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Migrating to a New Domain and URL Structure – My Learnings

Recently the company I worked for made a big decision to rebrand and with it came the dreaded domain name change. We are also having a new website being built so another SEO favourite URLs. This article will share my leanings from my sleepless nights and epic amount of research into making sure it didn’t go wrong.

After my research I decided to not listen to what I read and decided to change our domain name and page paths all in one hit. I bet you’re thinking “That’s suicide”, well yes but my results further on may surprise some.

Post Migration Preparation

I know of all too many bad experiences of this, from things like pages dropping forever to massive Google penalties for doing it wrong, which is why the prep work into this was huge. Just from my research I was getting worried about the task at hand. On our website we have over 70,000 URL’s. There were also a lot of rule sets for the different types of url paths our development team created the rules based on my rule sets and there was a huge amount of testing on a server that we had set up purely for testing.

Also being a solo In House SEO it can be hard to bounce ideas off people; luckily I have some good contacts through LinkedIn and Networking that I conversed with on a regular basis on these matters. I am also willing to do the same should you need the reassurance of what you are doing. (Details at the bottom of this post)

A big BIG URL List

Initially you will need a comprehensive URL list. You can get these either by spidering the site using tools such as Xenu or by asking your developers to create a script that will query your CMS’s database to generate a list of EVERY page on your website. But beware here, if your computer is of an average standard and you have a large site. Prepare for Excel to turn into a cripple when you need to work with the data.

With this list and the rules creates you can magic up some formulas that will create the new URL’s in the cell next to the old url. (This list will prove to be a bible for your PPC manager and affiliates if you have them) For me I used it for easy reference when people asked me “What’s the new URL for xyz page?”

If you have a smaller site then this will begin to form the basis of your 301 list. If you need to know how do 301’s then please Google it based on your server architecture. (As that’s another article separate to this) If in my case you have a large site then you need to sit down with your development teams and run through redirect rules based on your new URL construction rules. Prepare to call RegEx a friend by the time you finish this. (or just get your developers to do it if you are not sure)

Look at all those backlinks

Yet another long winded task in this project was updating of backlinks. In reality you cannot update all of your backlinks. If you have a portfolio of 100k backlinks in Yahoo you definitely have a lot of late nights. Luckily there are some awesome tools around to help you work out the importance of the backlinks. You can take your pick of SEOMoz’s Linkscape and Majestic SEO’s Link Intelligence as they are both brilliant tools, or like me, you can use both of the tools and mash them up in excel using some crazy formulas and pivot tables. From doing this I have worked out the top backlinks by order of importance. We’ll just store this for now until the day of the switch.


We have many development servers that we always test new functionality on. So with this task we dedicated on solely for the Migration Project. This server took a beating with the amount of spiders and load testing we threw at it. If you have the ability to do this then do, I cannot stress how much more weight off your shoulders it will be for you to see the success on there before putting it all live. What am I looking for in testing? Mainly I was looking to see any 404’s, 500’s that appear and to make sure the 301’s went through to the correct place. On a site as big as ours to check all results would have meant I’d be there for years. So we did a cross section of around 70% of our heavyweight pages and the rest being the lower converting pages.

Ranking reports

Make sure you have set up your rank monitoring programs to run every day for a few weeks after you make the switch. This will help to identify anything instantly should it go wrong.

Webmaster Tools

Make sure you have your Webmaster accounts for the new domain set up and verified. Google especially not only because its the big one when it comes to Search Engines but also because they have the Change of Address {link to} function in there

Oh and Just in case…

Make sure your 404 page is a helpful one. Chances are some people will get some 404’s, in fact its highly likely with this risky a process. Make sure that your 404 page is a helpful one with links to some top level pages your link to sitemap and maybe even a site search.

Day of the Switch

So you’ve had your sleepless night and are probably up at a silly hour so as not to affect traffic. You get in and you deploy. The developers make the switch to the websites URL’s and Paths. It goes all tense until someone says shouts done. Now what…

Spider the site

First thing I did was browse the website, see if the page addresses had changed. I then went to Google and did a and clicked some of the top links. Using Firebug for Firefox I could see they were 301ing to their new homes.

To ensure it all further I now ran a web spider and waited. I used A1 sitemap generator to spider the site. When it was complete I had some results and also the ability to generate a sitemap.xml from the results. Make sure this is uploaded

Now you can log into Google Webmaster Tools and begin the Change of Address make sure that you have added your link to the sitemap.xml into the new profile. Google will now begin to make its necessary changes. This could take some time.

Is your analytics reporting?

If you have kept the same analytics account make sure you change the details so that it works with ok on the new domain.

If your site is an ecommerce one, do some test orders and see if the URL’s in your basket path have changed at all. Check your URL’s at every basket stage and make sure they match the basket stages in your Goal path funnels. Also check your final Goal URL’s. If they have changed then you’ll need to update all of your Goal points to reflect this change

Hello Webmasters

Now you need to pull out that list of backlinks you created and spend some time every day for the next few weeks contacting webmasters in that own the sites that you have heavyweight links on. Some sites are easy and have contact forms or even email addresses that you can use. Some sites can be harder. Firstly you need a name, if there is nothing on the site with a webmasters name you can check the code. Does he have a <meta name=”author” content=”Joe Bloggs” /> in there? If there is no name anywhere on the site pull up your favourite whois tool (I use Domain Tools) and tap the url in there. You should get sufficient information there to be able to jump on LinkedIn or something else that you use to find people.

I had quite a consistent message that I created. Part of it was that same for all sites and a section customised for that website. The intro went into the changes undergone and the custom part said something like “we have a link on your xyz page pointing to please can you update this to”

Are your eyes peeled

You need to monitor everything daily now to make sure the transition goes smoothly. Keep a close eye on your webmaster tools accounts for 404’s, check your websites error logs. Look for anything odd in your analytics packages. Make sure your website is converting and sales are coming in.

PR / Newsletter

You need to tell the world of your new domain name change. If its just the domain change then it is a smaller Press Campaign and an update to your customers. If you did a site rebrand at the same time then you will obviously do a larger Press Campaign and a Newsletter. Most people won’t even spot the changes as you will have set up all your redirects correctly.

Finally keep monitoring EVERYTHING very closely to do with the site until you are comfortable that its all gone right. I was happy and comfortable after about a month and a half.  Some people say three months before it is all back to normal for you.

Some of my results

Unbelievably the process for me was so smooth I thought something was really wrong. My main ranking report has 16 big generic keywords in all of them are front page on Google. We did our switch on the 22nd December 2009. 2 days after the switch I started noticing some rankings appear for the new domain (shocked me). 5 days in and all of the rankings had moved over. Granted they were around 30 – 50 but they had moved over. 10 days in and the rankings had gone top 20 and by there they fluctuated for a while. Then one day on the 13th of January they got back to the positions they were before the switch +/-2 positions. A month later we seen a substantial increase in our rankings and they are now at better positions than before the domain switch. My personal thoughts are that the domain name we switched was twice the age of the old domain name, this must have had a bit of an impact with the rankings. Also my increased link building and quality directory submissions could have helped. As with everything in SEO there are a number of factors that have helped me get to a better position all of them together make for great success.

Things to remember

  • 301 301 301 Three Oh One did I mention 301? The most important thing here forgetting this or missing important pages will be very costly.
  • Remember to update your links on your website to point to your new url’s and page paths.
  • Try to contact as many webmasters as possible to amend those back links.
  • Test until you cannot test no more. If it all works brilliant and no broken links are on the test machine then it should be good to go.
  • NEVER forget your PPC campaigns. You will need to modify all of the display and target URL’s a big task if you manage a few hundred thousand keywords.
  • Tell all of your affiliates of the changes and where possible pass them and old to new URL list to make their life easier with the change. Also on any banners ensure you have the correct URL in them.
  • Never expire your old domain, it’s been yours for a few years. People like to type it in. It should be redirecting to the new domain homepage.

Because of the amount of research I did on this and the success of it all (so far so good) I will gladly answer any questions you may have on migration. The best way to grab my attention is through my Twitter account @shanejones {link to}

Shane Jones is an In House SEO working in for a leading Online Travel Agent in Manchester, England. You can contact him thought his site or follow him on twitter @shanejones{link to}

Category SEO
Shane Jones

Shane Jones is an In House SEO working in for a leading Online Travel Agent in Manchester, England.

Migrating to a New Domain and URL Structure – My Learnings

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