How to Change Domain Names and Keep Your Search Engine Rankings

7 06 2008
651.gif First let me say, that Google does not recommend changing domain names, and neither do I. My next disclaimer is that I can’t control what Google does (the classic SEO disclaimer that every long-term SEO has had to resort to at some point in time). So if you try this at home and it doesn’t work, it’s not my fault.

The internet marketing firm I work for recently ran into a problem that is likely to happen to anyone who names their firm after the partners – one partner left, and we had to change the name. So “Foreman & Pike Consulting” became “Reciprocal Consulting,” but that was the easy part. We had top search engine rankings in Google for “Internet Marketing Firm” and “Internet Marketing Firms,” which had been two productive keyword phrases. How were we going to change our domain name and retain our search rankings?

I’ve been doing SEO since 1998, so I had a pretty good idea of what needed to be done (301 redirects) without looking anything up, but this was a big deal, and the other guys in the firm were depending on me! I’m the only SEO guy, and I needed to get it right!

What helped things out, was that I had done some research for a consulting job on this very thing not long ago, and I tried to find out what Google’s “official” recommendation was on the matter. Here are a few good snippets that I found:
From Google.com: If you have recently restructured your site or moved to a new domain, pages that previously performed well may now rank poorly. To avoid this, use 301 redirects (“RedirectPermanent”) in your .htaccess file to smartly redirect users, Googlebot, and other spiders. (In Apache, you can do this with an .htaccess file; in IIS, you can do this through the administrative console.) For more information about 301 HTTP redirects, please see http://www.ietf.org/rfc/rfc2616.txt.
Source: http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=34444&query=301+redirect&topic=&type=

From Matt Cutts: Now let’s talk for a minute about moving from mattcutts.com to someotherdomain.com. All other things being equal, I would recommend to stay with the original domain if possible. But if you need to move, the recommended way to do it is to put a 301 (permanent) redirect on every page on mattcutts.com to point to the corresponding page on someotherdomain.com. If you can map mattcutts.com/url1.html to someotherdomain.com/url1.html, that’s better than doing a redirect just to the root page (that is, from mattcutts.com/url1.html to someotherdomain.com). In the olden days, Googlebot would immediately follow a 301 redirect as soon as it found it.  These days, I believe Googlebot sees the 301 and puts the destination url back in the queue, so it gets crawled a little later.
Source: http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/moving-to-a-new-web-host/


Nothing new here for me, but at least I was armed with the official word on the matter from Google in case things went South. I could say “hey, we did what Google says to do!”

Here are the steps I took.
  1. We made a new copy of the site, with all of the identical pages, only changing the name of the company, logo, and adding a page about the name change.
  2. The new domain name was pointed to the new copy of the site.
  3. We used Apache’s mod rewrite to 301 redirect the old site to the new. Each page on the old site redirected to the corresponding page on the new site.
  4. We contacted all of the sites that linked to us, asking them to change the links to point to the new site, and we changed the links we had control over ourselves.
  5. We watched the old site fall out of the search results for nearly 30 days and held our breath.
  6. The other guys in the firm were curiously silent about our missing rankings for the whole 30 days, and the one time they mentioned it, I calmly said, “don’t worry, we did everything like Google says to do it, we should be back up in no time.” :)
  7. Apx. 30 days after the switch, we started showing back up in our old positions (yeahhh!!!)

Looking back on it, I learned a few lessons.
  1. I was really worried about duplicate content issues and having both sites live at the same time, so I used robots.txt to exclude Googlebot from the new site until I was ready to do the 301′s. This probably wasn’t a good idea with the way that Google handles duplicate content these days. I think the change would have even gone quicker had I let Google crawl the new site first.
  2. We put out an SEO’d press release about the change. This was a good idea, it got us links and showed transparency in what we were doing.
  3. We paid attention to trust factors with the new domain, we registered it for 10 years, used the same contacts as on the old domain, didn’t hide the registrant information using privacy protection, etc. These were all things that probably helped.

Actions

Informations

8 responses to “How to Change Domain Names and Keep Your Search Engine Rankings”

8 06 2008
Erica DeWolf (15:26:39) :

This was a beautifully put together tutorial and advice post in one. Thanks! I’m bookmarking this for future reference!

8 06 2008
inlayout (19:34:36) :

Thanks Erica!

9 06 2008
Niall Doherty (10:13:31) :

Very interesting. I have a similar move coming up for one of my own sites soon and this info will definitely help.

I’m intrigued by the “trust factors” you mention at the end of the post. It seems you’re suggesting that factors such as long term registration and not hiding registration info help improve search engine rankings. Is this the case, or have I misunderstood?

9 06 2008
inlayout (12:56:57) :

Niall, you are correrct; those factors were learned from reading Google patent applications for their search methodology. They have also been discussed on a few SEO / Webmaster forums I participate in.

While I feel they are important, they are a very small “piece of the pie” when it comes to SEO. I just make sure to cover all of the bases – if registering for 10 years helps, then I do it.

10 06 2008
Niall Doherty (13:51:09) :

Thanks for the reply. I’ll keep that in mind next time I’m registering a domain.

29 06 2008
Atul (22:57:11) :

Hi,

Excellent write-up. Even a novice like me was able to get it ! Please clarify one thing. You saud that you made a new copy of the existing site and then
“The new domain name was pointed to the new copy of the site”. Can you please point what this meant and how this could be done. Will i use 301 to redirect new domain name to new copy of site ?

Thanks

1 07 2008
inlayout (10:20:19) :

All I meant by, “the new domain name was pointed to the new copy of the site,” was that the dns was set for the domain name to point to the web server where the new site was hosted.

The 301 redirects were written to the .htaccess file in the old site, so that visitors and search engine spiders would be directed to the new site.

It’s also important to make sure that you redirect all pages of the old site to the corresponding page on the new site, not just the homepage, and not just redirecting everything to the homepage of the new site.

30 04 2010
Gaurav (13:49:03) :

Excellent example. Simply and easy to understand.

Leave a comment

You can use these tags : <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>