Web U: Stay Master of Your Domain

Search-engine spiders are simple creatures and easily confused

Changing domain names can make sense for many businesses but, like switching telephone numbers or e-mail addresses, it comes with a potential downside: Some people might not know how to find your new site. Even a significant site redesign can create problems if, for instance, your new site isn't optimized for search engines.

But there are steps you can take to make it easier for people to find your new site or domain name. Basically, to preserve your traffic and rankings, you need to set up a complete set of redirects from the old page to the new page. These will eventually cause the search engines to properly credit your inbound links to the new site instead of the old one. The new URLs should also replace the old URLs in the search results.

Also, make sure not to let your old domain name expire. Renew it for 10 years and leave those redirects in place forever. If the domain expires and someone else scoops it up, you'll have lost the credit of the inbound links.

Moving beyond the basics, there are specific strategies for managing the transition to a new website or domain. Here are the top 11 steps you must take to ensure success.

> Create a comprehensive site map of the current site. This is not the site map that you typically see on a Web site. Rather it should conform to the standards set out at sitemaps.org. Let's call this Old Site Map.

> Create a comprehensive site map of the new site - á la sitemaps.org guidelines. Let's call this New Site Map.

> Map the two site maps together. Find all the pages in the new site that have a counterpart in the old site. Excel is a great tool for doing this work if you have to do it by hand. Often this kind of mapping is going to have large segments of data that fit a pattern, such as product catalogs or article databases. Redirection for patterns can be managed much more easily than thousands of unique one-to-one URLs.

> Talk to your it team about setting up an htaccess file (Apache servers) or ISAPI_Rewrite (IIS). If you are using IIS, you need to buy ISAPI_Rewrite at isapirewrite.com because doing mass redirects on IIS without it is not a good plan.

> Create a custom 404 page for any pages on the old site that will not exist on the new site.

> Test, test and re-test. Put up the redirects in a development environment and test the heck out of them.

> Stop for a breather and take stock. At this point you should have two full site maps and a working set of redirect rules. Take a deep breath and stiff shot of your favorite liquid courage. Now, proceed to Launch Day.

> Flip the switch, push the button, yell at a developer, or do whatever it is you need to do, and put the new site live and pull the old site down. The redirects must go live at this point as well. We want zero chance for a search-engine spider to get a dead page.

> Submit Old Site Map to Google (google.com/webmasters/tools/docs/en/about.html) and to Yahoo (siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com).

> Monitor results for each engine over the next few weeks to track the old URLs being replaced with new URLs.

> Once the new site is fully indexed or as close to it as possible, delete Old Site Map from your Google and Yahoo accounts and submit New Site Map.

The theory here is to give the search engines as much chance as possible to find all those redirects. Search-engine spiders are simple creatures and get easily confused. These 11 steps will ensure that hard redesign work is rewarded rather than ignored, or even penalized, by the engines.

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