SEO issues with moving a domain

Moving a domain is not fun, especially when you are enjoying good rankings on the old domain. I'm getting asked how to move a domain more and more, so it's time I put my thoughts online in a place where I can easily reference them.

The problem

Let's say you own a domain like bestsitesof2006.com - it's now 2007 and you realise that your purchase of said domain may not have been the best long-term choice.
You want to start using your great brand-new domain bestsitesof2007.com (not the quickest are you?).

bestsitesof2006.com is getting great traffic and has good pagerank, and you don't want to lose any of that.

Duplicate content, link juice etc

Your great rankings are currently coming from the thousands of links you have painstakingly built over the last year.

If you launch bestsitesof2007.com with exactly the same content as bestsitesof2006.com and run the 2 sites side by side, Google is going to filter out one of the sites using their duplicate content filters (which are getting much better). Google will likely filter out the less powerful of the 2 domains, namely the newest one.

At any rate, you want your link juice from bestsitesof2006.com to flow into bestsitesof2007.com so that it can rank well based on those links.

The 301 redirect

A 301 redirect is known as a permanent redirect, and should be used for permanently changing the URI of a page. This is exactly what we are doing here.

All pages from bestsitesof2006.com need to be 301 redirected to bestsitesof2007.com - this can be done sitewide, or page by page, either method is appropriate.

The GoogleBot will follow links into bestsitesof2006.com and see the 301 redirect. The old page will be removed from Google's index and the new page added instead.
By deleting and then adding, there is no issue with duplicate content as the 2 pages don't exist in Google's index at the same time.

Time delays

Moving a domain is something everyone has different experiences with. I can only report on what I have seen happen to my sites, and what people have told me.

Please don't take this information to be gospel, because it's not.

I have found that it can take a couple of weeks for Google to start deleting old pages and adding new pages, this will depend on how often Googlebot visits your site, and how authorative your domain is.

Your new homepage will be indexed first, followed by other pages on your new site.

If your new domain is newly registered, expect your rankings to take a dive for a period of weeks to months. The new domain has no authoraty whatsoever, and it takes time for the effect of the redirected links to kick in.

Loss of rankings

Yes, you did read that correctly. The method of moving a domain that I recommend can involve you getting shit rankings for up to 6 months. If your old domain has really great links and authority, then some people report no ongoing reduction in rankings.

Pagerank

Some people worry about losing PageRank when shifting a domain. Umm, yeah, you do lose all pagerank across your new site for up to 3 months. But you shouldn't worry about this, be more concerned about rankings, traffic and sales instead.
With any new domain, your pagerank is zero until Google does a quarterly toolbar update. At any rate, the toolbar does not reflect the true PageRank of the site, so it's not worth worrying about.
I generally find the PageRank of sites I move returns to normal within 3-6 months of the move (1 - 2 toolbar updates).

Updating old links

You have spent lots of time building links. Great. With the 301 redirects, the juice from these links now flows to the new site.
It's still worth approaching some of the better sites that link to you and asking them to update the link.

Cleaning up URLs

So, you are going to change every URL on your site and take a bit of a hit in the rankings, huh?

You don't want to tave to repeat this process again.

Now is a great time to clean up the URLs on your site.

eg...
bad: www.domain.com/index.php?pageid=45
bad: www.domain.com/aboutourteam.php
bad: www.domain.com/about_our_team.php
bad: www.domain.com/About-Our-Team.php
bad: www.domain.com/content/45.htm

good: www.domain.com/about-our-team.php
good: www.domain.com/about-our-team/
good: www.domain.com/about-our-team.htm
good: www.domain.com/about-our-team
good: www.domain.com/team/

If your site is static, rename all your pages so they are dash separated, lower case only, and logical.
If your site is driven by a content management system or forum package, now's a great time to go install whatever SEO plugins or modules are required to fix up the URLs. Many CMS systems such as Wordpress have free plugins that do the job nicely. Others, such a VBulletin have plugins that aren't free (VBSEO plugin), but still well worthwhile investing in.

Shameless plug:
Jojo CMS doesn't need any plugins to have nice URLs.

The bottom line

When you change a domain, you accept some risk that rankings can drop significantly for several months. This is one of the costs of rebranding, so make sure the decision makers consider this cost BEFORE deciding on the rebranding of a business.

The unpleasantness of this process is one reason why domainers will pay good money for the right domain name, and why it's better to think long-term before investing time and money into the wrong domain.
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