How to move an old website to a new site address and retain Google rankings

We've just had to move another client's old site to a new one.

There are lots of inbound links but the page URL structure has completely changed for the better.

The client wants to rank right away.

What do we do?

301 the old site is the traditional answer.

Not so fast says Eric Ward who is one of the masters of link building, having built links by hand for longer than almost anyone else on the internet and for more large corporate clients than any individual I know (there are some SEO companies working fairly stealth with portfolios of almost 100 big names):

I wouldn't 301 it yet. First I'd run a backlink analysis on the old site and then visit each site linking to the old site, and for those that look exceptionally trustworthy and legit, ask them personally for a hand edit to change the link from the old site to the new site.

Painful.
Slow.
Tedious.

Effective.

Frankly for a website with thousands of backlinks, that's just not a realistic option. Well for Walt Disney or some of Eric's other clients perhaps it is. But what should the rest of us do?

  1. Run a detailed backlink analysis (we use SEO Spyglass for this as it's reliable, comprehensive and cross-platform so that I can use the same software on my Mac as the rest of the team uses on their PC's or even Linux machines). That analysis will give you the target pages of all incoming links.
  2. Make a list of all the pages which have incoming back links and look at the anchor text for those links.
  3. Find the page on the new website which best corresponds to that anchor text (the new landing page so to speak).
  4. Write a 301 redirect for each of those old pages to new pages. 301 syntax looks like this:


    redirect 301 /olddirectory/oldsubdirectory/oldfilename.htm http://newdomain.com/newdirectory/newpage

  5. Open up .htaccess and paste in the new 301 redirects (.htaccess is in the root directory of your website and is an invisible file - you need to turn on the option to see invisible files in your FTP client in order to work on .htaccess).
  6. Paste in the new 301's to your new website.
  7. Test your 301's by hand (always test everything by hand - a single colon or quotation mark out of place can disable an entire PHP file, html page or .htaccess file!).
  8. Monitor your server logs for 404's in any case. Any page which 404's often should also be 301'd.

For bonus points:

  1. Do a site:yourdomainname.com search in Google.
  2. Find the equivalent new page for each old page (depending on the site a regex redirect will be your friend).
  3. Write 301's for all the existing pages to the new equivalents (you can group pages of course, i.e. 4 different pages from the old site could get mapped to a single page on the new site).
  4. Add to .htaccess.
  5. Test.

If you follow these prescriptions to the letter, you should retain the rankings of the old site. Be prepared to see a three week to seven week dip as Google gets used to your new digs. It's a bit of manual drudgery in comparison to just a single global 301 to the new website. 

Still it's a lot less work than trying to dig up the owners of incoming links to the old site and begging them to change the links to the new site.

But Eric has a point. Any incoming links over which you have control or are of particularly high value you should seek to change by hand (although an older link will lose its age value by being changed to the new domain, so what Google gives, Google taketh away). Over time, though, the direct link will be worth more.

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5 Responses to How to move an old website to a new site address and retain Google rankings

  1. Pingback: Posts about Text Link Advertising as of December 19, 2008 | The Lessnau Lounge

  2. Pingback: The Search for KeyWordLuv Enabled Sites | onlinecareer.co.cc Blog Tips-Is Your Blog On Shaky Grounds?

  3. My site was on America Online at http://www.peopleconnectionblog.com/2008/11/06/hometown-has-been-shutdown but aol shut down all ftp space and web sites in Oct 2008. How do I tell Google and other search engines that my content is at http://www.StrategicMgtPartners.com ? AOL won’t allow redirects. There are 230 urls involved.

    Thank you

  4. Hello John,

    Unfortunately, you are completely out of luck.

    In the future, be careful to only host sites on domains you control (possible with Blogger or even Typepad). Better yet, host sites on your own domain with software which is open source, like WordPress or Drupal.

    I’m sorry to have to be the bringer of bad tidings.

    Cordial regards,

  5. Pingback: Mengel Musings » Blog Archive » How I ported my blog to Wordpress.org

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