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10 Point Domain Migration Checklist

For one reason or another, there may come a point in time when you want to, or perhaps even need to, change your companies name or, at the very least, your domain name. Changing domains is not uncommon, despite it being something which even some of the most experienced digital marketers would run a mile at the thought of. To lend a helping hand, we have created a ten point domain migration checklist for moving your website’s domain, giving an overview as to the steps you should take in order to reduce risk and maximise the success of the move.

To put it simply; you don’t want to be changing your website’s domain unless you really have to, however, if you re-brand and you don’t have an option, it’s important to understand that there are risks involved, especially when the site holds strong organic search engine rankings, although in recent years it is believed that redirects no longer loose any of the link power they once did. Of course, as with everything, if you plan the migration carefully, take your time and ‘do things right,’ those risks are significantly reduced and the chances of something going wrong are small.

If you’ve never carried out a domain migration, however, how do you approach it? Well our web design crew have carried out a fair few over the years. It is simply a case of a 301 redirect on the day of the move or is there more to it than that? Have a look at our domain migration checklist steps:

1. Understand Why You’re Making The Move

Perhaps the most important thing to understand when planning a domain migration is why you’re changing it and why you’re making the move. For some, it’s simply due to a change in direction and the necessary branding change, however for others, it may be due to the purchase of acquisition of another company (who have their own website) or even due to a Google-imposed penalty on the existing domain.

In most cases, the process only differs slightly between the reasons for the move, however it’s worth noting here that if it’s the latter, a search engine penalty, moving domain is likely not going to be the solution you’re looking for given that, in most cases, penalties will carry over.

Above all else, however, it’s important that your entire team (that may consist of web designers and developers, SEO and PPC agencies, social media teams and other key parties) follows this domain migration checklist and is fully aware not only that you’re making the move but also that they understand why it’s being done.

With all parties in the loop, it’s a far easier transition and very much a case of all hands on deck.

2. Choose Your New Domain

Different domain name extensions

In some cases, choosing your new domain is the easy part. If you’ve acquired another company or have re-branded, you’ll either already be in possession of the domain or you’ll have to choose only between .co.uk, .com or other TLD variations.

Without the new domain, there’s little else you can do in the migration process and, as such, getting this in place well ahead of the move is absolutely vital.

As another word of warning here; don’t be tempted to go for an ‘exact match domain’ in the hope of a quick SEO win. Google no longer places much value on such domains and users are certainly getting wise to this old trick and seeing a lack of trust signals associated with them. Always, and we mean always, make decisions based upon your brand, not the search engines.

3. Launch Your New Site On The New Domain

As far as we’re concerned, this is where the majority of site migrations go wrong from a search engine ranking perspective. Whilst Google’s guidelines suggest that a migration should be simple when done correctly, it’s not always that simple and you don’t have to go too far to hear horror stories where sites have lost almost all of their rankings overnight following a move to a new domain.

Consider this for a moment; when many move a site to a new domain it is exactly that; a brand new domain which has never had a site on it previously. The new element here is vital. If a domain has never had a site on it before, it’s built up no authority and, as far as Google are concerned, hasn’t earned trust.

As such, it’s important to consider your options for allowing the new domain to earn that trust and we believe that to be to launch this domain in parallel to your original one. Of course, it’s important that you ensure the content is unique and that, if at all possible, the sites sit on different hosts, however despite taking time (especially if it’s an eCommerce store), it’s well worth it.

If you run the sites side by side for a period and start to build up the authority of your new brand, once you make the move, you’ll be merging two sites known and trusted by Google into one rather than merging an established and trusted site onto a brand new, untrusted domain.

Many skip this step due to the effort and time it takes, however, if you want to minimise risk, we believe it’s one which is absolutely vital.

If you’ve acquired another business and their site or you’ve previously been running two or more sites, you’ll already have this box ticked and be in a position to move quicker on the migration.

4. Set A Date For Migration

Planning a domain migration isn’t something which you can do overnight, in a week or even, in most cases, in a month. In general, it’s something which you should plan three months or more in advance if you want to reduce the risks and get it right. As such, set a date and do all you can to stick to it. This will give you something to work towards as well as allow you to set deadlines both internal and external (if you work with agencies) for carrying out core tasks.

5. Map Out Both Sites & Put Together A Redirect Map

Again, it takes time, but it’s important that you put together a comprehensive map of both sites to allow you to compile a thorough redirect map. Tools such as Screaming Frog SEO Spider allow you to crawl a website and create a list of all URLs on that site. You can then use this list to match up URLs on the current site to URLs on the new site.

Remember to include blog content and anything which may sit on subdomains to ensure the move goes smoothly and that nothing is missed.

Once you’ve got your list of URLs, you’ll be in a position to start manually compiling 301 redirects. Start by matching up core pages across the domains before making a decision on pages which may not be identical across your old and new domains. The idea here is to match up the old URLs to the equivalent pages on the new site or if the page will not be replicated on the new site, match it up to a closely related page.

These redirects serve 2 purposes; they will redirect any users from the old URLs to the new ones and they will also pass the link authority from the old website to the new one which means that your rankings should be retained.

Warning: failure to redirect will likely result in a total loss of rankings in Google, Bing and any other search engines.

6. Manually Compile 301 Redirects

Never be tempted to dynamically generate 301 redirects as there’s a far greater risk of things going wrong. You can’t beat manually compiling 301 redirects, writing your .htaccess file whilst checking the right pages across each site. Yes,  it takes considerable amounts of time when there’s a lot of pages, however it’s well worth it and significantly reduces risks associated with the move.

At this stage, you should have a completed .htaccess file (assuming you’re using a linux server) which 301 redirects every single one of the URLs on your original domain to the new. Check and double check this to avoid error.

7. Make The Move

It’s time to upload your .htaccess file and make the move! Make sure everyone involved in the migration knows when it’s happening and that they’re on hand to test things once you’ve uploaded your redirects.

If you’ve completed the above steps correctly, you should now experience redirects from the old domain to the corresponding page on the new when visiting links either directly or through the search engines.

8. Test, Test & Test Some More

With all hands on deck, have your team test the redirects and then again! It’s important that you manually check links from the search engines to ensure you’re redirected to the new domain and if you find any rogue redirects which were missed, ensure these are rectified immediately. Use the crawl of the old site and rerun it to see if any of the old URLs result in a 404. If they do they need to be redirected.

You really cannot carry out enough testing here and, again, missing redirects at this stage is a common cause of problems. Keep an eye on your search engine rankings and your traffic in Google Analytics. If there is a sharp fall there is likely a problem that should be investigated.

9. Inform Google

It’s time to tell Google that you’ve moved! Through the Search Console, you’ll find an item in the top-right menu titled ‘Change of Address.’ On this screen, you’ll be met with:

Follow the steps outlined here and you’ll have informed Google that you’ve changed your domain! Easy!

10. Keep A Close Eye On Things

Once you’ve made the move, keep a close eye on things. In an ideal world, you’ll see search engine positions carry over (be warned, it’ll take a couple of weeks, if not longer), however if done correctly, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t see the new domain take the rankings of the old.

At the end of the day, there will always be risks associated with migrating a domain from old to new, however by taking the correct steps, you can reduce these risks considerably by following this domain migration checklist to ensure things go smoothly and that the majority of your site visitors have no idea you’ve moved other than the brand change!