The key stages:
1. Knowing when you need a domain migration
When is it right to move to a different domain? Not sure if you should migrate your website to a new online home? We’ll guide you through the circumstances when it’s appropriate to move to a new domain.
2. Pre-launch: Planning a migration
Before you do any kind of migration, you need to define your plan. And in this chapter, we’ll show you how to map out the process, understand what you’re changing and keep in control during the move.
3. Launch: Going live with your new domain
It’s time to move to your new online home! All the hard work of preparation can now be put into practice, but a strict set of steps must be implemented to ensure it goes off without a hitch.
4. Post-launch: Monitoring your migration
Once your new domain is up and running, you’re in the final stretch of the migration. Now you need to perform a series of checks to make sure all is working as expected, and that your visitors and search engines are getting the experience you want.
Moving your website to a new domain can seem like a scary proposition, but in this online guide we’ll take you through the four main steps.
If done correctly, both your visitors and the search engines will understand that you’ve moved. Plus, you’ll be far less likely to see a long-term drop in traffic and those all-important chances to sell to your audience.
Domain migrations, as they are known, are actually common practice. With a bit of organisation, discipline & technical know-how (which we’re going to give you!), you can migrate to a shiny new domain. And all while making the journey seamless for users, and retaining your hard-earned SEO & traffic.
Worried about changing your online address & identity? The impact domain migration can have on traffic and your ability to rank?
The good news is that it is straightforward to do a migration properly. Our step-by-step guide is designed to cover all the bases. Every migration causes fluctuations, but we’ll explain the process and make the transition as smooth as possible.
You don’t even have to do it all in one go. Although there are several steps to the process, they can be broken down into 4 key stages. And we have a stage dedicated to each.
Ready to get started? Good, let’s get going!
When you need a domain migration
If you are looking to move your website from one domain to another, for any reason, then you need to put a domain migration plan in place. There are however common circumstances in which you should consider a new domain.
One of the most common causes of needing a domain migration is an overall rebranding of the business.
This is a big change, driven by the business as a whole. As well as being an exciting time, it’s one where you’ll want to take extra care with the customer experience of the new site. Changing the domain to reflect a new brand name, and potentially your messaging, can present problems for both search engines, and your site’s visitors.
Firstly, how will your audience react? Your audience bouncing away from your site and into the arms of a competitor will not only harm your position in the eyes of Google, it will directly affect your sales. Making sure your visitors know they are in a familiar place is key.
Secondly, we know that search engines such as Google take note of brand signals – how often a brand is mentioned and searched for. A rebranding migration needs to take this into account, building new brand reputation and transferring as much of the existing authority (such as mentions on external websites) as possible.
Changing to a country-specific or international domain
Another common time to employ a domain migration is changing from a generic domain (such as .net or .biz) to one more geographically specific.
Using the common domain of your country such as example.uk, example.de or example.fr (officially called the ccTLD or country-specific top-level domain) is preferable for many sites to appeal to your local market. There are also times it can look more approachable and professional than one of the more unusual domain types.
Alternatively, you may be running several different domains and want to move them to a single top-level-domain (TLD). A common motivation for this is combining multiple sites, each aimed at a different country, into one universal home. You can then create individual language content within this larger site (such as example.org.uk/fr/).
You can also tell search engines about the country you are targeting through setting a country target in Search Console, but your domain choice is a big signal to search engines and your potential users.
As a side note, those more complicated migrations that are pulling together several different country-based websites or targeting multiple languages or locations should also look at using hreflang tags (special pieces of code which tell a search engine how to use the different language versions of your site).
Moving from a hosted service to your own domain
Often websites start out on shared hosted services, such as a blogging platform or website-builder like WordPress.com, Squarespace or Tumblr. These are usually live on a sub-domain (a subdivision of a domain, each of which can act as a separate website) on that service’s domain, such as blog.domain-name.com.
Upgrading to your own domain is a great idea, and puts your identity front-and-centre. Once you get your own domain name, these hosted services will often handle the migration process for you, redirecting traffic automatically.
However, if you are also moving to your own hosting at the same time, you’ll need to follow a full migration process.
When NOT to migrate to a new domain
There are plenty of reasons to choose a new domain. However, if possible try not to do the domain migration the same time as other big changes. If you are:
- Changing your CMS (content management system, or the software you use to enter your content)
- Editing the design of your website (the look and feel, imagery, logos etc.)
- Editing your content (the copy on the website)
- Changing the structure of the site, such as removing/combining sections, editing the URLs, changing the navigation etc.
Then it is best not to migrate your domain as well. These are all major changes to the site, and a domain migration at the same time will make it much harder to both complete the work, and spot what is causing any issues.
There are times doing two or more of these in parallel can’t be helped. Reducing or staggering the work as much as possible will not only reduce stress, it will make it easier to get each stage correct.
Also worth noting, if you are changing domains because your current one has been hit with a search engine penalty, migrating doesn’t remove it. Many such penalties will move with everything else in the migration process.
Pre-Launch: Planning a migration
So, you’ve looked at the options and know that a domain migration is the right move. Now it’s time to buckle up and get started on our migration plan.
Doing a site migration doesn’t have to be intimidating. By having a plan and gathering all the useful data you can before the launch, you put yourself in a position to succeed. It is perhaps the most important part of a new domain launch. If no-one sees your new domain, it’s not going to hit your goals.
1. Check the history of your new domain
Before you do anything else, make sure you know the history of your new domain. Has it ever been used before? Does it have indexed content? Has it had content removed? Any backlinks pointing to it? Even a manual penalty applied to it thanks to some shady activity?
2. Verify domains in Search Console:
Google’s Search Console gives you detailed – and free! – info on what it thinks about your site. Invaluable for any website, but especially helpful during migrations.
Claim and verify your new domain in Google’s Search Console (& Bing’s Webmaster Tools as well if possible). Plus, verify your current domain if you haven’t already.
3. Put a holding page up on the new domain:
Even a single page introducing the new brand or saying Coming Soon. Search engines recognise when a parked domain becomes live, so having a presence recognised removes one potential delay to the transferring of your rankings.
Add contact information and any detail you can to make it helpful to anyone who finds it. (Note: Yep, you’ll need to have hosting for both domains – this is so we can maintain the redirects from the old domain to the new one, and use the server log files to monitor when the old domain stops receiving hits).
4. Compile a full list of all the URLs on your site:
Gather all the URLs you can find. First of all, crawl your website to find all the URLs Google would see. Then use your CMS to list all URLs (if it has the option), gather data from Google Analytics and even external tools that show all your pages that other websites have linked to (see some options below).
If you have pay-per-click campaigns (such as Google AdWords) running, make sure you include any display URLs you are using. Our aim is to have as comprehensive a list as we can. This master list of URLs will be used to measure the success of your redirects and the performance of the site post-migration.
5. Audit the current site
From your crawl and using tools such as Search Console, identify any errors that should be fixed prior to migration.
Next, look for existing redirects, references to pages that don’t exist (known as 404 errors) and soft 404 errors that are being reported. You’ll need these for mapping later on, but for now decide if any old URLs that are resulting in errors need to be redirected or if they should be marked as removed.
6. Gather all the external links pointing to your domain:
Not only will this help with identifying all your URLs, we want to pinpoint our most important external links.
7. Benchmark your current performance (rankings):
In order to know how successful the migration has been, we need to know how well we are doing right now. This means knowing all the search terms your old domain currently shows up for. This has two parts.
Firstly we want to measure the rankings and visibility the site has right now. If you have none set up, tools such as Sistrix, SearchMetrics, SEMrush and many more are available. Google’s Search Console also contains a lot of data on the keywords you are visible for, though you can only download a limited amount.
If you are using rank tracking software to monitor your target keywords, take a reading of these as well, especially noting which URLs are ranking for your most important phrases.
8. Benchmark your current performance (traffic):
Secondly we want to benchmark the performance of our content, understanding the most important pages driving organic traffic.
Create a spreadsheet using your analytics package data to record the visits, sessions, conversions, bounce rates and anything else important to your site for each URL.
Whilst you don’t need to record data for years into the past, make sure you get a large enough sample to be meaningful. We can also measure some of our search performance data from Search Console, such as organic impressions and clicks.
9. Benchmark your current performance (Indexation):
In Search Console (& Bing Webmaster Tools) note how many URLs are indexed. Also submit an XML sitemap if you haven’t already to see how many of the URLs you think you have are indexed – we want to make sure this matches up (or improves) on the new domain!
10. Prepare PPC ads for your most important keywords:
If the migration takes time to settle down, make sure you have a backup plan to be visible for those terms important for the site to help make up for any shortfall.
11. Generate a sitemap for the new domain:
An XML sitemap is a file that lets us communicate all our important URLs directly to anyone who reads it. When the new site is launched, we will submit this new one to the search engines to do just that.
12. Create a custom 404 (page not found) page for the current domain:
This should suggest visiting the new domain, and be ready for the migration launch.
13. Map your redirects:
Map your existing URLs to your new ones. In many cases, your URLs will remain the same, but with the new domain in place. For example, http:www.olddomain/about-us maps to http:www.newdomain/about-us.
You might however take this opportunity to remove some pages and if your planning has revealed any errors on the site (such as 404s) or existing redirects (above), you will need to decide where you will redirect these old URLs to. This can be a detailed task, so be patient!
You can then create XML sitemaps for both the old URLs from your map, and the destination URLs on the new domain ready for launch.
14. Prevent the new site from being indexed before its ready:
Apart from your landing page, we want to prevent the new domain from being indexed (we want search engines to consider one site at a time) by blocking all crawlers.
This can be done via your robots.txt file (which we use to give instructions to web robots or crawlers) and using meta=noindex tags (which ask search engines not to include a page in their index of the internet) on each page as well. You can also password protect the new site.
15. Create and test redirects:
Importantly, we want to be using 301 redirects – this is an instruction we add to our server telling someone who requests a page that is has moved, and where to go instead. These tell search engines, anyone else who understands them, and – from an experience perspective – your users, that the new domain page has replaced the old one. In the case of search engines, it also instructs them to pass all the authority associated with the old URL to the new one.
If you are only moving to a new domain with exactly the same URLs, you can do a domain-wide redirect rule – one rule to capture all uses of the old domain. This is simple and requires only a little bit of learning on how to use your server. In a development environment, test the redirects you are looking to put in place.
Ideally we want there to be a single 1:1 redirect, with only one step between the old URL and the new one. Also, check the internal links on the new domain site – are they what are known as absolute links (which include the full domain name) pointing to the old domain? You can test redirects with a crawler tool, using online tools or the Fetch as Google tool in Search Console.
16. Check Google Analytics tagging:
To maintain data, we need to ensure the Google Analytics (or your analytics package of choice) tagging is seamless, and fully retained on the new domain. Check the development version of the site before launch. Even though it is the same website, we want to be sure important elements such as our GA code have been kept.
Helpful Articles & Tools
- To help plan you migration, here’s Google’s advice on moving content to a new location
- Advice from Google on testing your new domain site ready for migration
- A guide to finding all the links on other websites pointing to your current domain from Distilled and URL Profiler
- Help on finding all the URLs on your website
- Advice from Google on creating a URL map to plan the redirects you’ll need
- Tools to help you analyse the backlinks for your domain: Ahrefs, Majestic, Open Site Explorer by Moz. These all have free options, but require payment for full data
- More on how redirects work and when to use them
- How to redirect all URLs on a domain using your htaccess file
- A tool that helps you create redirect instructions for htaccess files
- Microsoft on redirecting all URLs on a domain with IIS server
- Tools for crawling a website: Screaming Frog’s SEO Spider, DeepCrawl, Xenu Link Sleuth (these all mimic how a search engine will crawl your site) and WooRank
- How to use Screaming Frog to crawl & audit your website
- Latest information on Google’s penalties: Search Engine Land
Launch: Going live with your new domain
The exciting bit! This stage is when the hard work of your planning comes together.
During the launch process there are several important elements to implement. Doing these in a steady, deliberate manner will help you spot anything that’s going wrong, and keep you feeling in control!
17. Launch the new domain!
Publish your website on its new domain (which will likely look very similar to the current site, but with updated internal links).
18. Open up the new domain for business:
Remove the password protection, meta robots noindex tags and the line disallowing access in the robots.txt file. Now everyone (especially the search engines) can crawl the site and see your content!
19. Implement the 301 redirects:
Back on your original domain, put your 301 redirects live. Preferably, these are 1:1 redirects for each original URL, including those that were already redirecting. So, any old redirects now point directly to the new domain, rather than through a second URL on the old one.
Any redirects for URLs you have pruned as part of your site tidy up should also be live at this point. Sometimes it is not possible to do 1:1 redirects, and the entire domain will be redirected to the equivalent URL on the new domain. This is less optimal, but in most cases will still work!
While you are at it, test the new domain setup as well – do URLs with uppercase characters redirect to lower case versions? If you are using the www. subdomain, do non-www. versions of your URLs 301 redirect to the www. version?
20. Use Google’s Change of Address tool:
Within Search Console there is a handy feature called the Change of Address tool. It does exactly what you’d think – it tells Google that this domain has now been moved to another. You have to have both domains verified to do this (refer to step 2 if you’d like more detail on how to verify your site with Search Console).
21. Encourage Google to check out your new domain:
Within Search Console use the Fetch as Googlebot tool for your homepage and most important URLs. Firstly, make sure the page is being rendered correctly (ie: Google is seeing the page as your human visitors would). Then, use the Submit to Index option for that URL to request that Google indexes the page.
22. Submit your XML sitemaps:
Again within Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools, submit your XML sitemap. This will encourage Google and Bing to crawl all the URLs within it (and hopefully score and index them).
You will also see how many of those pages are indexed, a number that should increase over the first few days after migration, hopefully to a number similar to that achieved by the old domain. You can also submit the XML sitemap we created for your old domain (or re-submit if it didn’t change). This should encourage the search engines to crawl these old URLs, see the 301 redirects in place, and visit your new domain.
23. Test your redirects:
Using your crawling tool from the testing phase, enter in the list of all URLs from your old domain, and crawl them. Using the crawler software, make sure every single URL is redirecting to the new domain successfully.
If your software allows it, check for redirect chains, seeing how many redirects each request is sent through before landing on the final URL. We want it to be as few as possible, preferably only one step.
24. Check, rename & annotate Google Analytics:
Go to your Google Analytics profile and use the Real Time reports to make sure your analytics are working correctly. Then you should add an annotation to note when the migration was launched (so you can see what impact it has on your traffic) and rename the profiles and views as appropriate.
25. Update external links:
Remember those important external links we identified earlier? Now is the time to get them changed to the new domain.
Reach out to the site owners, explain the situation and ask if they can help and update their site. Additionally, any other links you can change, such as social profiles, should be done now. And speaking of social, make sure any sharing buttons across your site are using your new domain!
Helpful Articles & Tools
- How to rename your Google Analytics profiles after a migration (to help prevent any confusion)
- Using 301 redirects to change URLs
- Advice from Google on starting your site move
- How to audit your redirects to make sure they are all working as you want
- Is there a limit on how many 301 redirects I can do?
Post-launch: Monitoring your migration
The new domain is live! Our migration is complete!
Steady on there. We’re close, but not done yet. Once the dust has settled, there are a few tasks to consider as part of the migration process.
We’re looking to regularly check on the progress of our migration – how has it affected our traffic and conversions? How are the search engines treating the new domain?
26. Create fresh links to the new domain:
To encourage search engines to crawl the new domain and boost its authority, we need to create fresh promotion for your site.
By doing so, we’ll earn new links, and these will be found and crawled by Google et al. PR around the new site/branding is a great way to start, but there are many ways to build links to a new site.
27. Monitor indexation numbers:
Using the Sitemaps and Index Status tools within Search Console, regularly check how many of your URLs are indexed by Google. If you have set up Bing Webmaster Tools, you can also see how many of your pages they have added to their index.
28. Crawl the new website for errors:
Regularly check your new domain for any errors or issues visitors or search engines might find. The best way to do this is to use one of the many tools available to crawl your site proactively looking for issues. This allows you to mimic how a search engine might come across problems.
You should also check out the Crawl Errors report in Search Console every day for the first few weeks to see any issues Google is highlighting for you to fix. This is free information from the search giant on issues it has crawling the domain plus what it thinks you can do to improve your SEO.
29. Check your rankings & visibility:
Using the benchmarks we took in the planning stage, monitor how well the new domain is ranking for your target keywords. Also use visibility tools to see how it is performing overall, and to compare to your old domain. Do these as often as possible (different tools have different limits).
If all goes well, you’ll see a cross-over in your charts as the new domain replaces the old. You can also compare at a URL level. Monitor when the most visible URLs from the old domain are replaced by the versions.
30. Traffic & sales:
Obviously our biggest indicator of success is traffic and conversions (the time someone takes an action we want on the site, such as buying something or signing up for your newsletter).
All migrations see some turbulence, but if you’ve been diligent in this process you’ve given yourself the best chance to see it return to normal as soon as possible (usually 4-12 weeks). In particular, pay attention to the individual URLs that performed well for you before, are you seeing a comparable performance pre and post-migration?
31. Maintain your redirects:
We want to keep our redirects in place until all activity for the old domain stops (which can take many months). Once the site stop earning links, social shares and traffic, we can consider removing them.
A great way to check is analysing your server logs. Once you can see that Google is no longer visiting your old domain (which you can also partly see in the Crawl Stats report in Search Console), you may feel safe turning off your redirects or editing the 1:1 redirects to a general site-wide redirect.
We’d recommend keeping your redirects in place permanently however, just to make sure all visitors will always end up in the right place!
Helpful Articles & Tools
Remember, even though your website content remains the same (providing you’re not doing a domain AND design migration at the same time…), Google will treat it for what it is, an entirely new identity.
You will always see some bumps and changes in ranking, and thus traffic, along the way. But, a migration and redirection strategy is the best way to protect the investment you’ve made in your site – all the awareness, traffic and authority with the search engines.
This process might seem long-winded, and it isn’t to be done lightly. But managed well, it is something any site can do. The technical work often isn’t overwhelming – it’s the planning, monitoring and informing your audience about the change that takes effort.
By following this step-by-step process, you can make sure that your current visitors and potential customers will have the great experience they expect from your site. And will be taken to the right content, no matter which channel they use to access it.
Now get out there and launch your perfect domain!
Website Migration Checklist
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