How to avoid an SEO nightmare when changing domain names

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Matt Batterham is the Account Director at Essex-based digital agency, Browser Media. Matt has over ten years’ experience supporting clients from a range of industries, ensuring they achieve and exceed their SEO goals.

The words ‘domain migration’ have the potential to strike dread into the hearts of even the most experienced webmasters, but with careful planning and execution, the process needn't be a nightmare. Here’s how we did it along with some top tips for making the process as stress-free as possible.

Some background: In late 2017 we underwent a rebrand which included a website, a content refresh, and some alterations to our brand proposition more generally.

Naturally, the process got us thinking about how we communicate what we do, the services we offer, and the type of clients we are trying to attract. This led to a discussion around our existing domain, and whether it could potentially deter prospective clients from outside the UK. 

While geographically speaking we are very much a UK-based business, we have worked with clients from across Europe and the US, with the latter proving particularly fruitful source of new business in recent years. In order to nurture this growth, we needed to communicate our transatlantic capabilities more clearly.

So we decided to say goodbye to and hello to something that better represented our global footprint. The natural alternative here would have been .com, but for various technical reasons, this wasn’t an option (the truth is the domain wasn’t available). 

We toyed with some variations on our existing brand name including dashes, dots, and even a “we are...” prefix, but these felt like a compromise and just didn't feel right for us. We eventually landed on .agency.

If you’re not familiar with the .agency domain extension, you're not alone. While there’s been an uplift in the adoption of new gTLDs (generic Top Level Domains) in recent years, they’re far from being universally recognized. This was a bit of a risk, but a risk we were willing to take. Fortune favors the brave, as the saying goes.

Not only did we move to the .agency domain, but we also added .agency to our logo. The intention here was to make the domain more memorable but also to reinforce the fact that we are, without question, an agency.

Becoming .agency

Moving domains is inherently risky, particularly when there’s nothing technically wrong with the existing domain. From an SEO point of view, there’s often more to lose than there is to gain. Having seen first hand how badly botched migrations can affect a business, we left nothing to chance.

The following points do not make up an exhaustive migration strategy by any means (I'd suggest checking out Moz’s website migration guide for that) but represent five critical actions that simply can't be overlooked during any migration process.

Domain move: Checks

1. Pre-launch audit: Auditing a new site before it launches may sound like an obvious thing to do but you’d be surprised how often this task gets rushed or ignored. Auditing everything you can pre-launch, including website copy, meta content, canonical tags, internal links, menus, mobile usability, meta robots attributes, structured data & markup code, images, page load speeds, and so on, will save a lot of work at the other end, plus minimize any short-term SEO volatility.

2. Redirect mapping: A lack of proper redirect mapping is where most migrations come unstuck, for example; redirecting all pages to a single page, using the wrong type of redirects (e.g. 302s instead of 301s), or worst of all, neglecting redirects entirely

During the redirect mapping process, it is equally important to consider any legacy redirects that are in place. Ideally, you’ll want to update any old redirects to point directly to the new site pages (A -> C), rather than having unnecessary redirect chains across the site (A -> B  -> C). Not only do redirect chains increase page load speeds, but they also reduce the value of any external links pointing to the original pages.

Finally, for big projects, you're probably going to have to prioritize - while in an ideal world every page would be redirected to its most relevant equivalent, realistically that process can take days or even weeks to initiate. Priority pages are pages that drive traffic, have external links, maintain good SERP visibility and so on.

3. Updating all internal links: While redirects will help ensure users aren’t presented with 404 pages as they navigate around the new site, updating internal links at the source is a much cleaner, more SEO-friendly solution. It also ensures users end up in the right place, as opposed to being redirected to a generic top-level page or homepage. This takes longer to implement in the short-term but will be worth it later down the line.

4. Google Analytics & Search Console: From the moment you launch your new website you’re going to want to start collecting data so it’s important to make sure everything is set up correctly regarding Google Analytics. Aside from ensuring all new pages have the right tracking code on them (don’t take this for granted), you’ll also want to update any Goals and Events to reflect the new URLs.

Similarly, you should set up a new Google Search Console account and use it to monitor performance, tell Google about the change of address using the Change of Address tool, and submit and test new sitemaps (on that note, create new sitemaps!) It’s also worth noting that as soon as the new Search Console account starts collecting data, the old account will stop. If you wish to hang on to the previous 16 months worth of data, now’s the time to hit the export button.

5. Post-launch audit: Following a migration it’s critical to audit the website to ensure everything is working as it should be, not least redirects. If there’s a big spike in 404 errors, for example, it might be that not all of the redirects were implemented properly. Drops in traffic, major fluctuations in keyword visibility, and an increase in Error reports in Google Search Console can also be indications that something hasn't gone to plan.

Domain move: Outcomes

To minimize any potential disruption we rolled out the migration over the Christmas break when website traffic is typically at its lowest. This gave us the luxury of being able to fix any problems before we officially announced the rebrand in January.

While the timing of the launch was good from a logistical point of view, it did make benchmarking difficult as an uplift in traffic was inevitable following the festive slump. The fact that traffic returned to expected levels when we expected it to was an indication that the migration had been a success because, ultimately, consistency was our objective here - this was, after all, an exercise in branding rather than SEO.

As for global domination; visits from US users have increased year-on-year, but that’s more likely a result of increased traffic levels overall, rather than the domain specifically. Time will tell how much influence the .agency domain has with regard to attracting and converting overseas clients, it's still relatively early days.

To anyone who is considering changing domains, my advice would be to think it through carefully and to do it for the right reasons, ie. not for SEO. It is not a process that should be taken lightly, nor should it be rushed. While a smooth migration should cause minimal disruptions to website performance, when it goes wrong the consequences can be disastrous. By assessing the risks, planning carefully, and auditing thoroughly throughout the entire process, any potential nightmares can be kept to a minimum.

Matt Batterham is the Account Director at Essex-based digital agency, Browser Media.

Matt Batterham
Matt Batterham is the Account Director at Essex-based digital agency, Browser Media. Matt has over ten years’ experience supporting clients from a range of industries, ensuring they achieve and exceed their SEO goals.