Planning an SEO Friendly Domain Migration

Having rebranded our business, I can speak to domain migration personally. Planning an SEO friendly domain migration is critically important if you don’t want to loose all of your SEO juice, domain authority, etc.

As we have talked to our clients through the years, we have heard horror stories about domain migrations. It always made me thankful that our company hadn’t had to cross that bridge. “Never Say Never” came calling a number of years ago, and I found myself on the brink of the most scary SEO move of my life. Honestly, this kept me up at night.

Thankfully, I lived to tell you exactly how to do it. With enough planning, and the following lists, it can be done safely. I promise.

Planning an SEO Friendly Domain Migration

Seriously, a domain migration should never be undertaken without the utmost planning and care.

We are not talking about accidentally giving birth to a baby in the back of a stalled New York cab. You ‘accidentally’ do a domain migration like that, and you’re toast. In fact, your baby might end up with brain damage.

Steps for a SEO Friendly Domain Migration

So, it’s time to get your ducks in a row. Read through this article, once, twice, and then print it off and make notes for your own migration.

Step 1 – Why do I need/want to switch domains?

Okay, if the answer is that you only want to, forget it. The chances that you could lose page authority and domain age are not worth it. You need to have good reasons to switch.

In our case, we rebranded from one company name to another.

While we would be able to pass SEO juice from existing links/pages, we would not be able to keep the old page authority or the 18 year domain age. More on this later, but now you see my acute pain on the matter. After two decades, we were starting all over on the SEO totem pole.

This gets back to NEED. We needed to rebrand. It was both inevitable and strategic.

Your need has to be on this level. Some appropriate reasons you might NEED to switch domains:

  • Your company is rebranding.
  • You didn’t follow the rules for picking a good domain name.
  • You need to provide Google with better geolocation signals by using a ccTLD.

 

Step 2 – Choosing a Good Domain Name

In our case, it was obvious that we had to go with our new company name, 2C Development Group. We already had that domain name, however it was going to be a mess for people to type, especially in emails. So we shortened it to 2Cdevgroup.com. So much better.

NOTE: be sure you buy your domain name WELL in advance of needing to use it, so that it has some domain age on it. In our case, we had hosted our development server on it, so that it was active for months prior to being used for our final need.

Step 3 – Change Assessment List

We tell our clients not to make a bunch of site changes at the same time, as Google might then highlight your site for scrutiny. And it might not stand up to it.

However, if you have to make a number of changes, make sure they are positive changes. In our case, the Google Gods rewarded us for a cleaner navigation and improved content.

Just know that it can be a big risk to change a lot of things at the same time.

Also, we stayed within a safety zone, by not changing platforms, by making only small changes to the existing design, etc.

Make a prioritized list of all the changes you are planning to implement at this time, and keep it to a minimum.

Things NOT to change all at the same time:

  • Platform: Stay in your same CMS or eCommerce platform.
  • Site Architecture: Don’t change the name of all of your site files and where they are located on the server.
  • Site Redesign: If at all possible, keep your old look and feel through a migration and give it a few months before going forward with this change.
  • Content: While small improvements to existing content are fine, massively adding or subtracting content is not a good idea.
  • IP: Unless you are dealing with a life and death situation with a terrible host, do not change hosting servers during this time.

Step 4 – Plan the Migration

Use the Right Tools

Planning an SEO Friendly Domain Migration
SmartSheet makes it easy to Plan an SEO Friendly Domain Migration

We use SmartSheet for about everything you can imagine in our business.

We set up a SmartSheet for our project that included every single line item that was needed for both the rebranding and for the domain migration process.

It was a great way to visualize all the steps, how much time it would take, and became our punch list for implementation.

We highly encourage you to check out SmartSheet, or to use whatever planning tool you love, to create this same sort of punch list for your team.

Do not start the project until you have filled it as completely as you can, and always use a tool that allows for the easy addition of new lines, as things come onto your radar.

Process

All the members of our team were invited to the sheet and assigned line items.

As progress was made, you could see all the ‘100% Completes’ marching down the sheet, which provided motivation for our team.

Stop and Re-access

All projects like this are fluid and a crucial item that was left out at the beginning can change the flow of the whole project, or even bring it to a halt, until some important decisions are made.

Motivation

Lastly, keep your team motivated.

These can prove to be exhaustive projects, and people’s ability to maintain concentration for long periods of time can vary.

Allow people to voice their motivation blocks honestly, and be prepared to take lots of breaks. Trying to bluster through will only lead to bad results, low quality and a demotivated team.

Step 5 – Make your List and Check It Twice

Things you need to take care of during your Domain Migration:

  • If you have not already installed Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics tracking codes on your (old) site, do it immediately, or hire someone who knows how to do it. Allow them to collect at least 2 months of data as a benchmark before even considering making a move.
  • You have a choice at this point. Either fix all of the crawl, meta tag, or blocked files issues now, prior to the domain migration, or take note of them to fix as part of the post migration development. We suggest fixing them immediately. Do this by checking your existing Google Webmaster Tools accounts for any current crawl, meta tag, or blocked files issues. Create a ‘fix list’ in a section on your SmartSheet, so that you don’t carry these problems over to the new domain name. Presenting a ‘fixed’ website to Google can only smooth the path of change.
  • Use Zenu to create a complete map of all your site files, content, images, video, PDF’s, etc.
  • Zenu will also show you orphaned files. Plan to either link these up correctly, or remove them as not needed.
  • Create a list of all your site assets in a spreadsheet where you can sort by rankings and traffic. You need to know which premium assets need the utmost protection.
  • Using above spreadsheet, list current URL and new URL, if a change is required.
  • Prepare all of your 301 Permanent Redirects in a new .htaccess file. This file should include all info from your current .htaccess file, unless there are super old things in there that are no longer needed. Tread carefully on this, or hire an expert. A bad directive in one of these files can create an infinite loop on the server that can shut it down, thus taking your own site, and the sites of many other companies down.
  • Take a benchmark snapshot of your current SEO standings (from Google Analytics and Moz):
    • Pages that are indexed by Google
    • Rankings of those pages and for which keywords
    • Traffic to site and to pages
    • Incoming Links (Page Authority)
    • Internal Links – this is important if those links have hard-coded references to the old domain

Step 6 – Develop and Launch

Now it’s time to implement the changes that you are going to make at this time. As you work through the above list, monitor progress and have an accountability process to make sure all items are completed on time. Getting behind in one area can hold up the whole project.

Checklist for Development & Launch

  1. Enable Robots.txt blocking for the new domain as soon as you host it. You don’t want Google crawling the site yet, as it is still in development.
  2. Bring over a complete copy of your current site to the new domain name.
  3. Click through the site doing a cursory overview looking for major problems. If none, advance through this list.
  4. Fix all internal links to use relative links, rather than full domain name links.
  5. Make sure that all of your key pages made it over, using your prioritized pages list from above. You can use Zenu to crawl the new site and then do a compare process in a spreadsheet from one site’s pages to the other, to see if any are missing.
  6. Start on your minimal design changes.
  7. Launch the new .htaccess file and test the redirects you wrote to make sure they ALL work. Seriously, you have to test EACH one manually.
  8. Create new Google Profiles for the new domain name and add their tracking codes to the new site.
  9. Correct all Google Webmaster Tools crawl, 404, meta tag, or blocked files issues, if you didn’t already (see above).
  10. Start on your minimal content updates/corrections. Make sure that all grammar and spellings issues are corrected. Hire an editor if needed. Adding just a few pages to the new site is okay.
  11. Cross-browser checks (and mobile devices, if your site is mobile-ready).
  12. When finished, you need a few different sets of eyeballs to manually click through the site, and also specifically check all critical site assets. Have them keep a list of problems they find.
  13. Fix any remaining issues.
  14. Create an XML site map of the new site to upload in Google Webmaster Tools. You may find you have to remove your Robots.txt block for a minute, if you are using an outside tool to create it. Once done, turn blocking back on.
  15. If you have a LOT of external links, congratulations. You may want to start the process of changing as many of those as possible just prior to your site launch. It may take a long time to get them all done. At this point, start with the ones that have less page authority, and plan to update the ones with the most page authority after you have launched.
  16. Choose a launch date, and launch on time. There is nothing more motivating than achieving a goal on time. Usually this is as easy as unblocking bots in your Robots.txt file. But it can be as complicated as duplicating a CMS site from a development location to the hosted domain name. If you did the latter, you may have to test your 301 redirects immediately after launch. Be ready to fix any issues immediately.
  17. Submit your XML site map to Google and use Google as fetch to index your new site.
  18. Continue to update your external links, starting now with the ones with most page authority.

 

Step 7 – Watch Google’s Reaction

Okay, I feel your pain. You just pulled the trigger and you have no idea how Google will receive your offering. It can feel like the ancient Greeks waiting to see if Zeus was going to send them to Hades or not.

If you followed the above rules, and had a content driven site, good rankings & decent page authority to start with, I am going to go out on a limb and say, “You have nothing to fear, but fear itself,” to quote Winston Churchill.

Things to expect after your launch:

After we launched, our rankings actually improved after the move, as did traffic. Google popped us WAY up within a few days, and it stayed on HIGH for a week.

But…wait for it…

Then Google started doing its sifting thing. Some of our new content (and keywords) dropped 40 points, then came up 30, and then down 5 and then up 10 over the first month.

Overall, our traffic has gone up 500%, and our rankings are more than we could have expected: 35 keywords have #1 rankings, 20 are #4-10, 14 are #11-20.

Don’t loose a lot of sleep that first month. Keep an eye on what’s going on, but don’t pull out your hair if your rankings are all over the place. Google is at work.

The time to get concerned is two or three months down the road when Google is done sifting. Or, maybe not, because you did a good job, and your site is awesome.

Final Words

The main idea, is that even under extraordinary circumstances, where you have to break a few more of these rules than you might be comfortable with, you CAN end with a success story.

Breaking even is a success story.

Better yet, we often see that fixing problems that were bugging Google, and your site visitors, can result in a boost. That means all your hard work was worth it.

But it’s never truly over.

Remember all those things you didn’t fix at the same time?

Take a break, and then it will be time to review your:

  • Content curation and social media policies: are you reaching the right market effectively?
  • Website Design: is it mobile-friendly? You MUST have a responsive website.
  • Is your site in an industry standard Content Management System? We suggest WordPress.
  • Is your site architecture SEO-friendly, and user-friendly?
  • Are you using valuable company resources fighting with a bad hosting company? That’s an easy change. Give us a call: 316-686-2284.

 

Plan, execute well, and enjoy your success! Got Questions? Give us a shout out in the comments below.