Has Google made domain migration tougher?

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  • December 2, 2013

Changing domains has never been something to be taken lightly but in the past year, Google appears to have made it tougher for brands to carry out a legitimate re-brand, or domain change for other reasons, without suffering catastrophic SEO losses. We’ve been talking to a number of businesses that have changed domains and lost huge amounts of SEO visibility, even after doing some of the things that are usually recommended during a migration.

It seems that Google has got a lot stricter recently when it comes to deciding whether to transfer trust and authority to a new domain. Unless you execute the migration perfectly (which big brands dealing with lots of issues and constraints often fail to do) you run the risk of having a disaster. Any issues that can affect trust and authority such as lingering unnatural link messages or duplicate content/page bloat all come into play during the migration and it seems that if you combine one or two of these issues with not redirecting every single page to the relevant new page, Google will not pass full authority through to the new site.

The charts below show (I won’t say who these brands are as that’s not the point of this post) how big an issue this can be to a brand that has good SEO performance.




When changing domains, the best way to approach the project is to assume that you will lose all SEO traffic unless you get every single part of the migration perfect. If you are working for a brand about to do this then it is critical that you get this right otherwise you could say goodbye to a lot of revenue.

Changing design/structure/IP address/content etc.

This is a simple one, if you change too many things at once then Google won’t pass over your authority. Changing your domain is a risky project so you should not change anything else at the same time. Just migrate your site in its current form to the new domain and maybe change the logo if you are re-branding. If you do have to change other things then you need to make sure you get your redirects absolutely perfect.


The first rule here is that you have to redirect every single URL on your site to the exact same URL on the new domain. This is easy if you are just changing the domain but if you have to change structure as well it gets complicated. The best way to do this is not to get the development agency who is building the new site to do the redirects as they will normally not do a very good job. What we suggest is to keep the old domain live and put a redirect handler application on there (you will need to build it first) that looks at all the URLs being loaded for that domain, processes them according to certain rules and forwards the user onto the correct URL on the new domain. This is a far slicker system and you can put error handling and all sorts of fancy features on there without even touching the code on the new site. Usually, a developer would just need access to the old and new URL structures and product databases etc. to put this together.

When doing redirects, you need to set aside a few days of development time after the site’s ‘go live’ date to fix any redirects that have broken or been missed. Then you need somebody to go through 404 errors and Google Webmaster Tools errors to find these redirects and get them fixed ASAP. Google is fine if you have errors for a couple of days but if you leave errors for too long then you run the risk of losing authority.

Let me know in the comments if you have seen any migration issues this year.

Patrick Altoft

About Patrick Altoft

Patrick is the Director of Strategy at Branded3 and has spent the last 11 years working on the SEO strategies of some of the UK's largest brands. Patrick’s SEO knowledge and experience is highly regarded by many, and he’s regularly invited to speak at the world’s biggest search conferences and events.

  • Steve Morgan

    Great post, Patrick. Funnily enough I wrote down my experiences of recent domain migrations a few days ago ( http://seono.co.uk/2013/11/26/3-interesting-observations-from-3-recent-small-business-domain-migrations/ ) and found that 2 out of 3 of them went pretty smoothly. That said, they’re only small sites (100 pages in the largest case) and the 2 that went well didn’t have any URL changes. However a couple of other observations are that Google’s Change of Address tool is pretty ineffective and also that exact match domains don’t seem to be as powerful as they used to be (as two of them moved from EMDs to branded domains and didn’t see a drop in rankings post-migration, which is cool)… Would be cool to get your thoughts on it :-)

    • Patrick Altoft

      The issue sometimes with EMD’s is that after the redirect you have a load of exact match keyword anchor text and Google hits you with Penguin in the future.

      • Daniel

        Good point regarding Penguin risk when moving from EMD. Did not think about this before. Actually we were planning to migrate a large EMD site. Do you know someone to whom this actually happened that they got hit by Penguin after EMD migration? Would be very helpful to assess the risk.

        • Patrick Altoft

          I don’t know any examples off the top of my head. Any migration is a risk so you need to mitigate this by fixing all potential issues before you do it.

  • http://www.cotswoldco.com/ Chris Gedge

    If you do suffer some kind of penalty (you mentioned losing authority) then is there a way to recover or is it that if the damage has been done, you’re stuffed? Surely there is a way to recover eventually?

    • Patrick Altoft

      Hi Chris. The only way to recover is to fix everything and then do the usual stuff you would do to create authority. I know when we migrated blogstorm.co.uk to branded3.com we did everything right but it still took 6 months for the authority to pass over. Posts ranked fine before this but it took 6 months for the new combined site to have as much authority as the sum of the two previous ones.

  • Matt Lee


    What are some redirect handler applications that you recommend using?

    • Patrick Altoft

      Hi Matt. Unfortunately there are none :-) you just need a nice PHP developer to write one, a simple one based on a database will take half a day (plus lots of time to populate the database and create mappings) but complicated ones take a lot longer.

  • MalMilligan

    I’ve done a lot of these for attorney sites as the firms frequently change partners and immediately have to do name and domain changes. It’s like walking on egg shells waiting to see if all the hard work (and money invested) in SEO is going to carry over to the new website. I spend a lot of time on the URL redirects using htacess to manually script every 301 permanentently changed url. I also make sure I have the domains in a solid webmaster tools account that has a good reputation for quality white hat work and I do reinclusion requests explaining the legitimacy of the situation if the new site is dropped for around 5 days or more.

  • http://www.black68.com/ David Black

    I had the pleasure of moving a large movie fan site to a new domain and structure – I used the primitive method of using individual 301 redirects for every single page – We built it on a third temporary domain and, when 100% happy performed the move.
    If I knew how to use a redirect handler application, I’d have done it!!
    Our rankings fell for 48 hours before evening out right where they’d been before.
    Google is run on algorithms – they don’t take any of this personally – if you get your redirects right and don’t leave entire duplicate sites lying around, you should be just fine.

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