How to Change Domain Names & Not Lose Traffic

Author: Zach Richard

The Potential Trouble With Domain Changes

There typically comes a time in the lifecycle of a website where you may want to change domain names. Whether the former site has aged and it's time for a rebrand and redesign, or a new endowment leads to a name change, changing domains is a big decision that requires a great deal of planning. Domain changes not only affect how users are finding your site, but also how search engines are indexing your site's pages. 

Moving domains can have a tremendously negative impact on search engine rankings, since the major search engines use metrics on both the domain level and the page level to determine rankings. When you decide to switch to a new domain, you are resetting their domain metrics to zero, negatively affecting your score in search algorithms. Luckily, these effects are mitigated somewhat by Notre Dame's use of subdomains for the majority of sites on campus but these effects can still be felt if your content caters to a niche audience.

The McDonald Center for Student Well-Being at the University of Notre Dame was renamed such after an endowment in the fall of 2014. Formerly the Office of Alcohol and Drug Education, the site provides information on prevention, intervention, and education programs supporting student wellness at the University of Notre Dame. However, the vast majority of it's web traffic was external. By August 2015 the site was seeing more than 1.2 million annual session, of which only 0.18% were from users who were on the Notre Dame campus. This is the result of the site's extremely comprehensive coverage of the affects of drugs and alcohol on the human body, as well as guides on how to limit or quit the use of alcohol and marijuana.

More than 1 million sessions per year, 85% of site traffic, was coming from search engines thanks to ranking number one for terms like "how to quit marijuana," "how to quit drinking," and "blood alcohol calculator." 13% of sessions came from users directly accessing deep content pages from off-campus, suggesting a large number of users bookmarking and returning to these advisory articles. Notre Dame, at least online, was considered an authority on effectively advising others on the the affects and mitigation of excessive drug and alcohol use.

The website was redesigned and relaunched in the fall of 2015 with a new responsive design, new site structure, and new subdomain. Unfortunately, proper care was not taken to determine the best way to preserve this potentially valuable organic traffic and the resulting drop-off was stunning.

Domain Change Traffic Drop

On the day of launch, and for about a week after, traffic dropped from more than 5,000 sessions per day to fewer than 50 sessions per day. The niche content that was generating such great search traffic was not properly redirected and, in some cases, not copied to the new site at all. Properly redirecting the content helped to recover a little over the next few weeks but the new site is currently averaging only a fraction of its pre-domain change traffic. Position on SERP's for tracked keywords has dropped by an average of 3.2 positions for pages still ranked, with some pages no longer ranking in the top 20 for tracked keywords at all.

How to Minimize Negative Results

Luckily, there are a number steps one can take to minimize and in many cases completely negate the affects of a domain move.

Audit Your Site

It's important for you to audit all your statistics before you transfer domain names or change your site structure. This will help you get a better understanding of everything going on associated with your domain and will give you a good benchmark to see progress after the switch. Inbound links and most popular content are the two things you'll want to pay the most attention to. These are the biggest SEO ranking factor and when changing domain names you'll want to minimize losing any good links or content.

You can do a link audit in two ways. If your run Google Search Console (formerly webmaster tools) on your site, login to that tool and on the left side click the "Search Traffic" menu and then click "Links to Your Site". This will show you all the links recognized by Google that are coming into your site. You can export this list as a CSV to better import and manage this data later. If you don't use Search Console, there are third party tools like Open Site Explorer to review your link profile. This can give you some additional insight into the links and the quality of the links coming to your domain. In an ideal world, you would use both webmaster tools and at least one third party service and compare the results.

301 Redirect EVERYTHING!

Setting up a 301 redirect will help send the user to the correct page but will also tell search engines that the page has permanently been moved and it will (hopefully) transfer the link credit to the new page. Conductor doesn't allow mass-redirects as of this post, but the Notre Dame web group can create what is called a "Wild Card" redirect in your htaccess file that will transfer everything on a domain name level. This will automatically add a 301 redirect to all of your old domain URL's and push them to the new domain with the same URL.

I can't stress how important it is to take your time and make sure everything is getting 301 redirected properly. This is very important for both traffic and search. You can use a 301 checker to make sure it's being transferred properly.

Keep the Same URL/Site Structure (if possible)

It's highly recommended to try and keep the exact same URL/Site structure while switching domains. There is enough "goofiness" that both you and Google have to account for in a domain name switch already. If for some reason you do need to make major changes to the structure of your website, make sure to account for the additional redirects that will be required to direct the right traffic to the new pages.

Submit a Change of Address to Google

In Google Search Console, if you click on the little gear icon, there is an link to "Change of Address". This is a tool that you can inform Google that you changed domain names. They will update the domain in their system so your listings are up to date. This will let there search crawlers know to reindex your site faster than if it was left to uncover the domain change on it's own. You can learn more about this tool here.

Double Check Everything

The day you migrate, double and triple check everything is linked properly and 301 redirected properly. I would suggest using your keyword audit you performed to go through all the keywords that were driving people to your site and search for them on Google. Then check they are 301 redirecting properly.

Monitor 404 Errors

A 404 will happen when a page doesn't get redirected properly. You should have a tool that you can monitor and update any 404's that might occur. Check every day for the first week and update any pages that might be 404'ing. I would also go back and check once a week for the first month after that to keep track of any possible 404's that might happen after the launch. If you have content that only gets revisited occasionally, it may take a few weeks to register a 404.

If you don't have the time or resources to devote to these efforts, the Notre Dame Web Group or Marketing Analytics team can help. Contact us to talk about your data needs when switching to a new domain or restructuring your website.