How to Change Domain Name of Your Website With Minimal Impact on Organic Search Traffic

At some point, you found out a long sought-after domain has become available but your website is now happily hosted on another domain for many years. During this period it has accumulated inbound links, generated free traffic from search engines and earned its reputation as a brand.

The itch to change domain name is there, but why try to fix what’s not broken? Maybe because, to you, it’s not fixing your site but enhancing it.

Primarily due to concerns of losing rankings and organic traffic, many webmasters and site owners refrain from doing so. But since Google understands that changes can happen just like the way it restructured its company and introduced abc.xyz. So it also made things easier for webmasters who wish to transfer their site from one domain name to another.

Manage your expectations
Understand where your website’s condition is, how much traffic it’s getting, how your keywords are ranked, and so on. It helps you set a baseline to compare with by the time you conclude the domain change.

  • Keep a record of your website traffic, whether you are using Google Analytics, Adobe Analytics (previously SiteCatalyst) or any analytics tool.
  • Keep a record of your current keyword rankings by search engines, language, etc. You can use tools like moz, Advanced Web Ranking or any keyword ranking tool.
  • Keep a record of your site’s existing inbound links. This can be extracted from ahrefs.com, Open Site Explorer or Search Traffic > Links to Your Site at Google Search Console’s left-hand menu.
  • Create Google Search Console (previously Google Webmaster Tools) account for your old domain if you don’t have one yet.

Change your Google Analytics settings
Under Admin > Property > Property Settings, you can change the domain name from old to new site and click “Save”. Since the associated tracking code present in the website remains unchanged, this ensures continuity in data gathered even when you change the domain name setting.

change_domain_ga

Verify your new domain at Google Search Console
This confirms your authority and control over this domain and this comes handy later as you switch domain names over Google Search Console in later step.

change_address_gsc

Do 301 redirections
Sites running on Apache servers can do 301 permanent redirections and effectively sets new address on the web for your web pages. Think of it as you moving to a new flat from Tuen Mun to Yuen Long. Your future bank statements, water bill and tax returns are all addressed to the new home so no more letters and notices will stumble across your old home address.

Address change redirection can be one-to-one:

www.oldsite.com/moving-server-soon.html >> www.newsite.com/moving-server-soon.html

301 redirection can be implemented on .htaccess file placed at the root folder of the old domain.

Redirect 301 /moving-server-soon.html http://www.newsite.com/moving-server-soon.html

or you can do wild card redirects using this file:


RewriteEngine On
RewriteBase /
RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} *!^www*.oldsite\.com [NC]
RewriteRule (.*) http://www.newsite.com/$1 [L,R=301]

Make sure this is sorted before moving to next step.

Prepare 404 Errors
When you redirect pages it is important that only valid URLs are redirected to their new addresses. Everything else from wrongly typed URL to broken link should have its own 404 error. A 404 error can make use of your existing page template and compose a simple, easy to understand message “The page you are accessing cannot be found” and offer suggestions like commonly accessed pages or put a search form — especially helpful for large sites.

In your .htaccess file you may add the following code

ErrorDocument 404 /errors/notfound.html

where /errors/notfound.html is a page that displays the error message.

Switch to new address
As a webmaster, you need to notify Google that you are effectively moving from an old domain to a new one. You can do this through Google Search Console by clicking the “gear” button at the upper right side: Gear > Change of Address. Remember to finish these steps before doing this:

a. You have added the new address and verified it using the current account you’ve logged in at Google Search Console.
b. You have performed 301 redirection from old domain URLs to new domain URLs.

Doing this will help transition of indexed URLs on Google’s servers. Imagine Google internally checking its database index looking for the old domain and perform find and replace with new domain.

AFTER TRANSITION

Check for errors or warnings
Review Google Search Console at Site Errors if it finds any issues that need fixing. Usually this takes up to three days or a week to fix so monitoring this tool during this period is essential.

  • Check Crawl Errors
  • Check 404 errors. There is a Google Analytics blog on how to do this.

Check continuity of gathered data

  • Review most accessed pages in your analytics report and verify if proper redirection and tracking has been observed.
  • Check keyword rankings to see how much impact the transition from old to new domain has been done. Ideally this should be done once you’ve checked that new search index data reflects the new domain name.
  • Check traffic on Google Analytics

Changing domain names is often a big undertaking and requires adequate time to prepare. Whether it’s rebranding or changing simply to enhance your site presence for more exposure, domain name switch is an effort that is worth time and effort when performed correctly.