In this blog post I’ll highlight the SEO critical considerations when undergoing a major domain migration or website relaunch.
What’s the difference between a website relaunch and a domain migration?
Website relaunches often involve the look and feel of the site changing, perhaps to make improvements to design and/or user experience. This may result in new content being added or older content being removed. A domain migration could occur due to a change in company name following a rebranding exercise, or if a more ‘desirable’ domain name becomes available.
In more recent times, many websites have undergone ‘domain’ migrations simply because of the pressure to update to HTTPS; an added layer of security which Google now takes into account as a ranking factor (albeit a very small one).
In any of these instances, URLs are likely to be changed; handling changes in URLs are some of the most challenging projects to get right from an SEO perspective, and can result in serious issues if not implemented correctly.
What SEO challenges await a website following a domain change?
When undergoing a change of domain, if the changes in URLs are not addressed there is a strong chance that the organic SEO visibility established around the old website will not be carried over to the new one, and subsequently, the site’s search performance post-launch could be affected negatively. This is a huge risk for any website that relies upon organic search as a channel for visitors to its website.
Other challenges include:
- In some searches, Google can have a preference for brands that have built up a strong reputation over time. When migrating to a new domain (e.g. because of a rebrand) you can lose the established ‘brand equity’ and may not be considered as authoritative as the previous one. This can affect the ability for the new domain to rank as strongly as before.
- Third party websites may be deep-linking through to pages on your old site’s URL structure – they won’t be aware of any changes and the majority will probably not update their site either, even if actively chased. It is important that all of these links can still find their way to your new website and don’t result in a 404 error.
- Internal linking needs to be considered with a new website and structure to ensure users (and bots) aren’t constantly running into 404 errors.
- Returning visitors will encounter a new website experience. A new brand and site layout may be a jarring, if not unfamiliar experience for returning visitors. There is a chance they may be confused and not find what they’re looking for resulting in leaving the site.
How do you overcome these challenges?
As is the case with so many projects, the most crucial element to have in place is a clear plan of action. There will be important things to consider before and after the switch.
Before the switch
Know your content
As a starting point, I’d strongly recommend undertaking a full content audit to get a full picture of which pages exist on the website. From here, decisions need to be made about which content is still relevant, and therefore needs to be migrated across to the new site, and which could be removed or consolidated elsewhere.
For instance you may have an archive of articles dating back many years which could be very tempting to delete – but they may actually be providing your domain with very strong organic SEO benefit. For that reason, it’s vital that you assess everything and create a working document of all URLs on your website and their associated stats, including inbound links.
This is easier said than done if you have over 10,000 pages for example, so here are some ways of structuring your audit to make it as pain free as possible:
- Create a full list of URLs of the current site – Look to all sources for creating this list dynamically. Your Google Analytics and Search Console account will contain the vast majority of your pages. Round it out with a full site crawl using a tool such as Screaming Frog and consolidate in one master spreadsheet.
- Check how many visits each URL has received – Use Google Analytics to see how many organic entrances a given URL has had within the last year – it may not be worth keeping/redirecting to the new website if it’s not receiving any organic traffic.
- Assess the number of backlinks pointing to each URL – Get a picture of the number of backlinks your site receives through using tools such as Majestic and Google Search Console. Pages with deep links from reputable third parties should be redirected to the nearest equivalent page on the new website to ensure the domain is still benefiting from this flow of authority.
- Assess the pages which are light on content – URLs which have ‘thin’ content on them, or indeed duplicate materials, should either be removed or merged onto one page on the new site.
- Gather all URLs used in PPC and Advertising campaigns – If you do not set up redirects on your campaign URLs you will be sending visitors to broken pages. This will have a significant negative impact on your Quality Score, and your ad budget.
Benchmark your website’s current organic performance
When you press the ‘live’ button for your migration, you’ll want to know how well your new domain is performing in relation to your old one. To be able to assess this accurately it’s important to benchmark what it’s doing right now. This will include recording the levels of organic traffic you currently receive, having a handle on the keywords the website ranks for and what their organic position is.
Map your current URLs to the new ones
Sometimes you may only be changing the domain name in a like for like swap and that’s it – but often new pages are made, some get consolidated and others are removed. It can seem daunting but it’s crucial to map each URL from the old website to their new one.
Whatever you do with your mapping, it’s imperative you don’t just point them all of the URLs to your new home page. It is often the case that technical teams will blanket 301 redirect all of the old site URLs to the homepage of your new site – this could have disastrous results and the redirects could actually be considered as ‘soft 404s’. The redirects that are set should ideally have a contextual relevance from old to new.
Check your site for internal links
You should check all internal links within your old site prior to launch. If you have been using Absolute links (which contain the https://www.yourdomain.com element) then you’ll need to ensure that the domain is updated to point to the new location. Likewise, if using Relative links (which only contain the part of the URL string after the domain, i.e. /subfolder) then these will need to point to the correct URL string if their structure has changed. A crawler such as Screaming Frog can help you identify any broken links so you can fix them before go live.
Technical tasks to consider with your developers
Away from the content there are some more technical tasks to consider ahead of the domain migration. These include things like making sure your website doesn’t get indexed in Google ahead of time, or having a password protection on the test site so outsiders can’t gain access to it.
You also will want Google to index your new pages quickly so it’s recommended you create an XML sitemap (sitting at yourdomain.com/sitemap.xml) and upload it to Google Search Console when the time comes to launch.
Speak to the wider marketing team
Away from organic search you want to make sure that you are spreading the word about your rebrand and domain name change. Talk to the person/agency responsible for PR for the company and make sure they’re on the ball with generating a buzz in industry news and updating social media profiles.
Talk to your Campaign Manager and ensure they’ve budgeted accordingly for the time the switch happens. We usually suggest upping paid search activity by around 20% to make up for any temporary shortfalls in organic traffic once the migration happens. This is typically for up to 12 weeks.
After the switch
Monitoring SEO performance
The day a new website goes live can be a stressful one. Your immediate team will be looking at it, as will major stakeholders, press/journalists and the entire company if you release an internal communication to all of your staff. It’s a big occasion, with a lot of pressure, and normally the culmination of many months of graft. It can be all too easy to focus only on what your staff are saying and the front end performance of the site. However, it’s very important you keep a close eye on its performance in the search engines, and how users are finding accessing it too.
If you have moved from one domain to another and your 301 redirects are live you can visit your Google Search Console account and run the Change of Address tool. This tool can help to forward your old site signals to the new one.
The tool will run a few checks before formally notifying Google of the move. If you fail any critical checks, you will be asked to fix the issue before you can continue and try again. If you fail non-critical pre-move checks, you will see a warning with recommendations, but your request can continue.
If critical pre-checks pass, all sites being migrated from or to will display a notification in Search Console that the move is in progress. You will see these notifications for 180 days.
Though the Change of Address tool will establish any critical errors it is very useful to run some crawls for troubleshooting purposes:
- A crawl of your new website to make sure all pages and links are working correctly (not hitting dead pages, and ideally going straight to the intended page, rather than taking crawlers and users through a redirect).
- A crawl of your old URLs (that you have mapped to pages on your new website) to make sure all redirects have been implemented correctly. You’ll want to cross-reference the redirects that are in place with the mapping document you created.
You’ll then want to keep a close eye on Google Search Console to monitor for any errors that might occur as Google works its way through the website. The tool proactively makes you aware of errors and will send you alerts; you’ll particularly want to keep an eye out for any major increases in 404 errors, which can happen when a page hasn’t been redirected properly. I’d suggest checking on a daily basis for at least the first two weeks post-launch and quickly review any pages that yield a 404 error.
After the first fortnight check in at least on a weekly basis for the first month to keep track of any 404 errors. It can take several weeks for some of the new URLs to be crawled and indexed by Google, particularly if they sit deep in your site, so don’t be disheartened if the new material isn’t ranking from day one. Legislate for an uptake over times whilst Google comes to terms with what new content is on offer from you.
Maintain your 301 redirects for at least 180 days – longer if you still see any traffic to them from Google Search. Remove your old pages, but we recommend maintaining ownership of the old domain for at least a year to prevent others from buying and using it maliciously. After the 180 day period, Google will not recognise any relationship between the old and new sites.
If you are about to embark on a website migration then best of luck with it. If you follow the advice laid out in this blog post you will be on the right path to a successful domain migration.