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.