SEO for acquired domains or ‘Acquisition SEO’
Ask your C-Suite team what’s top of their agenda when acquiring a business and it’s probably not SEO. I’m here to argue it should be, if not top of the agenda, then a consideration even before the deal has been done. Too often relegated to a tactical afterthought, involving SEO from the start of the acquisition process can help inform pricing/value, takeover strategy and lead to a more effective transition – preventing any unnecessary loss of brand trust, customers or sales.
SEO’s role in the acquisition process
A classic example of ‘SEO as an afterthought’ is ASOS’s purchase of Topshop, where Sistrix reported use of wildcard redirects caused topshop.com to lose around 80% of its visibility. So, when’s the best time for SEO to get involved? If you can, before the deal has been signed. This allows time to review site signals and assess the size of the organic search opportunity, which can also affect deal value. The data can inform strategic decisions such as whether to actually purchase the site and if so, migrate or maintain the domain, helping to align C-Suite and SEO objectives from the offset.
Auditing an acquired site
Once you’ve got your hands on the new site your first step should always be a backlink and historical audit, followed by a full crawl.
Starting with the backlink audit, review the domain’s authority/PageRank, which URLs are well linked to and whether these tend to be a particular type of page. In Majestic a good link profile will typically have a healthy number of referring domains comparable to its niche or vertical, and a Trust Score to Citation ratio that’s close to 1. A Trust/Citation ratio of between 0.8 and 1.2 is usually very good. Anything outside of this range needs investigation to understand why this is the case.
Secondly, check if the site has any notifications in Search Console of a manual penalty.
Thirdly, look for any drops in traffic due to algorithmic penalties – this can usually be seen in analytics.
Finally, perform a full crawl of the site using a tool like Screaming Frog. For very large sites (over 1m pages) a full crawl can be time consuming; to speed things up you may want to consider cloud crawling software such as Botify or DeepCrawl or utilise Screaming Frog in the Cloud. Bonus points if you can get your hands on log files, to understand how Google actually crawls the site. The goal is to capture any URLs that Google sees in its index. Augment this with your backlink audit and data pulled from Google Analytics and Search Console.
This data combined will give you a clear picture of all URLs and their relative strengths and weaknesses. With this in hand it’s decision-making time. How can you gain the most benefit from the content? Our recommendation is to prioritise the content users interact with and pages with backlinks. For each URL there are three main options:
- Maintain the URL and content on the existing domain – in some situations retaining a page may be the best choice, either temporarily or indefinitely. If your intention is to hold ranking positions for multiple brands and ‘moat’ the SERPs, you may want to maintain the content in its current location. If the URL is being kept temporarily, canonicalisation can be used to pass signals to the future target page. Maintaining the URL temporarily can also be a sensible approach if it’s a well known brand with lots of typed and direct traffic. It can be frustrating for users to be redirected away from the site they are expecting, so think about the user experience and your messaging.
- Redirect the URL – setting up permanent redirects that send users and authority to your target website. Where there is equivalent content on your target site, ‘like for like’ redirects can be put in place. If there is no equivalent, content can be migrated onto the target site, before you set up redirects and possibly maintained as an archive.
- You also have the option not to redirect at all (404 or 410) – there are circumstances, particularly with very large sites (100k+ pages), where removing pages can be the best option.
Preserving PageRank and authority through redirects
To preserve as much authority as possible redirects should be:
- Permanent – most commonly a 301 http status code, although there are alternatives such as a meta refresh.
- Highly relevant – your target page should closely align with the content of the source URL.
We expect highly relevant, permanent redirects to transfer around 80% of page authority. Where the redirect is not to a highly related page, for example, a category level page rather than a 1-1 equivalent, the amount of authority passed will be massively reduced.
Reviewing and mapping the URLs for an entire site is a largely manual process and can be time consuming. The more 1-1 URL matches of high quality you can make, the greater the transfer of authority, and sadly there are few shortcuts to this process. If both sites have similar URL structures, techniques such as using a fuzzy lookup within a spreadsheet programme can help to speed things along, but this is best combined with a manual review to guarantee the quality of your matches.
When is it OK to 404?
If a page has low user engagement i.e. it’s receiving no or minimal views or clicks, it’s not externally linked to and you don’t have equivalent content to redirect to, you can safely consider removing the page and letting it 404. Perhaps the acquired business targets verticals you won’t be servicing, has products that will no longer be on sale, or simply has low value legacy content there’s little benefit maintaining. These are all valid reasons to let a page go.
Removing a page doesn’t mean sacrificing user experience. Serving a custom 404 page explaining why the page no longer exists and perhaps suggesting alternative locations can help smooth the transition. A delayed meta refresh (of a few seconds) that redirects to the target site homepage could also be added to help signpost users towards current content.
Maintaining user trust – don’t forget messaging
Whilst you’re knee deep in spreadsheets doing your best to accurately map a probably absurd number of URLs, it’s important not to overlook other ways to smooth the user experience during a site transfer. As soon as a site is acquired, banners on both the source and target sites notifying users of the new ownership is an excellent start.
As the project progresses, banners should be updated to explain why and where content is moving. In an online environment where phishing is common and content with nefarious intent abounds, being transparent about site changes is crucial to maintain user trust. Clear messaging combined with highly relevant redirects will minimise the number of people finding themselves unexpectedly on an unfamiliar site and potentially bouncing – perhaps only to repeat the same frustrating journey again.
Permanent redirects: 301 vs. a meta refresh
Whilst Google considers both 301s and meta refresh redirects to be permanent (when the meta refresh is immediate) and both pass authority to the target URL, our recommendation is to use a 301 redirect wherever possible. When it’s not feasible to implement 301s, perhaps due to limited back-end access or lack of developer expertise, a meta-refresh can be considered as an alternative.
A 301 redirect is implemented server side, whilst a meta refresh happens client side, instructing the web browser to redirect to a new URL after a specific period of time. When the time period for the meta refresh is zero seconds, this will be considered a permanent redirect, anything greater than zero and the redirect will be considered temporary. To maximise the authority passed through a redirect, temporary redirects of all kinds should be avoided.
A meta refresh can also work well if you’ve chosen to keep the source site as it allows users to be redirected after a few seconds. The redirection should normally be accompanied with a message that explains where the user is being sent e.g. You will be redirected to our new website shortly.
Using the canonical to pass on authority
Canonicalisation is another way to pass signals from acquired content to your target site. Whilst it’s a much weaker signal than a redirection, it does indicate which URL should be considered the ‘master’ version and helps to transfer some benefits.
This can be a useful pre-migration tactic to transfer benefit from the acquired site to its new target. Or in other situations where the source URL is going to remain live, but you’d like to establish a different primary page. A canonical is a suggestion, not a directive, so be aware that Google is free to ignore the hint and may select a different URL as canonical if they believe there’s a better alternative.
How long should redirects stay in place?
Forever, and ever, and ever. Or, a really long time. Google has suggested 301 redirects are kept for at least a year, but we like to think of the user first, and users love a bookmark. Keeping redirects in place indefinitely prevents broken journeys and frustrated users.
If maintaining the old server is an issue, log files will tell you what URLs are no longer in use and redirects for these pages can be safely removed. But when the resource to keep redirects in place is low, and URLs may be in use for years, it makes sense to simply leave redirects alone if you can.
What does success look like?
A well thought out domain acquisition should lead to positive uplifts on multiple metrics, depending on your objectives. Below is a client example from the used car marketplace, where we delivered a significant uplift in visibility as measured by the Sistrix Visibility index, following their acquisition of a well-established domain.
Success was drawn through:
- Retaining the acquired site but migrating some content to the client’s existing site and implementing 301 redirects.
- Using cross-domain canonicals to pass signals from the acquired site to the client’s target site.
- Repurposing intellectual property, such as interactive tools.
Business acquisitions are a great opportunity to enhance the performance of a site, but without early involvement and careful planning it’s easy for outcomes to be lacklustre at best. We often have new clients coming to us after a plan to merge or migrate a site has already gone wrong!
Simply being aware of the importance of SEO input early in the acquisition process is a good first step towards more successful outcomes. Given appropriate time and resource to review the acquired site, plan, and implement changes, you should expect to see positive results for your efforts.