Moving your site to a new domain is remarkably similar to moving to a new physical address. In some cases it's much easier, you don't have to pack up, or load or unload a U-Haul truck, but there are other considerations that you have to take into account to make sure your visitors continue to find you after an online move. One of the primary areas of concern is making sure the search engines not only continue to deliver traffic to your new location, but you don't lose all your search engine rankings in the process.
No matter what, moving is always a pain. Every time I've moved in my life I've vowed never to do it again. But sometimes external forces prevail and we find ourself gearing up for another change of address. Whether that's a physical move or a digital one, there are several steps you need to take to make sure everything goes smoothly.
Knowing you have to move doesn't mean you're ready to move. In the physical world you need to first make sure you have a new place to move to. Usually a move is based on needing a larger home or office, or maybe the opposite. Perhaps you're just moving to a new location because it's time for a change. When making a move from one domain name to another, though, we cannot be as flippant in the moving decision.
An online move is usually created out of necessity. Your old domain no longer accurately reflects the direction you're going with your website, or maybe you're merging or splitting some web properties. Perhaps you're rebranding yourself to something new entirely. No matter what it is, you need to make sure you have secured your new domain name before doing anything else.
Many times the "location" we want to move to is already occupied. This means we either have to find another suitable URL or start negotiating to purchase the space we want from the current owner. Make sure you have and maintain complete ownership of the new location you're moving to before you make any changes whatsoever.
There are a lot of things that have to be lined up and ready for you on your move date. Trucks rented, movers (or friends) lined up to help, and most importantly you need to prep the new location. Setting your move date gives you a firm timetable in which everything needs to be ready and or completed for a successful move.
Most of the time online moves are done "when everything is ready". Somehow we don't make it a priority to set moving goals. The problem here is that without a hard and firm move date, it makes it easier for other priorities to intervene. Setting a date for the move keeps everybody on track making sure that everything is done quickly and properly, ensuring a smooth and successful moving day.
Most of the time the new space you are moving into isn't quite move-in ready. You might want to paint the walls, replace the carpet or just install additional ceiling fans in each room. Prepping the location can be easy, or it can take a lot of work, depending on what all you need to do. If you are moving a business, you also need to make sure that you get any licenses and permits that may be required for operating out of the new location.
Moving online isn't quite as labor intensive as offline, but you do have some work to do. Make sure that you get all of your hosting requirements set up and your new domain name functioning on your server. You'll want to ensure that the server itself will meet all of your new site's needs as well. If the move to a new domain name requires a whole slew of new hosting services, this may be your chance to find a hosting company that will better meet all your hosting needs or maybe it's time to host the site yourself, if you're so inclined.
Packing is the worst part of the move. Packing and loading the truck to ensure everything stacks nicely and won't topple during the drive is important. If you're smart, you pay someone else to do it for you. But some of us are gluttons for punishment and take this task on ourselves. I regret each time that I do!
The great thing about websites is that you can pack up and move without ever having to leave your old location. This means while you get the new location up and running, ready to open it's doors for business, you can still do business out of the old location without any empty shelves or customer service unavailability.
If your transfer to a new location is accompanied with a whole new website, then you simply have to design and set-up your site on your new servers. Get all the kinks worked out and everything tested to ensure when you open doors to the public, it'll be glitch free.
If you're keeping your current site design then you'll need to do a few things. First, copy the site to the new server so you can begin making necessary edits. Be sure to change your logo to reflect your new business name or domain name as appropriate. And don't forget to check your links. There is a good chance that you have some absolute links that'll be pointing to the old URL. Change all of these throughout the site so that all absolute links point to the new URL.
Once the day arrives that you open the doors at your new location you need to make sure that people know about it. Offline you can simply post a sign on the door that says "We've moved" and direct people to the new place. Online, it's actually easier than that. Imagine if people could continue to walk through the front door of the old location and be instantly transported to your new place? It's not so far fetched online.
On your old web server and URL, you need to set up proper redirects to transfer any traffic automatically from the old to the new location. If your old site is on an apache server then you can set up your redirects in your .htaccess file.
If your site transfered over without making any changes to the names or location of specific file names, then you can implement a global redirect like this:
RewriteRule (.*) http://www.newdomain.com/$1 [R=301,L]
If your move includes a whole new website that doesn't match page for page with the old site, then you'll have a bit more work cut out for you. You'll likely have to set up page by page redirects by adding code like this for each page:
Redirect 301 /oldpage.htm http://www.site.com/page.htm
The .htaccess file can do some pretty cool stuff so you might want to talk with a programmer before your move to see if there are any ways to make the transfer code less cumbersome.
This is where your online move differs drastically from an offline move. While offline you have to inform everybody of your new address (yellow pages, post office, etc.), you won't necessarily lose traffic if you choose a good physical location. Online you can use the 301 redirects to take care transferring all your traffic, but you can suddenly find yourself in a part of town that offers little or no visibility.
Of course, we're talking about search engine rankings here. Almost inevitably, such a move will cause a temporary loss in search engine rankings, and therefore a loss in key targeted traffic. This is what makes changing URLs such a danger.
A brand new domain name has all the problems of a brand new website. The domain / site has no age and it has no links pointing to it. Luckily, the 301 redirects from the old domain will allow the search engines to transfer all the link value from the old site to the new site. It'll take several weeks or months for all of the link juice to be passed, and during that time your rankings will undoubtedly be affected. Plan for this so there is no surprise or unnecessary frustration from impatience.
Over time your rankings will come back. Just be patient and plan for the down time.
This is another departure from an offline move. Usually, once you move you give up your old location. When moving a domain name, you want to keep that old location. Google recommends keeping it for 180 days, but I suggest you keep it forever. While you're going to want to do your due diligence in informing as many as possible about your new location (see next step), there will always be some people you just can't reach.
As long as there are links pointing to your old domain, you need to keep that domain functioning with the redirects in place. The transfer of link juice only works so long as the 301 redirects are in place or the link itself is actually changed to the new URL. As soon as you drop your old domain, you'll lose the the transferred link value of those links that are still pointing to the old domain. So don't give up that old location, even if you never plan on returning. You never know who's still directing traffic there. These are visitors and link value that you don't want to lose.
Now it's time to let as many people as possible know that you've moved. Anybody that has every linked to you should be notified. Ask politely that they change the link from the old location to the new. Use Yahoo Site Explorer to find all your backlinks and start contacting as many as you can as quickly as you can.
Like I said above, you won't be able to get everyone to change their links, especially those from discussion groups, old blog posts or forums, but work as many as you can. By getting these links changed over then you are less dependent on the search engines transferring link value via the 301 redirect, and the new site can start getting it's link value established on it's own.
Nobody likes moving, but sometimes it's necessary. As with an offline move, proper planning into your online move can make sure it goes smoothly and virtually hiccup free. It won't be a perfect move, especially when it comes to search engine rankings, but you can make it as stress-free as possible and shorten the duration of any rankings loss with proper planning and implementation.
Stoney deGeyter is the President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading search engine optimization and marketing firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Stoney is a frequent speaker at website marketing conferences and has published hundreds of helpful SEO, SEM and small business articles.
If you'd like Stoney deGeyter to speak at your conference, seminar, workshop or provide in-house training to your team, contact him via his site or by phone at 866-685-3374.
Stoney pioneered the concept of Destination Search Engine Marketing which is the driving philosophy of how Pole Position Marketing helps clients expand their online presence and grow their businesses. Stoney is Associate Editor at Search Engine Guide and has written several SEO and SEM e-books including E-Marketing Performance; The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!; Keyword Research and Selection, Destination Search Engine Marketing, and more.
Stoney has five wonderful children and spends his free time reviewing restaurants and other things to do in Canton, Ohio.
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