Launching a new website without damaging your SEO is a delicate process that needs to be followed very carefully. But as the deadline for a new website launch approaches, priorities and resource tend to be focussed on getting the new site ready. SEO for the new website can easily become an after thought. Making sure that the SEO strength from the current site is passed to the new should be valued more than meeting any deadline. Read our new website SEO checklist to learn the steps you should take to ensure your site retains it’s rankings.
So how do you successfully launch a new site without harming your SEO? This is a step by step plan that should be followed when changing websites to ensure that search engines index the new site as quickly as possible, and rank your new pages in the same position as your old ones.
When you launch a new website you need to think about the various elements across your site that are going to change. The two onsite factors that can influence your search engine rankings are mainly changes to your site content, and changes to your URL structure. The key to guaranteeing your new site doesn’t suffer any SEO damage is ensuring the continuation of these two elements on your new site.
In this scenario we’re going to imagine you’re moving your website to a new domain with a whole new URL structure.
Step 1 – Gather a List of Indexed URLs
The aim here is to create a list of every URL on your website that has been indexed by Google. When you switch to the new site, each of these URL’s has to redirect to an equivalent page. Search engines value user experience, and sending searchers to broken pages is a bad for users!
Step 2 – Use Screaming Frog to Export your Pages
The first thing you should do is run your site through Screaming Frog to to create a list of all your URLs. Screaming Frog will crawl your website and export all the pages it finds into CSV for you. The free version only crawls 500 pages so it’s worth investing in the full version. It should be noted that a standard Screaming Frog crawl will only find pages that can be discovered through links on your website. On massive sites the crawler will sometimes get stuck, so you may need to configure the spider settings to ignore certain links or only crawl to a certain depth.
Search engines will often have indexed pages that are no longer accessible through links on your site. That’s why this approach is not enough on its own.
Step 3 – Extract Indexed Pages From SERPs
Chris Ainsworth from High Position has developed a great way of extracting all your indexed pages directly from Google. With this method, what you do is search for indexed pages on your site using the site: operator and change your search settings so that 100 results are displayed rather than 10. Then use the ‘Google SERP Extractor’ bookmark to generate a text list of the URL’s in the search results. Then all you need to do is copy and paste the URL list into a separate spreadsheet.
By combining the two approaches above, and using an Excel VLookup to merge them into a single list, you should have all the pages on your site that Google has indexed.
Step 4 – Create a URL Mapping List
The most important step in your site migration is mapping every single URL you found on the old site to the equivalent version on the new site. The lazy and wrong way to do this is to redirect all the pages on the old site to your homepage. If you do this you’ll lose the link equity from the old site and have an SEO disaster on your hands.
You need to 301 redirect every URL on the old site to an equivalent version on the new site. This is good for usability as it ensures users will always be served an appropriate page, but more importantly it makes sure that the trust and authority from the old site is passed to the new.
Step 5 – Check Content on the New Pages
To ensure your site retains it rankings, you need to make sure the new pages reflect the content from your old site. It’s all well and good setting up 301 redirects, but you also need to maintain your sites relevance with proper on-page optimisation. Sure, it’s good to have a relevant keyword in your Meta Title and Heading, but pay closer attentions to your on-page copy. Make sure all your pages are contextually targeted on a specific topic, and provide real value to users.
Step 6 – Set Up the Redirects
With your URL mapping complete, you now need to place all your redirects into your .htaccess file. If you’re not comfortable working with code then it’s worth getting a professional developer to help you here.
Step 7 – Test the Redirects are Working
Immediately after making the new site live, you need to test that your redirects are working. Do a site: operator search for your site and try out all your listed pages in the search results. Even after so much preparation, you’d be surprised how often you find pages that for whatever reason are not redirecting as there supposed to.
You can also run a Screaming Frog crawl on all your old URLs in list mode which will highlight any that aren’t returning 301 status code.
Step 8 – Add the New Website to Webmaster Tools and Verify it
You need to add your new domain as a new property in Google Webmaster Tools. Press the red ‘Add Site’ button on the main page to add the new site and complete one of the verification methods. This will authenticate the new version of your site, and allow you to monitor crawl rate and indexation.
Step 9 – Check your Robots.txt
During the development process, most teams set up a robots.txt that disallows all user-agents from the accessing the root of the dev site. This prevents any pages from the development version of your website getting indexed by search engines. It’s easy to forget to remove this directive when launching your site. Make sure this is updated so that search engines aren’t blocked from crawling your site.
Step 10 – Submit change of address
Go back to your Webmaster Tools home screen and find the old version of your website. Click through to the site dashboard, and press the settings (gear icon) in the top right hand corner of the screen. Press ‘Change of Address’ from the list of options. This will take you to the ‘Change of Address’ tool. This is the most important stage in the whole site migration process as it informs Google that your website has changed domains, and instrcuts them to replace the old indexed pages with those from your new site. There are four steps in this process:
- Pick Your New Site From the List – Simply press the drop down and select the new domain that you previously added.
- Confirm that the 301-redirects work properly – Press the ‘Check’ button, and Google will visit the old domain and check that it gets redirected to the new one. As long as you properly set up and tested your redirects, this should be quite straight forward.
- Check that verification methods are still present – Press the ‘Confirm’ button, and Google will check that both domains are set up and properly verified.
- Submit the change of address request – With the first three steps completed, you can now finalise the change of address process.
Step 11 – Submit XML sitemap
With your new site set up and verified in Webmaster Tools, you can now submit an xml sitemap for Google to crawl and find all your new pages. To do this go to ‘Crawl’ in the left hand menu, and select ‘Sitemaps’. On the Sitemap page, enter the address for your xml sitemap and test that it works. If it works, enter it again and submit the sitemap to Google.
Step 12 – Fetch as Google and Submit to Index
You want to get the new version of your site indexed as quickly as possible. The fastest way to do this is using using the ‘Fetch as Google’’ feature in Webmaster Tools. To access this, go to ‘Crawl’ in the left hand menu, and select ‘Fetch as Google’. You want them to crawl your whole website, so leave the URL field blank so that it crawls from the root. Press the ‘Fetch and Render’ button and it will crawl your site straight away. Once it’s finished loading, press the ‘Submit to Index’ button. This method has been known to get new pages indexed within 20 minutes.
With all of the above steps completed, all you can do is sit back and wait. Over time Google will update the SERPs to reflect your new domain. So long as the pages on your old site are properly redirecting to your new site, you should be ok.
Keep a close watch on your rankings and observe your organic search traffic. Keep checking your landing pages in Analytics to make sure they’re still bringing people to your site.
Migrating to a new domain is a tricky area, but so long as you follow these steps you will be ok. I can’t emphasis enough the importance of getting those redirects right. Check, double check, and then check again.