As with many companies that grow and pivot, we have a client who is rebranding and migrating to a different domain. My friends who do search engine optimization are cringing right now. Domains build authority over time and ripping out that authority can tank your organic traffic.
While Google Search Console does offer a change of domain tool, what they neglect to tell you is how painful this process is. It hurts… bad. I did a domain change many years ago on the Marketing Tech blog to separate the brand from my personal name domain, and I lost nearly all my premium ranked keywords along with it. It took a while to regain the organic health that I once had.
You can minimize the organic search ranking impact by doing some pre-planning and post-execution work, though.
Here's a Pre-Planning SEO checklist
- Review the new domain's backlinks – It's pretty difficult to get a domain that hasn't been used before. Do you know whether or not the domain was used before? It could have been one big SPAM factory and blocked by search engines altogether. You won't know until you do a backlink audit on the new domain and disavow any questionable links.
- Review existing backlinks – Before you migrate to a new domain, be sure to identify all the exceptional backlinks you currently have. You can make a target list and have your PR team contact each site that linked to you to ask them to update their links to the new domain. Even if you just get a handful, it can result in a rebound on some keywords.
- Site Audit – the chances are that you have branded assets and internal links that are all related to your current domain. You'll want to change all those links, images, PDFs, etc. and ensure they're updated once going live with the new site. If your new site is in a staged environment (highly recommended), make those edits now.
- Identify your strongest organic pages – what keywords are you ranked on and which pages? These are the rankings you'll want to monitor using a tool like our partners' at gShift Labs. You can identify branded keywords, regional keywords, and topical keywords you rank on and then measure how well you're bouncing back after the domain change.
Execute the Migration
- Redirect the domain properly – You'll want to 301 redirect old URLs to new URLs with the new domain for minimal impact. You don't want everyone just coming to your new domain's home page without any notification. If you're retiring some pages or products, you may want to bring them to a notification page talking about the branding change, why the company did it, and where they can get assistance.
- Register the new domain with Webmasters – Immediately log into Webmasters, register the new domain, and submit your XML sitemap so that the new site is immediately scraped by Google and the search engines begin to update.
- Execute the Change of Address – go through the process of the change of address tool to let Google know that you're migrating to a new domain.
- Verify that Analytics is working properly – Login to analytics and update the property URL. Unless you have a lot of custom settings associated with the domain, you should be able to keep the same analytics account up for the domain and continue measurement.
- Notify sites linking to the old domain – Remember that list we made of the most credible and relevant backlinks? It's time to email those properties and see that they update their articles with your latest contact information and branding. The more successful you are here, the better your rankings will return.
- Post Migration Audit – Time to do another audit of the site and double-check you don't have any internal links pointing to the old domain, any images with mentions, or any other collateral that may need to be updated.
- Monitor Rankings and Organic Traffic – Monitor your rankings and organic traffic to see how well you're rebounding from the domain change.
- Increase your Public Relations efforts – It's time to go after every byline you can get your hands on now to help your company regain its search engine authority and presence. You want a lot of chatter out there!
I'd also highly recommend a series of premium content published to make a big splash. From the branding announcement and what it means for current customers to infographics and whitepapers to solicit a great response from relevant sites.