Move to a New Domain Without Losing Rankings (or Hair)

I remember reading somewhere that moving house is the second most stressful life experience, following the death of your spouse. In certain SEO (define) circumstances, moving to a new domain can be like moving house.

Think about it. You’ve been online for a long time and built a great reputation for yourself. Search engine crawlers and end users love you. Both are frequent visitors to your site. What’s more, other Web site owners think you truly are the real deal and bless you with link love in abundance.

Then, word comes from above (that’s corporate, not heaven, by the way) that you’re being acquired, merging, rebranding, or whatever. Now you, as Webmaster, are gifted with a new domain to move to. Let’s throw in a complete redesign to make it even scarier.

What if it all goes horrendously wrong, and you drop of search engine heaven straight into search engine hell?

I had a client some time ago who brought me in as an SEO consultant to work with his team when they were launching a brand-new site. It was certainly foresight on his behalf, as much of what the developers were implementing would have created barriers to crawling and raised issues with achieving decent rankings.

One year later, after reaching some fairly dizzy heights at Google, the client (after a little rebranding exercise) instructed his developers to move to a new domain and redirect the traffic.

Did he tell me about this? No.

It was as if someone had switched off the lights. They just disappeared from organic search results.

But fear not, dear Webmaster, there’s a way to go through this major upheaval without a single hair falling from your scalp. There are a number of ways to do redirects. Got a spare moment? Brush up on your Apache server manual. According to the manual:

  • permanent: Returns a permanent redirect status (301) indicating that the resource has moved permanently.

  • temp: Returns a temporary redirect status (302). This is the default.
  • seeother: Returns a “See Other” status (303) indicating that the resource has been replaced.
  • gone: Returns a “Gone” status (410) indicating that the resource has been permanently removed.

Plenty to chose from there. However (and it’s a big however), only one of those redirects is really safe to use from an SEO perspective. Why’s that? Because Google says so. And because Google is very important, we do as we’re told.

A 302 redirect (the default) tells Googlebot this is a temporary move and it should continue indexing the old domain. Yet, this could lead to a duplicate content issue.

The powerful 301 redirect tells Googlebot this is a permanent move and it should start indexing the new site only. It must be said, these days Google also recommends you submit to its sitemaps feature at Webmaster Central.

To implement a 301 redirect, you must understand how an htaccess (define) is used. Unless you’re a veteran Webmaster or an SEO pro, I wouldn’t go messing around with this. Go through this exercise with as little damage as possible. There are serious risks if the process isn’t structured and carried out with military-style precision.

Of course, there’s a downside. In my experience, you may see your new site indexed in a matter of weeks, but it may be longer before your rankings bob back to the top. It certainly seems to be a quicker process if you’re a larger, authority site that continually gathers links.

So you may want to think about a tactical, interim PPC (define) campaign during the move.

I wouldn’t call the 301 redirect implementation an SEO case of “don’t try this at home.” But I certainly recommend you consult a professional who’s been through the exercise before — and has a documented system and process to follow — before you tackle it on your own.

Meet Mike at Search Engine Strategies April 10-13 at the Hilton New York in New York City.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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