When performing site migration to new domain, that is keeping the sites’ content but changing its domain name and thus its web address, there’s a lot to take care of from a SEO point of view. Such migrations are not only complicated from a technical perspective but also very problematic, as they affect SEO quite negatively.
While you cannot completely avoid a SEO-shakeup when changing domain name, there are certain steps you can take to prevent a disaster and make the transition smoother.
This post will help you:
- fully understand the process of changing domain
- carry out the optimal migration process with minimal impact on SEO and customer trust
- check for errors and troubleshoot when ready
Changing Domain: Explained
Deciding to carry out this type of migration is never a good choice but can be necessary due to business acquisitions, shift in branding strategies, shift in business strategies, legal issues, and similar. It’s never a move that benefits SEO or businesses right away but can potentially strengthen their profile in the long run.
Changing domain can be done in two ways: by keeping the old site under the old domain live, creating a new site copy under the new domain, and redirecting all pages of the old website to the new pages; and by directly disconnecting the old domain and pointing the new domain to your existing website.
From a SEO perspective, neither method is ideal but the first one, when carried out properly, is to prefer, as it allows you to keep at least some of your current SEO score.
The second method is much easier from a technical perspecitve but is equal to starting from scratch and fighting to improve the website’s SEO scores as you would with a completely new website.
When changing domain, you can expect to lose backlinks or a part of their SEO-weight at least. Additionally, you may experience drop in web traffic due to change of address (method two) or loss of returning visitors due to change of domain and possibly branding. There are some things you can do to counteract a complete SEO disaster but, truth being said, the negative impact of change of domain name cannot be completely avoided.
It’s worth to note that the popular move from HTTP to HTTPS is also considered a site migration by Google, even though the process and its consequences aren’t comparable to a real migration to new domain.
To conclude, such transitions are technically complicated. In the same time, they pose serious threat to SEO and customer retention. Even when carried out according to best practice, such a move will hurt any business, brand or private blogger in the short run. Exactly how much they’ll be affected, depends though on one’s ability to foresee and counteract threats.
Step-By-Step Site Migration To New Domain
- The first step, when performing a site migration to new domain, is to map all risks and plan how to minimize or avert them. Such risks include:
- sudden drop in rankings and loss of SERP-real estate;
- loss of generated backlinks (it will happen at some point, either right away or later on in the process);
- loss of returning customers and difficulties attracting new ones, due to the sudden change in URL and branding;
- issues with rebranding of social media profiles and loss of followers;
- additional work load when reconnecting services to the new domain;
- additional work load when fixing broken internal links
- issues with getting employees (if applicable) to accept the change and get involved with the new brand
- When ready with the planning part of the process, you can purchase your new domain. If possible, try to choose a domain that won’t make it necessary to change domain name again. That is, research whether there is a company world-wide that might claim rights on your newly chosen business name and domain. It’s a good SEO practice to purchase the domain for at least a few years ahead. This is a way to to tell search engines that you’re serious about your business and plan to be here for a long time.
- For the most part, a domain is an integral part of the setup of your hosting. As long as you don’t plan to keep the old site with the old domain live (this is highly recommended!), you should contact your server manager or hosting provider and ask them to change the main domain for the hosting account. Optimally, you should set up a new account and migrate your site to it. Remember to set the new domain as the primary domain for the account.
- Technically, you only need to disconnect your old domain from your website and point the new one to it by editing its DNS settings in order to carry out the migration. If you, however, want to maintain SEO and do it right, you should keep the old domain live and pointing to the old site as long as possible – at least until the new site gains traction but optimally forever, and point the new domain to a separately hosted copy, as described in point 3. This is a way to secure at least some link juice and web traffic from your old domain (this is explained below).
- Edit all URLs and internal links to fit the new domain and site structure. It’s very important to discover and edit all links, including the ones in the WordPress database, to avoid site errors. A tool like the plugin Better Search Replace can help you with this task. Simply enter the part of the URLs that needs to change and what it has to be replaced with, for example, old-domain.com->new-domain.com. You do not neet to write the whole URLs, just the part that has to be replaced. The plugin will then search through all pages and connected databases and apply the change. Remember to double check that everything on the site works, once done.
- Implement 301 redirects from the old pages to the respective new pages. It is important to implement the redirects on per-page basis and not for the whole site in order to make them work. This way, at least in theory, your new site should get the SEO boost from the backlinks pointing to your old pages. I say at least in theory, as SEO specialists have reasons to suspect that some of the link juice doesn’t get transferred. However, this is the only way you can minimize the negative SEO impact of a changing domain. This is also the reason why completely removing your old site and immediately stopping the use of the old domain is not recommended. If possible, keep the old domain and site live. 301 redirects help also avoid penalties due to duplicated content for the period where both site copies are live. It’s worth to note that, if redirects aren’t implemented properly, it’s the new site that will get penalized, as the old site will be identified as the original source of content.
- Register the site migration with Google Search Console. Log into your profile and choose the site that is about to move. Click on Settings in the top bar and choose Change of Address. Then, follow the 4 steps of the process (see the screenshots below). Note! Changing the protocol of your site (http to https) will also lead to the creation of a new site with new URL (your site will be accessible both via http and https), however, this kind of migration doesn’t need to – and can’t at the moment – be registered with Google. In such cases it’s enough to implement a site-wide 301 redirects (see point 6).
- Optimally, you should track and find the most valuable sites that link to your old pages, contact site managers, and ask them to change the links to the new URLs. This is, in fact, also good SEO for them, as they would otherwise have to deal with broken links, once you take your old site down. There’re many ways to map the backlinks on your site. you can, for example, use the site explorer tool on Majestic. Simply enter your site’s domain, click enter, and, when the report appears, choose the tab Referring domains. You don’t need to register or pay to perform this search.
- Once the new domain has propagated, you must edit all of your social media profiles to reflect the new brand and the site’s new URL. Of course, you should already have notified followers about the upcoming change and instructed them how to act. In some cases, when your profile has above a certain number of followers, you cannot change its name. This presents you with a challenge, especially if you aren’t allowed to use the old name any more. You’ll not only have to create a new profile but also convince followers to move with you to the brand new profile. Consider to offer them an incentive to move.
- Websites are most often connected to multiple services, such as hosting, CDN, SSL certificates, analytics, ad networks, webmaster tools, A/B testing, SEO services, chat or service desk, emails, and much more. The first thing you must do after migrating to the new domain is to recreate your emails and set up forwarders for your old email addresses (only applicable if you decide to keep your old domain live). Only this way you can make sure that you won’t miss out on business opportunities and will maintain proper customer care. After taking care of emails, make a list of all services connected to your old website and decide, which ones to move. If you advertise via ad networks, it’s crucial to stop all campaigns, pointing to your old domain, and exchange them with updated ad copies.
- In the beginning, your old domain is the new site’s only source of backlinks, brand recognition, and loyal site visitors. You should therefore, if possible, keep it live at least until the new website starts generating more traffic than the old one. Given that domain age and registration period are a ranking factor, it’s wise to keep the old domain as an organic traffic source. This is, of course, only applicable to reputable domains that have been around for a while. Even if this isn’t the case though, as long as your old site is popular among your target group, this is enough of a reason to keep it live. Redirecting returning site visitors to your new site is the best way to get your first loyal site visitors and make the transition from the old to the new brand smoother.
Troubleshooting Common Issues
- Site inaccessible after migrating to new domain. The reasons can be two: the domain hasn’t propagated yet or you have set the DNS settings wrongly. In the first case, you don’t have to do anything, just wait till the domain propagates. It can take up to 72 hours, once the process is initiated. If you’ll carry out the migration with the help of the registrar’s customer service, the process can take up to a week. If the error isn’t caused by pending domain propagation, double-check your DNS settings. In the fields for name servers you should enter the name servers of the new hosting account as provided by your hosting provider. Most of the time, you get two name servers per domain. Enter them, one per line.Rarely, errors occur due to improper site migration to a new hosting account. In such cases, make sure that all the files got transferred, none got altered or caught in the process, the site is correctly connected to its databases, and the hosting account is set up properly.
- Not receiving any emails. The reasons can be four: you didn’t set up the new emails correctly in the new hosting’s control panel; you didn’t set up the email forwarders in the old hosting’s control panel correctly; you deleted the old emails from the old hosting’s control panel; you haven’t reset the email client you’re using to reflect the change. As it is expected that most of your loyal customers will need some getting-used-to time, they’ll likely continue contacting you via the old email addresses.
- New domain not showing in search. Google and other search engines need time to crawl and index new sites. Therefore, it’s expected that some time passes before you start seeing the new domain in search. However, implementing 301 redirects is also designed to instruct search engines to go to follow the redirect to the new page destinations, thus discover and index them. That’s why, as long as the new domain doesn’t appear in search after maximum one week, you must check, whether the 301 redirects are implemented correctly. If you chose to not keep the old domain live, thus no 301 redirects were implemented, it can take longer for search engines to discover and index the site.
- New domain ranking very poorly. It is expected that a new domain ranks lower than an established one. However, if it ranks too low or doesn’t seem to recover over time, this might be a sign that it has been blacklisted or punished. Keep in mind that domains have a history from the time before you purchased them. Thus, as long as the domain was used for a spam site, you can’t expect quick recovery in rankings. It will come eventually but the costs for your business will be high.
- SSL certificate invalid. Securing sites with SSL is pretty common now. This means that you have probably purchased a SSL certificate for the old domain. When migrating to new domain, you might forget that SSL certificates are bound to a domain name. Therefore, you must remember to get a new certificate in order to avoid invalid certificate label in browsers.