A Plan for when Changing your Domain Name

By Gino Cosme on 2005/05/18

Whether you're launching a new site design, changing your directory structure, or - gasp - changing your domain name, your site traffic and search engine rankings will, in one way or other, be affected.

The most significant of these changes is changing a site's domain name. I'm not going to write about whether you should or shouldn't - that's an article in itself - but will write under the presumption that you have already decided to go ahead with this change.

The key to performing this change is preparation. A carefully thought through plan of action will, in the end, make the difference between a successful changeover and one that, well, crashes.

Short Term Plan

Redirecting Your Old Traffic

Changing a domain name is in essence changing your address. Just like you'd inform both the postal services and your correspondents of a change in postal address, the same applies on the Net. Failing to do this will land your current and new visitors on an error 404 (page not found) page. Think of it as an immediate "return to sender" action. Bad!

To prevent this from happening, a redirect 301 (otherwise known as a "moved permanently" command) should be added to the old site when the new domain goes live. This code is sent to a browser or bot, telling it that the file being requested has permanently moved and, as such, will redirect all traffic from the old domain to the new domain. This is also the way of informing the search engines that your files have permanently moved. Good!

How to Add a Redirect 301

The 301 derivative should be added to your old site's .htaccess file. I'll point out two common types of off shoots.

Redirecting a site with many directory folders to a new domain with a similar structure should be done using: redirect 301 /old/old.htm http://www.new.com/new.htm /old/old.htm (this is the original folder path and file name)

/old/old.htm (this is the original folder path and file name) http://www.new.com/new.htm (this represents the new path and file name)

If you are using the same paths and filenames, but only the domain name has changed, then a simple way to perform a site redirect is: redirect 301 / http://www.new-domain-name.com/

"/"(after the 301) indicates that everything from the top level of the site down will be redirected to the new URL.

When changing domain names and/or folder names that contain large numbers of files, there are more powerful commands using the Apache mod_rewrite module. But the above are the most common and easiest ways to perform a domain changeover for most sites.

Reclaiming your Links

A new domain needs to get indexed on the search engines. The best but most time consuming way to do this is to engage in a thorough link changeover campaign. This is especially important to compensate for the initial loss of search engine traffic.

The first place to start is your website's stats to find out where your current traffic is coming from. This will give you a list of sites that currently generate most of your traffic. These sites will urgently need to be informed of your domain change.

The next step is to identify all the inbound links to your site. Remember that all these inbound links from other sites are of no use now because the URL they point to no longer exist.

All search engines use link popularity as one of their criterion for rankings. Making contact with all your link partners requesting them to change the URL pointing to your new site is a lengthy but very important task. The sooner this is done, the sooner the new site will get indexed and start ranking well.

At the same time, the new site should be submitted to as many new industry-specific portals and directories.

Informing the World

A clever but sometimes overlooked method of generating site traffic in the early days of the changeover is publishing an online press release informing the online community of this changeover.

This could be done on press release sites such as PRWeb.com or high-traffic, industry-related authority sites. Whatever press release your issue, remember to include a link to your new website.

Long Term

Unfortunately nothing on the Net is permanent. In order to stay ahead of technology and user behaviour, a site needs to be maintained. This is both on and off page. Here are the best ways of insuring this:

  • Continue to create useful, high quality pages.
  • Write articles relating to your service and of interest to your target market that will get published on third-party websites. These will further aid in obtaining links to your site.
  • Monitor and target keywords that are specific enough to produce targeted traffic to your site. These keywords should be checked every three months and, if need be, changed to reflect the change in user behaviour.
  • On a monthly basis, continue to solicit links from high quality sites whose content is related to your own and submit your site to directories particular to your industry.

But again, remember...

It will take significant time and effort for the search engines to crawl and rank your new domain; be prepared to initially lose search engine rankings during that time. But with a plan in place, there's no reason why it shouldn't go smoothly.