Ask any business owner and they’ll swear by it: they’d never change the domain name. It’s just too catchy. And fit is exactly what they’ve always wanted to represent their company.
But what if:
- You decide to rebrand: Suddenly the old domain might just not cut it.
- Take the business in a new direction: The current domain however is too narrowly focused to represent what you want the company to stand for.
- You want to unite your mobile and desktop versions under one “roof”.
- Or, in a worst-case scenario, another business claims the rights to the name and you found yourself under a cease and desist order.
Now you have no choice but to move domains.
Whatever the reasons for the change, the key point is to ensure your site’s authority stays intact. Here are a few precautions you should take to help ensure your content continues to rank and you don’t lose traffic.
Start with a Site Audit
Look, you know it already. A site audit can save your site’s rankings. Too many errors, or sudden technical problems can hinder all your SEO efforts.
But since you’re only changing a domain name, conducting a site audit might seem unnecessary, right?
Unless you plan to scrap all the content and website, you must first assess what are the key SEO issues you should eradicate. There are many tools you could use during the process. From experience, crawlers like Screaming Frog or SiteCondor are perfect.
Main Site Audit Issues
Even though they might seem insignificant at first, response codes help to identify and report issues search engine bots may have with crawling pages on your site.
The main response codes include:
- 200: There were no problems with accessing the page.
- 301: Traffic to a page is permanently redirected to another page.
- 302: Traffic to a page is temporarily redirected to another page.
- 404: The page is gone and visitors saw its 404 counterpart.
- 500: A server problem. There was no access to the page.
Broken Links in Navigation and Copy
Broken links, pointing to non-existing pages, provide poor user experience. And as Brian from Backlinko points out,
Having too many broken links on a page may be a sign of a neglected or abandoned site. The Google Rater Guidelines Document uses broken links as one was to assess a homepage’s quality.
Google must be able to access your site to index and then rank it. It’s easy to accidentally restrict that access though. A broken file, faulty plugin, or problem with a server might render it inaccessible to search engines.
Important! Close the process by scheduling another – live – site audit.
Site audit is never a once off thing. Websites are not invariable entities. They change, modify and expand. But repeating a site audit is especially crucial when you’re concluding a major restructuring process such as domain change.
Once the process ends and the new domain goes live, conduct another site audit. This will confirm if everything works as it should and no new errors appeared during the move.
Assess Your Traffic
I bet you know how many visitors your site gets each month/week/day.
I also bet there are certain metrics you don’t pay close attention to regularly:
- Top performing content
- Worst performing content
- Traffic from mobile devices
The best way to track the success of the domain move is by the traffic. And thus, assessing your traffic and creating benchmarks to measure the progress of the domain move by is a must.
Audit Your Backlinks
Backlinks are the biggest search-ranking factor. When changing your site’s URL, however, you run the risk of losing many links you currently have. The first step to ensuring this doesn’t happen is analyzing your current link profile.
You can do it in three ways:
- Google Webmaster Tools: GWT offers insight into which links pointing to your site are indexed. Even though the freshness of the data is questionable, I’d still recommend starting there.
- Ahrefs: If you’re looking for a powerhouse solution though, then there’s no better one on the market than Ahrefs. It (probably) has the largest index of backlinks and it tells you everything you need to know.
- All-in-One Marketing Suites: Popular SEO/SEM suites as SEMrush, Moz, Raven, and Searchmetrics have both site audit and backlink tools, so if you already use any of them for your daily online marketing activities, you can easily conduct both researches with one tool.
Highlight Your Best Backlinks
While researching your backlink profile, pay attention to your best links. Naturally you don’t want to lose any backlinks. 301 redirects however will not transfer all links from old domain to new. Knowing what your best links are will help you come up with strategies to ensure they don’t drop:
- Revisit them to check if they still rank to your site.
- Contact webmasters of sites they’re on to see if they could amend the link.
- If that’s not possible, revisit them some time after the domain move to see if they were properly redirected along with pages they link to.
Set Proper 301s
301 redirects are the heart and soul of a domain move. They will send users to appropriate pages on a new domain. They will also tell a search engine that the page has been moved and will transfer them to the new one.
What’s more, 301s will pass PageRank from old domain to new, redirect links, and maintain your pages’ authority.
If there’s one thing you just can’t mess during the process, it’s setting up redirects.
Check Your Site for Mobile Compliance
Not strictly part of the process but since Google recently released a mobile algorithm update, while you’re working on the site it’s a good idea to check if it passes the mobile-friendliness test.
Use the Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test. This tool allows you to test the site and check if it meets initial Google’s mobile friendliness criteria.
You also use the SEMrush Site Audit tool for this. It will check if your website’s mobile version has technical issues. A must-have for mobile-friendliness— the meta view tag— will be also checked.
Tell Google You Have Moved
Lastly, tell the search engine you’ve moved domains. Log in to your Google Webmaster Tools account. Click on a little gear icon to reveal a drop down menu and then click “Change of Address.”
The tool will test if your 301 redirects are valid and update the domain information on their system.
Even though it seems like a pretty straightforward process, domain change poses quite a lot of SEO risks, from losing backlinks, rankings, traffic to drop in conversions.
Dismiss the thought as much as you like but you might have to move domains at some point. When that happens, ensure you conduct all the necessary audits and follow steps required to ensure your traffic stays intact after the process.
Subscribe to SEJ
Get our daily newsletter from SEJ's Founder Loren Baker about the latest news in the industry!