Remember the days when the only domain names available ended in .com, .net or .org?
Things were easy back then. You either got the exact name you were looking (like ‘web.com’) - or you got the next best.
Back in those days people believed a ‘.com’ domain beat anything else available. It showed that YOUR domain was one of the originals – one of the internet pioneers – and as such should be treated with respect.
While originally the length of domain names was restricted, their length grew quickly, and in no time you could create domain names with 253 characters. And that was great for SEO – Google was previously very keen on domains where the content of a website was reflected by the URL. Slowly though, people started to talk about “user experience” and they actually started to question whether domain names like ‘www.everything-you-ever-want-to-know-about-web-hosting.com’ offered a quality user experience – imagine typing all those hyphens into your address bar!
And then came the era of generic Top-Level-Domains (gTLDs)!
Aside from domains with suffixes that suggest geographic location (such as ‘.co.uk’), there are now hundreds of choices of domain suffix that reflect the area of business you are in, your profession, or your area of interest. Here are three at random - .doctor, .club, .accountant. If you want to see more Wikipedia has a pretty exhaustive listing of the domain extensions that are available these days… And the list keeps growing, seemingly on a daily basis.
With such a wealth of choice, people no longer have to accept second best. Nowadays there is very likely a domain name available that expresses EXACTLY what you want it to express. But while the choice is there, and many are tempted to switch a website’s domain name to something better, few do. The reason for this is, of course, Search Engine Optimization, or SEO.
SEO helps a website gain traction and placement in search engines, and as the longevity of a domain plays a part in how much ‘Google Juice’ it acquires, people have a tendency not to play around with sites that they have carefully cultivated over many years. It is though possible to have the best of both worlds - change a website’s domain name without impacting SEO issues (or at least making the impact very minimal).
Here then is a basic guide to an effective domain name change:
1. Before you buy - check whether your domain has been registered before
If it is a brand new domain name with one of the latest extensions, the chances of it having been registered before are slim, but there is still a chance. You also need to check if the domain has been penalized in any fashion by Google.
First use a ‘whois' site to see if any details of the domain you have chosen already exist. Likewise, the Wayback Machine offers a good idea as to whether a domain has been in use previously. If so, you need to look further. If a domain has been penalized by Google, it won’t be allowed to utilize Google Adsense, so checking if a domain is permitted to use Google Adsense will give you a clear insight into its history and its value to you. Google also offers Manual Actions reports that can tell you whether anyone at Google has previously flagged the domain for any reason. You might also want to find out if a name is a registered trademark to avoid future legal problems.
2. Back everything up
Moving your site under a new domain will require moving servers, or at least moving to a new account on the same server. When you make major changes like these, always fear the worst. Imagine that you will lose everything and that way you will always instinctively make a full backup. How you do this will be dependent on the control panel you use or whether you use as cloud-based backup service. Regardless, ensure a full back up is available.
3. Move your files to the new server/account
If you are using a Content Management System (CMS) like Joomla, WordPress, or Drupal a number of modules/plugins are available to make help make such a move a smooth one. Without such an option, you are going to have to rebuild pages, either manually or using some type of code. What you will be left with is your content on new pages and under new URLs.
4. Point your old URLs at the new URLs
If this can be automated by a programmer your life will be made much simpler, otherwise it means getting into your .htacess file and doing the redirects manually, and for a big site that could be quite a job. Nevertheless it has to be done. To point pages use a ‘301 redirect’. A 301 Redirect means servers recognize a move as being ‘permanent’. If the move is permanent, Google will transfer any SEO benefits from an old URL to the new URL.
5. Create a 404 redirect page
The chances are that if you are doing a change manually, you will make some mistakes, and this will result in certain links directing to pages that do not exist:
This is very bad for SEO, but you can address this before it becomes a problem. To do this you need to create a dedicated 404 redirect page:
Don’t use a ‘refresh’ type transfer code in your page html:
<meta http-equiv="refresh" content="0; URL='http://newwebsite.com/newpage'" />
Although easy to do, Google equates this type of transfer as a little spammy.
XML sitemaps make it substantially easier for Google to read your site pages, so don’t forget to add one. Again, using Joomla, WordPress, or Drupal there are modules and plugins that can do this for you, but if not there are a number of online sites that will generate a sitemap for you. A number of free downloads like ‘Open Sitemap Generator’ will do the trick. To submit a sitemap you have to go into Google Webmaster.
7. Submit the new site to Google
The faster Google recognizes the change, the better it will be for your SEO. Again you will need Google Webmaster for this and detailed instructions are provided at the site.
Caveat: Whether your site’s rating in Google is actually transferred to your new domain is dependent on a number of factors. If, for example, you redirect your pages and your new site’s pages are slower loading than your old site’s pages, you can wave your SEO goodbye. That’s just one example… If your new site flawed in any fashion, don’t expect to carry your old domain’s SEO over to the new domain.