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 considerations to make and actions to take that can prevent a disaster and help you make the transition smoother.
This post will help you:
- fully understand what site migration to new domain entails
- carry out the optimal migration process with minimal impact on SEO and customer trust
- check for errors and troubleshoot when ready
Understanding Site Migration To New Domain
Deciding to carry out this type of migration is never a good choice but can be necessary due to acquisitions, shift in branding strategies, shift in business strategies, legal issues, and similar. It’s never a move that benefits sites or businesses right away but can potentially strengthen their profile in the long run.
When migrating a site to new domain, what really happens is that the old domain gets disconnected from the site and the new one is pointed to it via its DNS settings. This means that none of your links, neither internal nor backlinks, will work anymore, as the root of all URLs changes when changing the domain name.
Even though Google has a tool for registering site migrations to new domains as a way to smoothen the process, this won’t solve the major issues: SEO crash due to loss of backlinks and other ranking signals; and loss of site visitors, due to change of web address and shift in branding. There are things you can do to counteract the 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 due to a large number of considerations that need to be made. They pose in the same time 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 signal for 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 though 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 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, 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 internal links to avoid site errors. A tool like the Free Broken Link Checker can help you map all links that need to be edited.
- Implement 301 redirects from the old pages to the respective new pages. This way, at least in theory, your new site should get a 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 migration to new 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, until the new one gains traction. 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 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 images 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 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 to 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 provide 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 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 this isn’t the case, 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 have to do it via customer service, it can take up to a week to initiate the process. You should, however, check the DNS settings to make sure that they are correct. In the fields for name servers enter the name servers as provided by your hosting provider. Most of the time, you get two name servers per domain. Enter them one per line.
- Rarely, a site can get inaccessible in connection to change of domain due to the eventual migration to new host. In such cases, make sure all the files are transferred, none got altered 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 will pass before you start seeing the new domain in search. However, implementing 301 redirects is also designed to instruct search engines to go to the new page destinations. 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 new 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.