There are lots of reasons why a business may need to change website domains during its lifetime. A rebrand is the most common, although there are other reasons, for example going from a .co.uk to a .com to facilitate a single domain international expansion. At any rate, a domain change is an enormously risky event for a website – the mass change of URLs necessitates a great deal of unsettlement and re-indexing which can send organic visibility haywire.
It certainly isn’t something to be taken lightly. A mishandled domain migration can destroy a website’s visibility, and organic traffic can take months or even years to recover after a botched domain change. Fortunately we’ve got a checklist at 4Ps that can help your domain switch go smoothly.
Prep Your Redirections
Before you do anything else, make sure you set up your 301 redirects to go from old URL to new URL. Just pushing everything on the old domain to the homepage of the new domain will be devastating to visibility – authority needs to be passed on a page by page basis in order to preserve it in the right manner to avoid losses.
Ensure that these redirects are tested thoroughly in a development environment – the last thing you want is lots of redirect chain slamming your site’s speed, or something misconfigured so a URL is missed, when the big day comes.
Update All Internal Linking
Again in your development environment, ensure that all links and associated elements are properly updated to reflect the new domain. If you’re using relative rather than absolute internal links that saves a job, but it is a good idea to run a crawl to be sure just in case as some sites can end up with a mix.
As well as general hyperlinks, ensure that all linking elements are properly updated to reflect the new domain. XML sitemaps, rel alt hreflang, rel canonical, rel alt amphtml, Open Graph, Twitter Cards, structured data – all these sorts of elements must be checked and updated to reflect the final absolute URLs that will be on the site after the domain changes. Not doing so will result in broken links and can cause other difficulties with organic visibility if any markup ends up invalid.
Prep Measurement Tools
Setting up query visibility measurement well before the domain switch is due to take place is always good to establish some kind of benchmark for the old domain before the change. Ensure your analytics is set up appropriately so that all traffic can be tracked and attributed correctly.
Another excellent measurement tool is Google Search Console (and Bing Webmaster Tools, plus any international variants). The best way to handle this setup is to have both the old and new domains validated at the same time, ready for the switch. You can do this relatively easily in a variety of ways, and having both domains verified will allow you to monitor impression levels for both.
Naturally the optimal result will be organic impressions for the old domain decreasing at about the same rate that they increase for the new one, indicating a smooth transition. Ensuring these tools are enabled and verified in advance will ensure that the right data is available to diagnose any issues as they arise – missed redirects, dropped URLs and other such problems are all much more easily corrected if they can be clearly identified.
The Big Day
Update all analytics and PPC (and any other external tools or platforms) as soon as possible after the domain switch, if it is not appropriate to do so beforehand. When making the DNS switch, it is worth reducing your TTL (Time To Live) to speed up the migration and help propagate the new domain as rapidly as possible.
Once the new domain is live, run a full redirect check and then an internal crawl to check internal links. Ensure any problems are corrected as soon as possible – there’s no such thing as “too soon” for fixing issues. The next thing you should do is register the change of address in Google Search Console (and all other webmaster tools accounts). Once this is done, resubmit your XML sitemap (or sitemaps, or sitemap index file). I also like to manually submit the homepage to the index as well, just as an extra nudge to the crawlers to get them going.
Monitor And Wait
Expect at least six weeks of ranking and visibility fluctuations while the new domain settles in. Sometimes this can last up to two months or even longer, depending on how well the migration is handled and how smoothly the redirects go in.
It is also worth noting that in some circumstances, when migrations go well, it is entirely possible for a site to experience few to no fluctuations at all – but for purposes of managing expectations internally it is generally recommended to prepare for the worst, and to be pleasantly surprised if they do not arise!
If you’ve got a domain change or similar high SEO risk event on the horizon for your brand, 4Ps has plentiful experience in website migrations of all shapes and sizes. For more tips, take a look at some of our related knowledgebase guides.