Making the decision to move your website to a new domain can be daunting. Even a simple change like switching from a .net to a .com can have significant potential SEO implications. The fear of dropping in Google's search results is enough to keep many business owners awake at night before, during and after the migration process. This feeling of anxiety is even more pronounced when you are making the move from an old domain to a new one and additional branding concerns are thrown into the mix.
Moving Your Site – The Basic Approach
When moving a website to a new domain, you should always include these 3 steps:
Perform research beforehand and be 100% confident that the move is necessary and that you've chosen the correct domain name.
Do not make other changes at the same time you switch domains. If the move results in problems, you may be unable to determine which change caused it.
Setup 301 redirects to redirect each URL on the old site to the exact same page on the new site. It is very important that you redirect every page – do not just redirect the homepage.
Can You Lose Rankings With A Move?
In theory, moving a website to a new domain should result in nothing worse than a small, temporary drop in traffic while Google indexes your new pages. In practice, no domain move is 100% guaranteed to be quick and painless, and some sites do see significant traffic loss.
This Google Groups thread documents one company's domain migration headaches in 2012 and reveals some interesting information. They migrated 130,000+ URLs from one domain to another and saw significant drops in their SERPs and organic traffic. However, after roughly 13 weeks, they had recovered almost 85% of their traffic. (Google engineer Matt Cutts later commented on this case, and we've included some of his suggestions below.)
Many other online forums are filled with similar posts like A and B that complain about losing traffic after 301ing an old domain to a new one. While it is difficult to determine all the relevant factors from a forum post, some of these complaints seem to have basis in reality.
Why can a properly executed domain move result in lost rankings? Lets examine several possibilities,and outline a strategy to minimize any potential losses.
Do 301 Redirects Pass 100% Of Link Juice?
According to Matt Cutts in a recent Google Webmaster Help video, 301 redirects pass exactly the same amount of link juice (aka PageRank, or authority) as regular links. Cutts puts in a disclaimer that this policy could change over time but that, as of February 25, 2013, both pass equal amounts to the destination page. It does appear that this should be an issue.
Do Too Many 301 Redirected Backlinks Hurt Rankings?
Matt Cutts has suggested that there is a Google algorithm created to discourage buying and 301ing domains for PageRank. As Matt Cutts said, If you're only trying to buy a domain because these domains have some pre-existing links, then Google doesn't necessarily want you to get that credit for free. Is it possible this algorithm may catch a few innocent 301d backlinks in the crossfire? Its certainly possible. Google's algorithms may look unfavourably upon websites that have a high percentage of links being 301 redirected. This certainly could account for some webcasters' reports of their sites dropping in rank after moving domains.
Does Age Matter?
For years, SEOs have been discussing and debating the effect that a sites age has on its rankings. This debate certainly hasn't brought much clarity, though. SEOs have proposed two primary theories on how Google may use age in rankings:
The Sandbox theory asserts that there is a sandbox (a temporary, algorithmic penalty) that Google uses to force new sites to rank lower until they are released from the sandbox. Evidence for the existence of a sandbox is sketchy, but there may be algorithms that in some cases may cause a similar effect.
Domain age theory asserts that Google ranks older domains higher. Google filed a patent, issued in 2005, related to domain age and rankings. In addition, Matt Cutts hints in this video that domain age is a small factor in ranking algorithms.
Does age directly factor in Google's ranking algorithms? A sites age definitely indirectly impacts rankings, and it seems very possible that it does have a direct impact.
Know Your Domain's History
Some migration horror stories are caused by purchasing a domain with a bad history or a pre-existing Google penalty. Before you move your site to a new domain, do some research and look for any signs of a penalty or spam, including
Spammy backlinks (use Google Webmaster Tools, Majestic SEO or Open Site Explorer to view your sites backlinks),
Spammy content that was previously on the domain (use WayBack Machine), and
Sharp drops in Google organic traffic (if you can get Google Analytics access for the domain).
Moving Your Site – The 18-Step Approach
Based on the potential risks outline above, additional hints provided by Matt Cutts and real-world experience, we can formulate a more comprehensive list of best practices for moving a site from an old domain to a new one.
Check your new domain thoroughly for any signs of spam or a penalty (this only applies to domains that have been previously registered/used).
Create and submit an XML Sitemap for your old domain if one does not already exist.
Register and verify your old domain with both Google and Bing Webmaster Tools if you have not already done so.
Create new content for your new site (e.g. contact page, new blog post and/or description page) as well as something people will want to link to (e.g. infographic).
Launch the new site and publish the content you created in the previous step.
Begin building a few editorial, white-hat links to the new domain.
Register and verify your new domain with both webmaster tools as well.
Let the new domain age for several months.
Copy the contents of a single directory or subdomain from the old site to the new site and use a 301 redirect to send visitors to the new URL. This allows you to test the process before moving everything at once.
Check to see how the moved section ranks in Google search results. If your rankings for that part of the site do not suffer, continue. If your rankings drop, investigate to discover the possible causes.
Once you confirm that everything works properly, move the rest of the site and 301 redirect your pages to the new domain.
Publish a custom 404 page on your old domain that suggests a visit to the new domain.
Work to get at least a portion of your sites backlinks switched to point to your new domain.
Use a broken link checker tool to detect any internal links that were created with an absolute path and update them to reflect the new URL.
Use Google's change of address tool inside of the Webmaster Tools control panel to speed up the update process.
Create and submit a sitemap of the new domain to help Google index any new pages that were not on the old site.
Look at the Diagnostics section of Webmaster Tools and fix any errors.
Monitor your search engine results and Webmaster Tools crawl errors regularly to make sure everything is being ranked as expected.
Can you move your site without any rankings loss?
Matt Cutts estimates a typical site move will result in a temporary loss of about 5% of the sites traffic. In a few cases, greater losses may be seen. However, following the 18 steps outlined above makes any significant traffic losses an unlikely possibility.
Spencer Yao is the owner of Small Business Domain, an online resource that provides advice reviews, comparisons, and coupons for domains, web hosting, VPS, and dedicated servers, and ecommerce platforms. He has over 12 years industry experience in the small business, domains, and hosting industry.