Moving a web site to a new domain name is often carried out as part of the development of a new site, the re-branding of a company or a change in internet strategy. On the surface, it’s a relatively easy thing to do, however there are deeper implications that may impact significantly on the visibility of your web site and your company.
Google recently generated some conversation after a posting on the Webmaster Blog that received a very mixed reception, with some commentators calling it old news and others lapping it up. Our experience shows that the issue is alive and well. Many organisations still face huge problems when they make a decision to move to a new domain. So, is moving the right thing to do? Let’s take a look….
Why Change Domain Name?
For the purposes of this post we’re assuming that the change of domain name is in strict terms unnecessary – that the existing or old domain could continue.
We fully appreciate that changing a domain is perfectly acceptable under many circumstances.
What we’ve seen a few times now are the problems caused when an organisation decides to change when there isn’t actually a need to. Whilst the change might make sense from a branding point of view, perhaps to satisfy a subtle shift in marketing strategy, it may not make sense from a marketing or search engine optimisation point of view. This can happen even when the explicit intention is to improve SEO, as we’ll see.
Whilst this might seem to be a narrow lens with which to view the problem, it is becoming increasingly important as organisations rely more and more on search engines to deliver traffic and customers.
A Hypothetical Scenario
Assume for the moment that you’re the Marketing Director of an esteemed fish processing company called Halibut Urchin Lobster. Your primary domain name is www.halibuturchinlobster.com and has been in operation since the forward-thinking IT Director registered it in 1992, years before the company set up a web site.
Now, one of your plucky young marketing executives comes to you with a plan to change the domain name to something they promise will be more memorable: www.hulfoods.com. As you’re having a new web site built, this is the perfect time to make the change. Not only will your customers (and potential customers) find it easier to remember, they tell you, but as the word ‘foods’ appears in the domain you’ll get lots more traffic from search engines as you’ll rank better for any searches related to food.
You ponder this for a few days before taking it up to the Board Meeting. You excitedly pass on the message that changing the domain name is a good idea and it will bring you tons more interesting and exciting traffic. In short, it’ll be good for business. The Board approves the change.
So, you instruct your marketing executive, who in turn instructs the web designers or the web master to make the necessary changes. A few weeks later the web site – after a late-night proof-check by the whole marketing team – is ready to launch. Happy that everything is in place, you give the go ahead, the old site is consigned to the code repository in the sky and the new site goes live at the new domain.
That evening, GoogleBot visits your old domain name, follows the 301 redirect and spiders the new site. It sees a whole host of new pages, associated with a brand new domain. Instantly, your rankings fall.
When you go to Google.com that evening to show your spouse the new web site, and type in ‘HUL foods’ you get, simply, sites that are nothing to do with you. You don’t understand. You type in ‘Halibut Urchin Lobster’ (the phrase that worked this morning after all) and instead of seeing the company’s home page at the top of the SERPs, you see an old county court judgement you hoped had been forgotten about.
Enraged, the next morning you corner the executive and demand to know why on earth the web site you just spent eighty grand on doesn’t even appear in Google?!?! Cue an anxious call to the web developers, who refer you back to the advice they gave you about changing your domain three months earlier…..
And that’s the very first potential problem – you can do everything by the book, set up 301 redirects for every single page within the old site and still your web site will tumble down the rankings when you move to the new domain.
Unfortunately, it takes time and effort to resolve the problem- and it’s not all that can go wrong…
Not All Inbound Links Are Created Equal
Very often we speak to a client whose web site or domain is referred to all over the web, but who doesn’t have many in-bound links. In this kind of situation, other web sites have the domain listed on the page, but they don’t actually go the whole hog and link through.
If a visitor wants to go from that page to the next, they might copy and paste the URL into their browser, or they might do a quick search for the company name, expecting to see the company web site at the top of the list.
If, however, problems exist as I’ve described above, they won’t find you. Whilst it might sound a little silly, it’s a real problem.
Best practice would dictate that you ought to get in touch with all these people and ask them to change the link. You might not be able to do that and you’ll be left with a bunch of outdated references to your old site.
More and more people are using LinkedIn these days. In fact, if you were to check, you’d see that 36 Halibut Urchin Lobster employees have a profile on the site and have a link to the company web site.
You’ll need to get them all to change the link so that it points to the new site. Some of them might not bother, some might not know what to do and some might simply be away on holiday.
Whatever the case, a bit of work is required to make the changes.
If you’ve been in business for a while it’s very likely that you and your web site are mentioned in various industry guides or directories.
You’ll need to get in touch with all of these people and ask them to change the URL of your web site.
The problem here is that you might not be able to contact them all – some may not respond, some may take an age to make the change, and so on.
The net result, however, is that whilst your site is ‘invisible’ to searchers – these directory listings may not be. They’ll reinforce the old domain name and there’s a possibility they’ll contain outdated information.
PDFs on other sites
A surprisingly effective SEO method is getting links to your web site featured in PDF (or other file formats) documents on other peoples’ web sites. Perhaps you give a talk and hand over a PDF of the presentation afterwards, which the host company puts on their site. Or perhaps you produce a research paper on a new industry development and it’s featured on the industry association’s web site.
Either way, when you change your domain name, these links will become somewhat redundant. Ideally, you’d go back to people hosting the documents and give them a new version with the updated URL. Are you going to be able to find the time to do that?
Your customers probably make a point of taking a look at your web site from time to time. One route they may use to find the site is by putting your company name or your old domain name into Google.
But if they can’t find your site, if it doesn’t appear in search engine rankings, it’s hardly creating a good impression.
You also need to consider that these customers may have old bookmarks stored in their browsers, or may have emails that reference an old link. In both these cases they may well click on the link expecting to see the content, but find themselves at the home page. A sure-fire case of not managing their expectations.
More and more people use email footers as a means by which to promote a web site. If you have a couple of hundred people working in your company, and they send perhaps a couple of hundred emails a week – you could be looking at tens of thousands of mentions of your domain name a week.
Of course, you can change the email footer – but that would have to happen across the whole business. Does your email system support that?
Also, the reinforcement of having continually seen the old domain name may make it difficult for everyone to remember the change.
Our firm view is that changing your domain name is a very serious undertaking and one that should not be underestimated. Even when best-practice guidelines are followed, serious problems can occur, resulting in enormous drops in traffic and decreased visibility.
We would advise anyone considering undertaking a domain name change to think carefully about whether it’s acutally necessary and whether they have the ability, resources and time to make sure the transition is carried out in as complete and as comprehensive a way as possible.
For really succinct advice, consider the words of Tim Berners-Lee, who said in an article titled ‘Cool URLs Don’t Change‘:
What makes a cool URI?
A cool URI is one which does not change.
What sorts of URI change?
URIs don’t change: people change them.