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October 20, 2014

How to Mitigate an SEO Loss When Changing Domains

October 20, 2014

You may have noticed that our website recently changed a bit. We moved from smallboxweb.com to just smallbox.com – and while three letters may not seem significant, we did not flip the switch without careful consideration.

If you pay close attention to your organic rankings, you probably know that Google takes notice when you make changes to your site – especially when URLs are changed. Search engines, like many of us, are a bit skeptical of change, and even when those changes are ripe with good intentions and UX in mind, Google typically doesn’t give you the benefit of the doubt.

Why? Well, rankings are Google’s way of validating a website, so to be included at the top of their list means that they think you are pretty great – sort of how you might feel about your favorite restaurant. If you woke up one day and that restaurant had a new name, you would probably take a step back and make sure that this new name doesn’t also mean a new, not-so-great menu or chef – especially before you recommend it to a friend.

Just like you would with your favorite restaurant, with a little time Google will see that it’s just a new and improved version. However, while re-evaluating and processing the change, the search engine is less likely to recommend your site to users, which is why you will see a (sometimes very significant) dip in organic traffic. The good news is that if done correctly, this dip will only be temporary and there are steps you can take to speed up Google’s approval.

So, how can you mitigate the loss? After some research (including a good amount of time over at Google Webmaster Guidelines), we compiled this list of items that we used for our own change.

Pre-launch Preparations

  • Add your new site to Google Webmaster Tools.
  • Review incoming links to your current site and identify the highest priority links (those that come from pages with a lot of link value). Write to the owner and ask them to update that link to point to your new site. (We had the new URL forwarding to our current site, so any updates that were made before we launched were still working.) This will help save link juice that would otherwise be diluted through a redirect.
  • Take an inventory of directories, sites like Wikipedia and social platforms and update links to point to your new URL.
  • Check for absolute internal links to make sure they are changed or redirected.

At Launch To-do's

  • 301 redirect all URLs on your current site to the new domain. Make sure these are happening at the page level – in other words, don’t redirect your entire old site to the new domain’s homepage. If the new domain won’t include that same page, redirect to a similar page.

Post-launch list

  • Keep the old site up and running for at least 180 days, and keep the 301’s up to date.
  • Submit a “Change of Address” in Google Webmaster Tools by clicking the gearbox in the upper right-hand corner of your new account and select the “Change of Address” link.
  • Update your analytics account to reflect the change.
  • Create a new XML sitemap for the new domain and submit it to your Webmaster Tools accounts.
  • Request that Google crawls your site via Google Webmaster Tools. Under your new domain account, go to Crawl > Fetch as Google. Do not enter anything into the box as you should be starting with your root domain. After hitting the "Fetch" button, a new box will say “Submit to Index”. Click that button and select “Crawl only this URL”.
  • Monitor rankings and Webmaster tools weekly to check for broken links, unwanted 404’s and any major dips in traffic.

It’s been just under a month since making the change and while we have some initial data to analyze the impact, we want to collect a bit more before sharing results with you, so stay tuned!

Fellow marketers – any other tips or insights you would add to this list?

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