Moving domains: avoiding the pitfalls

It makes you want to crawl under a rock.  The day your boss comes to you and says “We’re looking at a new domain name.  Can you help us move to it?”  Worse are the days like that which pass you by because no one ever came to you, and it’s only in the panic of dwindling search traffic that people darken your door to ask the resident SEOgre what happened.

You instantly know what happened, every nuances of a traffic chart read like Braille in three dimensions by your finely tuned (bent?) mind.  Like a heart rate monitor, you are almost hard-wired to search traffic numbers, and when you see them slip, you know someone screwed up.

Moving to a new domain is no small task.  Looked at from a high level, there are a lot of big blocks to move.  Branding comes into play so the marketing folks have work to do, IT resources stack up quickly as new servers are needed to handle the move, the IT guys are also, development is on high alert as they’ll be doing the coding to make it all work on the new side, testing needs to be arranged for the new space (assuming you’ll redesign as part of the move) and so on.  The list gets positively mind-boggling when it reaches your level on the SEO side.  Everyone’s lists are so long at this point you’re looking at a project that could consume many months.

And there you are, told to guide the company so they don’t lose any search traffic.  Time to come out from under the bridge, SEOgre, and transform yourself into a hero.  Don’t let the daunting task before you sway your course.  If the company has told you the search traffic is valuable and you must protect it, grab your armor and stand tall.  Use that very fact to argue your case at every turn and to help gain buy in for your plans.

Of course, it helps if your plan is solid, so let’s take a look at a few things you’ll need to consider while building your move plan.

That new domain

What exactly do you know about that fancy new domain you’ll be moving into?  Talk to those who acquired it, and those who made the decision to buy it.  Ask them if it was an existing domain, or if it’s a fresh, new domain never registered before.  If it’s a new reg (new registration), you’re mostly fine.  But, if that domain has history, you’ll want to dig into that to see if you can understand any obvious issues.  Look to a domain age tool to understand when the domain was first registered.  I sit actually new?  Double check that with a quick trip through and see if they show any historical caching of pages from that domain.  You’d be surprised what a little sleuthing can dig up online.  I’d hit this step the instant you hear about the pending domain move, as if you uncover bad things here, you’ll need to get in front of the project to alert folks to possible issues.

Now, I said new registrations are mostly safe, and here’s what I meant by that.  You need to think of the target audience of the site and understand what the new domain name might mean to them.  Does the domain have a different meaning in different languages?  Or even within the same language.  Take hooker, for example.  Beyond THAT obvious meaning, did you know it also refers to a player on a rugby team? Or a worn out sailing ship, or even a shot of hard liquor?  So yeah, be careful.

SEO Implications

Yes, you will lose traffic if you move to a new domain.  Yes, the values assigned to your URLs will suffer somewhat during the switch over.  After all, part of why we rank a URL has to do with trust.  With a new URL, there is no trust, and a 301 only transfers a portion of that (well, most of it, really), but that still leaves a dip to deal with.  Make sure everyone knows what to expect.  If you’re a reputable, popular site before the domain swap and 301’s, you’ll be fine.  In short order we’ll see values and signals build on your new URLs and you’ll be happy.

An interesting exercise it to track your natural link growth prior to the move.  It can help you understand if that same pace of natural link growth is happening with the new domain after you move.  It at least gives you a baseline to track against.

If you’ve got high-value inbound links form trusted sources, it might be worth getting on the phone to them to ask them to update their links to you as well.  Never hurts to have clean, simple, direct links from trusted sources pointed at you.  How you define “high value” in this case is up to you, but it’s worth figuring it out.  I wouldn’t rely on page rank, but I would look to track direct traffic from the site, or some other tangible metric to watch.

And don’t try to use canonicals to manage this redirection work.  That’s not their job and as we’ve stated in the past, canonicals should be a limited use tool.

Directory Listings

I bet you forgot all about directories, didn’t you.  Wait, you’re SEOs…of course you haven’t forgotten about directories.  I’m not reopening the debate on if they do or do not help here, but I will say that you should factor them into your plan.

Let’s say a person finds you I a directory online.  They click the link and…404.  Why?  Because the 301 redirects you built have been removed by IT a year later as part of an effort to “clean up things”.  Now those listings scattered around, still capable of delivering traffic to you, are pointless.  Worse, you look bad because you’re not maintaining the links.  “If you can’t be bothered to keep the link updated, what will it be like doing business with you…?”…so the thinking goes.  Mark this as part of the “human interaction management” portion of the move.

And while we’re thinking of the people here, don’t forget that your fans will have bookmarks set up.  Are you potentially cutting off your best fans by setting up, then removing 301 redirects?  Could be a case made here to maintain those 301s longer than you may have originally planned.

Over time these last two points will become less and less important to police.  Folks are moving away from directories as a way to find what they seek.  Bookmarks are used less frequently in favor of a quick search to find what they seek.  But, it’s worth thinking of these points if for no other reason than it gets you out of pure SEO modes of thinking and forces you to take a broader view.  And as the head SEOgre at your company, that’s your job.  To spot the things others miss and guide the company through the minefield.  You might be an Ogre, but it seems to have worked for Shrek.

What would you add to this list of things to manage during a site-wide move to a new domain?