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How to reduce SEO risk in migrations, domain changes, etc.

Written by joomfreak // Thursday, 21 November 2013 12:03
How to reduce SEO risk in migrations, domain changes, etc. © Ralf Kollmann -

How to reduce SEO risk in migrations, domain changes, etc.

We often get requests for help about SEO management on the forum from people who need to migrate their website (e.g. for the forthcoming version 3.5), change domain name, or simply refresh their site with a graphic restyle and structural revamp to create new business opportunities.

In this initial article, I’ll be going through the various types of migration and the issues involved. It is important to bear all this in mind when undertaking any kind of migration.

What migration is. We’ll explore what we mean by migration in this case, talking about restyling, domain change, structural changes, and changing CMS. We also look at migration as it is usually discussed in the Joomla world; in particular, that means the risks in moving between versions, whether from 1.5 to 2.5 or to the future version 3.5.

Why migrate and not start over. We’ll explain why it is a good idea to migrate and not start from scratch with a new domain or simply a new site.

What to migrate. Migration costs a great deal of both money and effort, so it is well worth understanding what needs to be migrated and what can be left on the back burner.

Pre-migration tools. To get a grip on what is worth migrating, there are some tools that I cannot do without; they help me to understand which pages are the most valuable for my website and my business.

When to migrate. There is a time for war and a time for peace. And this is war. Getting the timing wrong can be highly damaging and can compromise all your hard-won progress.

How to migrate. Personally, I prefer to work things out carefully in advance. In a migration, you want everything to go smoothly to plan.

Migration tools. Finally, we’ll see which tools we can use to migrate our website properly without nasty surprises.

These are just some of the many problems that you have to tackle when migrating to a new site without damaging the SEO. It is important to avoid the common error of rushing to get your new domain and design online and losing all your traffic in the process. You need to think of SEO for the new site right from the outset, to avoid losing sackfuls of visitors from the search engines; ideally, you’d like to gain some.

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for visitor numbers to decline because of a domain change, a new design or a CMS migration, but this is not hard to avoid if you are patient enough to avoid the many traps lying in wait.

What is a migration?

Let’s start by clarifying a few things. In Joomla, when we talk of migration, we immediately think of moving from one version to another of our favourite CMS. Not that this process is immune to SEO risks, but we shall be focusing here on all those operations that, in modifying the structure, can change the URLs and lead the search engines to reconsider our site.


Changing domain name

Changing a website’s domain name can drastically impact on visibility and should be done only if genuinely essential, because this is probably the operation that can lose you more traffic than any other. That’s because every domain name is associated with various metrics (trust, authority, etc.), characteristics (domain age, geolocation signals, etc.) and, above all, backlinks.

So you need to redirect every page of the old site to the new URLs on the new domain – but please don’t just redirect all the old pages to the new home page.

Another essential task is to use the Change of Address tool in Google Webmaster Tools. This works at site level, so it helps Google understand clearly that this transition is valid for the entire domain, not just for specific pages of your website.

Changing CMS

Another typical migration is the change of CMS. Suppose a WordPress user wants to switch to a real CMS that can build proper sites: they will have to move their old site to a completely different structure in terms of managing categories, pages and URLs; for example, the images associated with the articles will be filed differently, and so on.

Hence, it will be important to establish the structural features of the two CMSs straight away, because the different way of storing the files will impact on SEO. This means:

  • different locations for the files

  • different relative URLs for the images

  • a different way of handling URL rewriting

  • different management of the categories

  • different page management.

All these very disparate structural characteristics will give the search engine the impression that it is looking at a new site, with new pages and new content.


Graphic restyling

Very often, we think only of the sexy new graphics; we can’t wait to get it all online and show everyone how great our cheap new template looks. But actually, restyling a site is one of those things where it is extremely easy to underestimate SEO risks.

What few people realise, and many overlook, is that this seemingly simple task, affecting only the template, will actual entail rewriting if not the content then the source code of our website pages. And this will force the search engines into a general reappraisal of the site.

The relative proportions of text (as content) and source code are sure to change. And the sequence in which the search engine’s spider encounters the various elements – scripts, images, menus and external links – will most probably alter, too.

What is certain to change is the pages’ load speed, which is determined by the new scripts and images. And the previously indexed images will disappear to make way for the new ones, which all remain to be indexed and positioned.


Categories tree

Another point that many people skate over is changing the categories. For each category change, we generate a series of pages not found; hence, we lose all connection with what presumably was considered a folder in our rewritten URL. Not least, we risk losing any recognised site links offered in the SERPs or, more importantly, the backlinks associated with the now-orphaned pages that we are disregarding.


Migrating to a new version of Joomla

Migrating to a new Joomla version is not without its risks. Probably – fortunately, I’d say – the upgrade from 2.5 to 3.5 should be pain-free, but moving from the old 1.5 to the current version will surely prove a delicate business in SEO terms.

We could consider this exercise a “lite” version of a CMS change – we’ll have a different way of handling the SEO extensions and, therefore, the URL rewriting; the sections don’t exist anymore, so the category-management will differ, too. The SEO management is fundamentally dissimilar, and past approaches are not guaranteed to work.


In sum, there are many ways to migrate a site, all very risky from the SEO perspective; indeed, we should ask ourselves if it is really worth it or whether we would be better off starting afresh with a brand new site.

Migrating, not starting over

Given what we’ve been saying about the many risks involved, you might think that it is better not to migrate or that it is often not worth the effort. Don’t forget that the risk is not from the migration in itself but rather from the change that you have decided to make to your site.

Actually, it is always worth migrating, because even though it’s tough, I can count on the past positioning work, on the network of backlinks that have been built up, and on the reliability, age, topicality and trust that my domain has earned during its lifetime.

With proper planning, I can expedite matters and significantly cut the time and cost of migration, making it almost painless. When migrating, it is vital to know what is worth bringing with you and what you can leave behind.

certainly must bring across all those well-positioned pages that attract traffic to my site; I must also try to migrate the pages with lots of backlinks, which determine my site’s rank. And I really ought to bring over the landing pages that I have used over time for campaigns and that could still generate leads.

Technically, it should be easy to conclude that starting from scratch by developing an SEO strategy for a new site will take longer than a migration, if there is a history (albeit possibly a fairly minor one) that the search engine will take account of.

Perhaps the only scenario where we might consider starting again from scratch is for a heavily penalised site with very poor trust.

And it probably isn’t worthwhile even then, as it is likely to be easier to clean up the site and get back in the search engines’ good books again. But that is another story, and maybe we’ll tell it some other time.

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