A recent client has hired me to audit their SEO. The main issue was pretty clear from the start: they had recently undergone a rebrand and moved their site to a new domain. But they failed to redirect the old site properly to the new one.
The result is a significant loss in rankings and traffic.
Often, moving to a new domain is perfectly fine, provided you do it carefully and plan it properly. The reason is to ensure there’s no loss of traffic, authority, and rankings. Otherwise, it can lead to irrecoverable losses — not to mention the loss of your audience’s trust and goodwill.
If you’re planning on redesigning or rebranding your site, particularly if the purpose is to improve your SEO, here are some things to consider.
First, the simplest way to move your site is to do a domain-to-domain redirect. It will carry over any URL parameters to the new site automatically. If someone tries to reach domainone.com/page for example, they will easily go to the same page on the new domain, i.e., domaintwo.com/page.
But sometimes, it’s better to do a page-by-page redirect, simply because you may wish to keep parts of the old domain active, reuse the domain in the future, keep certain functions (such as mail servers), or move to a new architecture where you plan to rearrange and/or rename pages.
In the latter’s case, however, I don’t recommend doing it all together.
Some plastic surgeons prefer to do it all in one fell swoop: they want to move to a new domain, do a rebrand (and redesign the site to match the rebrand), and switch to a new content architecture — particularly if it’s recommended for SEO purposes. They want to get it all done.
However, in my experience, it’s better to first move to a new domain that maintains an identical architecture, and then launch the new site.
There are several reasons for this:
- It’s easier to do a bulk domain-to-domain redirect, which reduces server load. You can do this with regular expressions (RegEx) that simply tell the server to redirect and load the same folder/file on the new domain.
- If there are too many redirects that point to different pages, and/or if there are too many new pages appearing at once, Google may interpret that as a completely new site, and you might lose rankings and traffic.
- Above all, if you move to a new domain and revamp the architecture simultaneously, it will be difficult to determine the reason for the losses in traffic (i.e., whether it was the migration or the change in architecture).
If you absolutely must, then do so. But I recommend you do any changes to the architecture after the move. This way, you can start by pointing the old domain to the new one first, and then do internal redirects to new pages on the new domain either after the move or once you relaunched the site.
Thus, if someone tries to access a certain page on your old domain, they will go to the same page on the new domain first, and then the internal redirect will load the new page based on the revamped architecture.
But if you can do it in stages, do so. It will be more effective, more manageable, and less risky. In fact, I suggest you either clone the site to its new domain or switch the domain name. Then activate a domain-to-domain redirect.
This way, should anything go awry, switching back is easy.
(I typically use Cloudflare for this process. Adding all domains to Cloudflare, I can do a site-to-site switch within the DNS records as easily as flipping a switch. Plus, I do bulk domain redirects using Cloudflare’s “page rules.”)
Of course, once you’re done, do a search-and-replace sitewide and within the database to ensure to canonicalize the URLs with the new domain. (Go back to my SEO migration checklist for more details. A post-move crawl can identify any old remaining URLs that you need to switch.)
If a site moves and no redirects are in place, this creates several issues. When Google notices 404 errors, at first it will do nothing. It suspects that this may be temporary. It will wait for a few days to see:
- If the cause of the missing pages was a glitch;
- If the site owner submits a change of address; or,
- If the site eventually redirects the missing pages.
Over time, if Google doesn’t encounter any redirects, it will consider your pages as dropped, which will lose your rankings and any momentum you’ve gained.
So after putting the proper redirects in place, I also recommend submitting a change of address to Google to make sure there are no losses. You can do this by registering both domains with Google Search Console. Once the move is complete, start the process under “change of address” in settings.
GSC also gives you a list of all the external incoming links (i.e., backlinks) you will need to update. It’s above “settings” on the left sidebar in the above screenshot.
Often, an incoming link points to a page that has been long switched, renamed, or moved, and, unbeknownst to you, leads to a 404 (“page not found” error). Therefore, GSC will allow you to create any additional redirects you may need.
Doing a site move signals Google that the site is now on a new domain. Not only does GSC offer tools and reports that help you track your move and measure its performance, but also it helps to identify and fix issues that may occur.
A site move is much like an insurance policy. It will preserve several things:
- The integrity of backlinks;
- The site’s current rankings;
- Any potential domain authority;
- And the user experience (UX).
With domain authority, the age of the domain (i.e., how long the domain existed and remained with the same owner) is an important ranking factor. You will lose some of that when moving to a new domain.
As for UX, if someone searches for your old brand name (i.e., a navigational search intent, such as someone searching you to find your site), Google will list the new domain in its search results instead of the old one.
Speaking of ranking factors, Google ranks sites based on several factors. Key signals influence some of these factors, including E-A-T signals (i.e., expertise, authority, and trust). EAT is not a ranking factor per se. But it can influence your rankings as it influences the perception of the site’s experience and quality.
- Expertise mostly comes down to the content and its quality — the quality of your content, your knowledge, your credentials, and so forth.
- Trust mostly relates to user experience (UX), such as site security, page load speed, navigation, user journey, and so on (i.e., signaling that the site is trustworthy and not a scam).
- But authority comes from signals outside the site, such as backlinks, brand mentions, and other external signals that prove authoritativeness (such as links from social media, Google Maps, industry and business listings, reviews and reputation signals, and more).
Backlinks are vital to SEO and page errors are bad for UX. So preserving those links and the integrity of your site is important. There are also brand mentions, also called “implied links,” which include your brand name and even unlinked domain names. Site moves will help preserve those, too.
Remember that moving a site requires planning. There’s no one perfect way to migrate a site. But there are plenty of ways to screw it up. Just remember that Google is also there to help you. So use them to your advantage.