Changing Domains – How not to screw it up!
- November 20, 2008
- by Andy Heaps
If your new domain is sat there gathering dust, it shouldn’t be. Even just 1 page of relevant, unique content (rather than an error page or domain parking page) will go a long way towards informing a search engine of the domain’s existence. The occasional link to help with indexing wouldn’t go a miss either! The sooner you do this the sooner some search engine history and authority, no matter how small, can begin to be built.
Phase the transition
With so many unknowns, it is important to complete this task in as controlled an environment as possible. We have done this successfully for a number of clients by phasing the transition from one domain to the other. To do so choose a relatively unimportant section of your website, and host that section on newdomain.com. Then, implement 301 redirects from olddomain.com/test-section/allpages to newdomain.com/test-section/allpages. There are many resources out there that can explain how to do this better than I can so check this and this for more info.
Before implementing the above, make a note of the traffic and rankings of this section. This is an important benchmark that will help you gauge the potential ramifications of the full domain change.
Next, update all internal links (both navigational and contextual) to this section on olddomain.com to link to the relevant page of newdomain.com. Remember – we are aiming to make the search engines’ job as easy as possible.
Monitor the impact of rankings and traffic to these pages – did newdomain.com simply replace olddomain.com in the rankings? Did both vanish completely? If so for how long? Were traffic levels sustained? Ideally monitor this until rankings and traffic are restored to previous levels. It will provide an idea of what to expect when the rest of the site is transitioned – and help you manage expectations of all around you.
The phased transition will begin to make an association between the new and old domains, and building new links will help further. Basic link building techniques such as creating and submitting quality articles and press releases to the likes of ezinearticles and prweb is one of the simplest and easiest ways to do this. Embedding links in articles to pages on both the old and new domain will help build the association between domains, but also adds all important link equity to the new domain.
Take the leap
There will come a time where you have done all the tests and second guessing of the results you can. At this point you should have a good idea of how things are going to go. As scary as it may (or may not) seem at this point, the full domain migration needs to happen sooner or later. Revisit the steps taken during the above test and roll out across the full domain. It is even more important now to ensure that 301 redirects are implemented correctly and all internal links are updated to reflect the new domain. With that done, create and submit sitemaps to the search engines and begin the focus on link building.
We mentioned above the use of articles and press releases as a simple yet effective way to build links to the new site. If (as is often the case) the domain change is in conjunction with a rebrand or new website launch this is the perfect opportunity to utilise your PR strategy to create buzz about, and ultimately links to the new domain. Beyond that a much bigger job then begins. That is, working your way through the existing link profile of olddomain.com and updating links to point at newdomain.com instead. This can be a slow, tedious process that will involve attempting to contact as many sites in your link profile as possible. It will however, be worth it. In theory the link juice would eventually be passed to newdomain.com anyway (via the 301 redirects) but there is no telling how long that will take to filter though to the SERPs. Working through a download of your link profile from Google Webmaster Tools, Yahoo Site Explorer and SEOmoz’s Linkscape may save valuable weeks of lost rankings, visits and custom.
With all redirects in place and hopefully working, now is the time to monitor monitor monitor! Xenu’s Link Sleuth will help identify broken links on the new domain and redirect errors on the old domain. Google’s Webmaster Tools console will highlight any crawl errors, HTML errors, 404 errors etc, for both the new and old domain. Be sure to verify your domains to get all available info. Tools such as these can be a godsend when you are left scratching your head. Spending time on this analysis will help ensure any issues are dealt with ASAP – essential in the overall success of the domain migration.
Tell the search engines
The main motivation of this whole approach is to tackle the uncertainty of how search engines will treat a domain change. So, informing the people who matter at the search engines has got to be a job worth doing! If you know anything about search you will know that Matt Cutts is the man at Google when it comes to this sort of thing. He can be found at his blog and on Twitter amongst other places. A polite message via either of those could (although not guaranteed) help if you’re experiencing problems. The Google team (most frequently JohnMu and Adam Lasnik) also read and respond to messages submitted to the Webmaster Indexing & Crawling Google Group, and re-inclusion requests submitted through Google Webmaster Tools. Again, be sure to be logged into your verified GWT account. A simple courtesy message explaining the domain migration (and any issues you are having) will at least get it on the radar of the right people.
New Domain History
Another consideration that can impact success is the history of newdomain.com. If it is a recently acquired domain, ask yourself the following questions and carry out the analysis to be able to answer them:
- Does it have a tarnished past? Try to get an idea of its history by seeing what it was used for in a former life. Moving to a domain that has been (or worse, is) banned in any of the major search engines is not a good idea!
- What is the link profile of the new domain – does it have links from bad neighbourhoods (link farms, link networks etc)? If so are you likely to be able to get them removed? Such links could be placing the domain at risk.
- Are there any potential geo-targeting issues: Are many back-links from foreign websites? Did its content target a foreign audience – e.g. are you moving from a .co.uk to a .com that previously targeted a US audience? If so you will need to consider how to ensure it is seen as a UK rather than US site. This topic warrants its own blog post, but in the meantime takes a look at this summary.
To summarise: plan, plan some more, and then do a little bit more planning! Phase your implementation and give yourself plenty of time and act on the results you see. The best domain change is one that goes unnoticed – both by your customers and your bosses!