How to Change Your Domain Name without Losing Rankings Or Affecting SEO

So you want to change your domain name, huh?

But you’re worried that you’re going to screw something up and lose all your rankings?

Scary isn’t it?

Changing your domain name is one of those big life decisions that could spell the end if you get it wrong.

Just like that time you decided to get that ridiculous hair cut back in 1996 and go nightclubbing in those funny pants. Or that time you came home so pissed that you went to the wrong house and knocked on the next door neighbours door at 3am.

Okay listen, before you start to panic, know that you’re in good hands.

I’m not going to let you do anything silly, I’ve performed hundreds of domain name changes over the years, and never once lost rankings or negatively affected SEO in any way.

It really is quite straight forward, so long as you’re careful, and you follow a set process.

Grab a cuppa and let’s get into it.

Why change your domain name?

This might seem like an odd thing to do. I mean, why the hell would anyone want to change their domain name and potentially screw up their SEO and lose all their rankings?

It’s not always straight forward. There can be any number of reasons, some of which I’ll touch on quickly below.

Rebranding

Businesses often go through brand updates or changes, and sometimes, changing the domain name can be a part of that process. It might be case of having registered a really shitty domain to begin with, now they’ve been able to acquire one that’s more appropriate, or they’ve simply changed their business name. Rebranding is a perfectly fine thing to do, and the process is straight forward.

Poor SEO

This is one that I see a lot of. Business owners having to dump their domain name and register a new one. Simply because the old domain has been absolutely smashed with bad links due to poor or cheap SEO. If the damage is bad enough, there’s really no way of fixing the site and site owners are left with no choice but to dump it and start over. In this case, they usually lose their rankings and everything else along with it.

Business merger or buyout

I’ve worked with countless business owners that go about buying out other businesses and then decide to consolidate the websites, and domains back down into one. Often this means rebranding, shifting the website and changing the domain name. Again, pretty straight forward, and can be done without issue.

Legal reasons

This one comes up from time to time, with site owners having to change domains due to legal reasons. They may have registered a domain that infringes on a trademark or is in violation of copyright. Never ever register a domain that has the potential to attract a “letter in the mail”. Don’t be silly, use some common sense, because having to change domains is a bit of a nuisance.

Just wanting a change

Sometimes, site owners just want a change. Remember that domain name you registered that night at 3am after a few vodkas? You thought it was great at the time didn’t you? Yeah, well you’ve lived with it for 12 months, but now you’re beginning to realise it wasn’t exactly the best choice. Time to lay off the vodkas and get something a bit more sensible.

Let me tell you, if you’ve never done this before, then seriously, be careful. If you screw this up, chances are any of the following are going to happen –

Traffic, sales and customer enquiries fall off a cliff

The severity of this will depend upon how much traffic your site gets, what it turns over in revenue, and how critical your site is to your business. If you’ve got staff, or your core source of sales come via the website, then you’d better not get this wrong, because if that happens, I can almost guarantee you that your phone’s not going to ring for a while.

You lose momentum

One thing that a lot of site owners aren’t aware of, especially when it comes to SEO and rankings is that – it takes time to build momentum. Often it takes years to build traffic to a site through ongoing content and promotion, so getting this wrong, could undo all of that – very quickly. Remember, everything you’ve done up until this point, depends upon you not screwing this up. You’ll want to plan this out, and do it properly, so you can ensure a smooth transition without losing momentum.

Asses get kicked

Last but not least, when you Google yourself and youre nowhere, and the phone stops ringing and sales notifications stop coming through via email – asses get kicked. You’d best be hiding under the desk, wearing a thick par of pants when the boss kicks your office door in to find out what the hell is going on.

Having said all of that, don’t be too worried. So long as you follow my instructions, you’ll be good.

Just don’t email me if something goes pear shaped.

Making the actual move – step by step

1. Check the domain name

Before you do ANYTHING, the first thing you should do is CHECK THE DOMAIN NAME.

What for?

You’ll want to make sure the domain is CLEAN.

Remember above where I spoke about business owners having to “dump” domains because of crappy SEO? That’s right, if you’re not careful, you’ll bag what you think is a great domain name, only to find out after you set it all up, that its stuck back at page 25 in Google because it’s been burnt by some lousy Indian SEO company. This can be avoided, but first, be sure to check the following.

Firstly, go to the Wayback Machine and enter in the domain name. You’ll want to go back in time and make sure the site was never used as a Russian porn site selling glow in the dark dildos.

If the site looks okay, and everything appears normal, move on to the next step.

2. Check the link profile

Even if the domain checks out above, its still worth viewing its link profile. This means taking a look a the links pointing to the domain itself. The reason we would do this is again, to ensure the domain is clean. If you’re about to shift to a new domain name, you’ll want to know that it doesn’t have a shit load of links pointing at it from Chinese pharmaceuticals websites or porn sites.

For this I recommend using Ahrefs. Simply enter in the domain name and take a look a the links pointing to it. Sure there might be a few weird links, but for the most part, the links should make sense. That is, they should be relevant, and coming from what should look like legitimate sites.

If you see a whole heap of dodgy links, I’d rethink the decision to move forward.

3. Benchmark your statistics

Before you start pulling things apart, it might be a good idea to take a look over your stats to get a good idea of where you’re currently at. Infact, one thing I would definitely do is mark the changeover date within Google Analytics with an annotation, so if things DO get weird, you can go back and know for sure, when it happened and if it was related.

In other words, make sure you have a good idea of your sites performance, BEFORE the changeover so you know you’re all good. The last thing you’ll want to be doing is trying to figure out what went pear shaped and why, without knowing your data.

4. Create a place holder

You’ll want to create a place holder, or “splash page” at the new domain, just to let users and Google know, of the upcoming shift. In one of his videos, Matt Cutt’s suggests doing this as a means of giving Google time to crawl and index the new domain. We’re going to “force it” with a fetch, but we’ll do that in a minute.

By the way, there’s a few things in that video that I disagree with, but you might get some value out of watching it.

5. Add and verify the new domain/site within Webmaster tools

You’ll want to give yourself a bit of a head start where possible, so it makes sense to add the new domain to Webmaster tools. Once you’ve added and verified the domain, be sure to set the preferred domain. This will at least give Google some heads up that your new domain is active and not just parked.

6. Set 301 redirects

Now, before you go about mapping out a huge spreadsheet and getting bogged down in a million URLs – STOP.

At this point, the only thing that’s going to change is your domain name. DO NOT start changing your URL’s.

You can do that LATER, once everything has settled down. For now, focus on just getting the site over to the new domain.

There’s a very quick and easy way to do this via your htaccess file.

Enter in the following snippet of code – ON YOUR OLD DOMAIN.

<IfModule mod_rewrite.c>
  RewriteEngine On
  RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} ^olddomain.com.au$ [OR]
  RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} ^www.olddomain.com.au$
  RewriteRule (.*)$ http://www.newdomain.com.au/$1 [R=301,L]
</IfModule>

 

This code says, anyone landing on this site, send them over to the new web address. This happens at the root level, so there should be NO reason to start setting individual 301 redirects.

For example, if someone tries to visit –

  • olddomain.com.au/widgets/how-much-do-widgets-cost/

they’ll be redirected to

  • newdomain.com.au/widgets/how-much-do-widgets-cost/

This is why its super important that you DON’T go changing your site structure or URLs.

Of course you’ll need to replace olddomain and newdomain with your own domain names.

7. Test it

Right, once you’ve set that redirect, you’ll want to start testing everything. Here’s a few things you should do pretty much right away.

  • Type in your old web address. You should be redirected to the new domain
  • Then from there, go to Google and type in site:olddomain.com.au. Start clicking on the most important pages, and make sure you’re being redirected correctly. If you’ve only got a small site, I would go through ALL of your sites pages that are indexed in Google and check ALL OF THEM. If you’ve got a massive site, you might want to try some of these online tools.
  • Perform test transactions. Send yourself an enquiry from the website, perform a test sale, subscribe to your own list. In other words, make sure everything on the site WORKS. It can be really easy to overlook something because your web address has changed. So try to think of ANYTHING that may be affected by the change.

If you’ve performed site testing as mentioned above and everything looks good, you can then move onto the next step below. Don’t move on if somethings not right.

8. Webmaster tools

Let’s now revisit webmaster tools, and do the following.

  • Submit a sitemap. Go to Webmaster tools, then click on Crawl > Sitemaps > then submit your sitemap. You may want to use the “test sitemap” feature first, just to make sure it’s okay before you submit it.
  • Force a crawl. We want to expedite the process as much as possible, so from here, we’re going to again click on Crawl > Fetch as Google > and select “Crawl this URL and its direct links”
  • Change of address. Select the OLD DOMAIN then go to the small cog in the upper right hand corner, click on it, and from the dropdown select “Change of address”. This process is pretty straight forward. Tell Google what your new domain name will be for the site. Remember, you want to perform this action for the OLD domain.

9. Link tidy up

Now that you’ve changed your domain name, you’ll have a large number of backlinks pointing to the wrong website. This isn’t a bad thing, but its not ideal. Google will of course follow the redirect and pass on the link equity to your new location, however, I like to be thorough, and tidy up my links where possible. You might want to do the same. The easiest way to do this, is to again use Ahrefs, and export our backlinks into a spreadsheet and work through them one by one.

Now, if you’ve got hundreds of thousands of links, you may only want to do the most important ones. But if you’ve only got a handful of links, it’s worth tidying them up where possible. Don’t forget your business listings too (Yellow Pages, True Local, Hot Frog etc) You’ll definitely want to fix those up. You will most likely have to update your business name too.

10. Have a cuppa

Coffee or tea, it doesn’t matter, If you’ve made it this far without any issues you deserve it.

A few key pointers

Don’t change your website design during the shift

The last thing youll want to do is start changing everything during the migration. Do the domain name changeover first, then once everything has settled down, THEN think about upgrading your site design etc. If you make too many changes during the switch, and something goes wrong, you wont know what caused the problem, and it will make error correction and recovery more difficult.

Don’t change your URL structure

As for reasons mentioned above,, its best to leave our URL structure intact as it is, until you have finalised the changeover. The biggest benefit is that you only have to add that small snippet of code to handle the redirects, and not dozens or hundreds of thousands of URLs.

Don’t 301 redirect everything to the root domain

Ive seen people “brag” about performing this entire task in 5 minutes. They do this by simply “dumping” everything at the root, which essentially means, they change their domain name, then simply redirect every single page back to newdomain.com.au. This is really lazy and stupid, because it can mess with any link equity you may have to internal pages. Don’t do this, do it properly.

Don’t pull the old site straight away

A lot of people make the mistake of ditching the old site right away. This isnt recommended. Its best to leave it up until you’re satisfied that Google has updated its index and is displaying the correct URLS within the SERPS. Knowing when to pull the old site can be a little tricky. What I often do is simply search for the old domain in Google, and once I no longer get any results, I’ll go about pulling it. One thing you need to be mindful of are outdated links pointing to the old domain. If there’s a link on a website pointing to olddomain.com.au, and you pull the old site, and someone clicks on that link, they’ll get a 404. This is why its worth going back and updating your links.

Give things time to settle

For some reason people seem to get “twitchy” when they perform this task. They’re always asking “how much longer?”, “should I pull the old site now”, “its not working, do I roll back!?”.

The last thing you need is to get twitchy. Give shit time to settle down. Google is not instant. Just use some common sense and be patient. Of course if things arent starting to look right after 2-3 days then you might have missed something. Just be sure to follow this guide and you’ll be okay.

Update everything

Ensure you update your enquiry forms, email addresses, subscriber optins, and anything else that you can think of that may be affected by the change over. It can be REALLY EASY to miss something, so have a good think about EVERYTHING. Customer enquiries, sales notifications, verification URLS, email optin URLs and so forth. The last thing you need is to find out you’ve lost thousands of dollars worth of sales or enquiries because customers are hitting constant 404 page not found errors.

Make sure you continue to test

Normally when I perform a task like this, I will literally “babysit” the site for a week or two. Just to be absolutely certain that everything is okay. Don’t just finish up then go holidaying in Bali for a week.

Monitor Webmaster Tools

One thing you definitely want to do is to monitor Google’s webmaster tools for any 404 page not found errors. I would recommend you clear everything once you’ve completed this task, then monitor. You’ll want to make sure you’re looking at recent data, not historical.

Update your email

Chances are, that if you’ve changed your domain name, then your emails going to be effected too. Be sure to set a forwarder up to push any new email enquiries over to your new email, and LET your customers know of the change so they can update at their end. Infact, depending upon how much email you get, you may want to leave the forwarder in place indefinitely. Don’t just cut your old email and then wonder why you’re inbox is quiet.

Don’t Get lazy

Most importantly of all, dont get lazy. Sure it wont really matter if your site is only small and you’re only getting a few visits a day, but if your site is big and your business depends upon it – now is not the time to get lazy. Remember, think twice, act once.

Do it right, and don’t look for shortcuts.

Otherwise they’ll be tears.

Conclusion

As with any significant change like this – planning is key. Seriously, if you’re going to change your domain name, then take the time to think things through before jumping in and pulling everything apart.

Because if you screw something up, it could potentially mean lots of tears and Google regret.

Nobody wants that.

If you’ve got something to say, then let me know. Perhaps I’ve missed something or you’d like to add something?

Good or bad, I reply to everyone’s comments. So let’s hear it.

Cheers.

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