
When you are ready, you will upload the compressed files to the new server. Your new host will send you the IP address and domain name servers, which you will need to access your cPanel and view the content of your website prior to DNS propagation.
At this point, you will log in to your cPanel and go to the same section you went to when downloading your files. In this case, however, you will seek the file upload area and the Backup Restore feature. You will then select full site backup and upload your files. You should also make sure that you add all of the necessary information to your FTP account, such as users, permissions and passwords.
You should maintain the consistency of URLs as much as possible. Even small changes in the structure of an URL can have a detrimental effect on SEO. This includes removing connecting words and changing the order of words, such as changing “rank-your-website” to “website-ranking.”
You should also maintain the consistency of your title tags and meta tags, as well as the page navigation system you have in place. Any breadcrumb trails you use for categories and subcategories should be maintained as well.
After you have completed the migration, you should check for potential problems such as broken links or errors. Go to the Crawl Errors section of Webmaster Tools to check for common errors such as 404, Access Denied, 500 and others.
Redirecting URLs is one of the most important steps in the migration process. This is, of course, for pages where the URL is going to be different. When it comes to preserving your site’s SEO, it’s absolutely essential to redirect all of your URLs. This can be done using 301 redirects. Make sure you use 301 rather than 302 redirects, because the latter are only temporary redirects and can result in losing your ranking for important pages. Don’t neglect internal links, which are also valuable for SEO.
For valuable links, you can also contact the website owners where the links are hosted and provide them with your new URL. This, however, is not reliable as you can’t always be certain that the webmaster will take the trouble to do this for you.
You can use tools such as MajesticSEO and OpenSiteExplorer, among others, to identify the pages that have your most important links and other important data such as social media signals. Webmaster Tools can also provide you with information on which of your pages have the most links.
Meta robot tags instruct search engines whether or not to include pages in search engine results. Using crawler tools such as Screaming Frog can tell you if these tags are configured in the right way. Canonical tags inform the search engines which version of an URL is preferred, such as with or without “www” or http vs. https.
Another thing that can adversely effect SEO is having a Disallow command in your robots.txt file. This command, which you may want to use while the site is still in development, tells the search engines not to crawl your pages. You can find out the status of this file by typing in: site.com/robots.txt.
The following are some final steps for ensuring that your website migration proceeds as smoothly as possible with no adverse effects to your ranking.
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