By Ken W Richards

In this article I will explain how to safely migrate your website to a new host without losing search engine ranking. Or in other words, how NOT to migrate your site to another host and avoid the same mistakes that I have made.

Mistakes to Avoid

About five years ago, I needed to migrate my website to a new hosting platform. The problem was, I wanted to move the site to a Unix host and I had built a website using Active Server Pages hosted under Windows Internet Information Server (web server). At the time, my windows host had experienced significant downtime and numerous service outages which were impacting my business.

Being the competent programmer that I am, I decided to just convert the whole site to PHP so that it could easily be hosted on my newly acquired whiz bang fancy hosting server. That was not an undertaking that I took lightly, although I definitely should have paid more attention to the search engines before even considering this change.

I was of the naive opinion that since my website was still under the same domain name and the content was identical that search engines such as Google would realize that this is the same site and I wouldn’t lose any page rank. The major mistake that I made was that I had changed to a new scripting language which caused all of my URLs to change. Instead of a URL ending with portfolio.asp, I now had all of my pages with the new PHP extension like portfolio.php.

This was mistake number 1. My second mistake was not redirecting my original URLs using Apache’s URL rewriting module (mod_rewrite). This module will tell all visitors looking for the old pages, that a web page has permanently moved via an HTTP redirect (status code 301). Without this information, all of my hard-earned page rank was lost and by the time that I figured out what happened, it was too late for me to correct the problem.

This kind of mistake is every webmaster’s nightmare and definitely something you should hope to avoid. One thing you realize as a webmaster is that no website change should be taken lightly. Be aware of the implications of your actions on the search engines and also for visitors to your site who expect a certain level of usability and friendliness from you website.

Website Mistakes to Avoid

  • Changing your page URLs (script names, document path, or domain name)
  • Converting Your Site to Another Scripting Language so that the URL is affected (see above)
  • Duplicating content from one page to another
  • Duplicating content from one domain to another
  • Duplicating title tags
  • Duplicating META description tags

Duplicating content is a big concern for webmasters due to the way that search engines index content. When a search engine finds duplicate content, it will just ignore the duplicated content. Only content for the primary or most “authoritative” page will be indexed. As a webmaster, you will want to ensure that your content is unique and also relevant to the web page its located on.

Webmasters should also be careful not to duplicate content in TITLE and META DESCRIPTION elements which appear in the HEAD section of a document. This content is picked up by search engines and used to create the actual search results which appear in sites such as Yahoo and Bing.

How to Safely Migrate a Website

So now that you have read my admonitions, but you still want to migrate your site to a new host, here are some guidelines to follow to do so safely without losing page rank.

First and foremost, before you begin any migration, you must make sure your website conforms to the Google Webmaster Guidelines. These guidelines contain detailed instructions on what search engines look for in a website. The rules not only help you to make your site more usable for visitors and searchers, they also help you to rank better for important keywords for organic search marketing.

If you are changing URLs

If you are changing URLs for the pages on your site because you are converting to a new server-side scripting language or you are just re-organizing pages on your website, you should follow these additional guidelines:

  • Make sure you put a permanent redirect (HTTP status 301) for all of the old URLs on your site you wish to migrate.
  • If you really care about search engine rankings, minimize your use of Flash, Silverlight, Java and JavaScript.
  • All pages should be navigated using standard HTML hyperlinks
  • All relevant content should be embedded using plain old HTML

What if I lose Page Rank?

What should you do if you lose page rank after a migration? Whether you followed the guidelines above or not, you can still take corrective action as long as it hasn’t been too long since you performed your migration.

The first thought on a lot of webmaster’s minds is to revert the website back to the old version to attempt to regain the page rank. This may certainly be an option, but it is not one that I would advise. The following suggestions should help you to regain your page rank without reverting your website.

  • If you haven’t already, follow all of the guidelines above for migrating your site properly
  • This includes putting in all of the redirects for URLs which have changed
  • Google allows you to request reconsideration of your website due to poor ranking
  • Page rank can be lost as the result of a penalty incurred because a website has participated in a link-swapping scheme or purchased links for improving search engine rank.

Monitoring Your Ranking

There are a lot of tools available to webmasters who wish to track their website rankings. Check out Search Engine Optimization plug-ins for Firefox and Google Chrome browsers. They provide webmasters with a wealth of information for marketing your website. Some of the features they offer include search engine ranking, total pages indexed, number of backlinks, and any HTML validation errors that occurred while parsing the HTML markup.

Check out the Web Rank toolbar for the Firefox browser and Chrome SEO add-on for the Chrome browser. Also, the SEO site tools add-on for Chrome is very useful for tracking your search engine metrics. To learn more about online marketing of websites, check out the SEO Moz website. You will find lots of information here regarding optimizing and marketing your website.

Be sure to educate yourself on SEO and SEM because it is a continually evolving field and there are new discoveries and innovations being made all the time. Only through constant vigilance and persistence can webmasters hope to market and manage a business successfully.

Ken is the founder of Orvado Technologies, a San Diego Web Design company building custom web apps using search engine optimization and intuitive user interfaces.

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