Changing domain names is risky from a SEO perspective – but how risky is it really? Usually, when management decides to change domain names, we as SEOs can’t really do much but go with it. In many cases domain changes are driven by brand strategy and are C-level decisions. Other often encountered reasons for domain change are migration to a country-specific TLD or to an authoritative TLD, e.g. from .cc to .com. Therefore, as SEOs our role is to mitigate the risks and protect our precious rankings as good as we can.

Quick domain change guide

Most of us are familiar with best-practices concerning domain changes. Some even promise that they can move domains without losing rankings. Let’s quickly summarize what we know:

Before the migration:

As soon as the new name is decided upon, you should do a background check of possible domain candidates looking at parameters like domain age, backlinks as well as running quick queries in archive.org and whois. Buy the domain name that poses the least risk (read: new without any past or has a good past, e.g. some high page rank backlinks). Put something related to the company on the site as soon as possible, e.g. a crude version of the upcoming home page with only text and pictures or even just a few paragraphs describing the company. If you wait then you run the risk of being classified as a parked domain for longer than necessary.

After the migration:

  1. Permanently redirect (301) all pages from the old domain to the new one
    • Lost link juice: 301s do not pass all the link juice
  2. 301s are on a page level
    • crawling all pages takes time during which link juice is temporarily lost
  3. Fetch the new domain as Googlebot to discover inconsistencies
  4. Submit the sitemap to Google
    • Look for crawl errors on sites specified in the sitemap
    • Create a different Sitemap for each logical section of your site in order to discover badly indexed sections
  5. Verify both domains with Google Webmaster Tools and fill out a “change of address” request
  6. Update the most important backlinks and links to the most important pages (as measured by conversions, traffic, rankings)
    • You should regain at least some of the lost link juice
  7. Monitor traffic and rankings
    • Look how rankings change and how it affects traffic
  8. Monitor linkbuilding
    • Look for sudden changes in the growth rate of natural linkbuilding
  9. Do not immediately close/sell/reuse the old domain for something else
    • Wait a couple of weeks and make sure that the old domain is out of the SERP and does not attract links anymore

All these things are well-known by professional SEOs and, although, complex can be expected to be implemented. Of course, there is also a comprehensive infographic about this by Aley Dasolis, just in case. However, other factors occur that fall outside of the SEO scope that can heavily undermine the best practices…

Risks of domain migration

Many domain migration problems arise due to the root cause of the migration: Branding. In many cases a domain change is also “celebrated” with a relaunch. It is not unusual that brands revamp their sites completely including a change of the CMS used and putting up new content. One example is Alertpay, which communicates the change to Payza quite tellingly: “new design, new features, new name” (before and after). As Matt Cutts says:

“It’s better to change only one thing at a time so that if something goes horribly wrong, you can trace what caused it.”

In their case it will be quite hard to find the cause should a problem occur. This also means, though, you should take the data below with a grain of salt as there are potentially many causes for what I am about to show you.

But how risky is it really?

The graph below shows the Rankpanel SEOscore for 8 domains in the 3 weeks leading to the domain change at week 0 and for the 8 new domains in the first 6 weeks after the domain change. You will also notice that I have normalized the data to week 0. The Rankpanel SEOscore is a search engine visibility metric that we calculate using the rankings in our panel of 500,000 keywords per country.

Changing domains has an effect on the SEO

We see the following things:

  • In 6/8 cases the SEOscore decreased after the domain migration
  • In 2 cases it improved
  • In 6/8 cases the SEOscore decreased leading up to the migration

So, yes a domain migration can be completed without losing rankings, although, in most cases rankings do decrease. Domain migration seems also to have a negative effect on rankings leading up to the relaunch. I guess this is because it is such an important project that it bounds too many resources and it makes no sense to invest in the old domain anymore. While looking through the results we see how long it can take until a good old site stops ranking. In the case of auctionarms shown below, it took 8 weeks until it disappeared from Rankpanel, meaning that it was not in the top 100 for the 500,000 keywords we monitor.
(Click on the picture below to get all the data.)

The change in SEOscore for migration from gunauction to auctionarms

In other cases, the old domains do not disappear from the SERPs at all. When looking at the csnstores pages that still rank more than 8 months after the migration to wayfair.com we see that .pdfs from the subdirectory “common” were left on the old domain and are therefore still in the index. This is why monitoring the migration is so important. It can quickly reveal things that got lost along the way.

Takeaways

  1. Domain migration is a complex issue, so take your time and plan it thoroughly.
  2. Most domains lose rankings before and after the migration, so don’t migrate during your most important business times (e.g. before Christmas for E-Commerce sites). On the other hand, you can use these week times of your competitors to your advantage.
  3. Monitor your old and new sites long enough after the migration to detect mistakes.

Picture attribution