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Meet the author:
Jill Olkoski

Jill has a MA in Clinical Psychology, a BS in Computer Science, and a BS in Mechanical Engineering.

She currently owns Aldebaran Web Design in Edmonds (near Seattle WA) and enjoys educating her clients on topics related to small business website design.

In Jill's previous life, she spent 17 years in the engineering and quality organizations of a Fortune 100 tech company.

 


Change Domain Names: Maintain Search Engine Ranking

June 27th, 2007

There are many articles on the Internet containing advice for people who want to change their domain name but don’t want to risk their search engine rankings (or SERP). The topic has lots of controversy, apparently. So, being an engineer, when I changed my own domain name, I actually collected data, and I’m going to share it with you!

This article is written in such a way to help another website designer do the same thing I did, or help a client understand what their website designer should be doing to minimize losing website traffic. I’ll do my best to explain all the terms I’m using to maximize this article’s effectiveness.

There is one main concern with changing your domain name: losing traffic to your website because your new domain name falls off the search engine’s rankings. Since Google is the primary search engine of choice, it’s the search engine I refer to most in this article. There are several things that impact a falling ranking, including:

  • domain age, inbound link age, etc
  • page redirects

Since your new domain is new, it will be penalized by Google and it will spend time in the infamous “Google Sandbox.” How long will it stay there? I don’t know, but it could easily be several months or longer, depending on what keywords you are trying to target. And all of those links out there that pointed to your old domain? Well you need to change them to point to your new domain, so that they start aging as well. You’ll also need to do page to page redirects (301’s) via your .htaccess file to make sure Google can find the new pages when the old ones are gone.

But the burning question that I’ve never found answered, is when do you do each of these things? Well, all I can tell you is exactly what I did, and what the results were. So hang on, here comes the data!

My original domain was “AldebaranConsultingSeattle.com” and after falling in love with doing web design, I wanted to change it to “AldebaranWebDesign.com.” I’m a patient person, so I decided to prepare for this transfer in advance. Here’s what I did:

  1. Fully host my new domain AldebaranWebDesign.com
  2. Duplicate the file and directory structure from my existing site onto this new website (but not the actual content).
  3. Create unique content on each page of the new site, so I wouldn’t get penalized for duplicate content.
  4. Create a Google Site Map for the new domain.
  5. Wait for Google to completely crawl and index the new domain.

I bought the new domain name in January 2007. It only took a few weeks to get the new domain fully indexed by Google. Now the question was: what to do next?

I decided to gradually switch my inbound links over to the new domain. I did this over a period of 4 months. I was trying to create new links and let them age, while letting the domain age as well.

In mid May (5.5 months after doing the above steps), I decided to perform the change over. I did it mainly because I had plenty of clients and wanted to take a trip over the summer, and felt I could afford to lose my website traffic for a few months, worst case. Here’s what happened to my traffic:


websitetrafficdropping1.gif
My traffic plummeted. Painful? Yes. Unexpected? No. My website traffic dropped to 20% of my normal volume. I should also note, that when I did the switchover, I updated my Google sitemap file as well, to help Google find my new “real” content. Days went by slowly. No change. I told myself it would come back and I’d write an article about the experience to help others 🙂 so that my suffering wouldn’t be in vain. I tracked my ranking for my targeted keywords: website design Seattle. Before the domain change, I ranked between 6 and 9 in Google. After the change, I fell to somewhere around 600. And then things changed. Here’s the actual data of my climb out of the Google sandbox for website design Seattle:

  • 5/19/07 Ranked #350
  • 5/23/07 Ranked #120
  • 5/26/07 Ranked #109
  • 6/21/07 Ranked #7


websiteincreasingtraffic1.gif
The traffic came back, and is still increasing as I write this article. (whew!) I’ve read tons of articles on how to change your domain name and keep your traffic, and while there is lots of advice, I’ve never seen actual data from someone who has successfully done it. So here it is: my fall into and climb out of the Google sandbox after changing my domain name.I survived and you can too!

Jill
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J. Olkoski
Aldebaran Web Design, Seattle
Jill Olkoski has a BS in Engineering, a BS in Computer Science and an MA in Clinical Psychology. She delights in using her advanced technical and psychological skills to help small business owners develop cost-effective and successful websites.



5 Responses to “Change Domain Names: Maintain Search Engine Ranking”

  1. Curtis Says:

    Thanks for the article and especially the illustrative charts. My site http://www.snapspans.com just plummeted in traffic and I am trying to find out why.

    What I got from your experience (other than an appreciation for methodical action) is that the lag-time for crawls and search results looks like a month minimum.

    Snapspans is very new, and I think I was mostly lucky in the first month. Encouraging to read yours bounced back above where it had been.

  2. tecnoscopio Says:

    I’m going through the same thing. I changed my domain to http://www.tecnoscopio.com and went from near 250 incoming visitors from google per day to 5 visitors. It declined pretty rapidly and hope it will recover completely. Its good to see that your site recovered, at least it gives hope.

    Tecnoscopio
    http://www.tecnoscopio.com

  3. Jill Olkoski Says:

    Hi Tecnoscopio,
    Hopefully it will go back up. Most importantly, make sure you have a new sitemap that’s referenced in a Robots.txt file, and make sure that all of your old pages are redirected via a 301 redirect in an .htaccess file to the new pages. Super duper important. My traffic did indeed recover, and now it’s better than before. But I did have to wait out a several month long traffic slump.

  4. Leone Harris Says:

    I have a Real Estate website that is 4 years old. It ranks on the second page of Google. I wanted to change my domain name to a shorter easier name to remember. I bought the new domain name http://www.LeonesHomes.com and permanently pointed it to http://www.SurfAlaskaRealEstate.com. My question is this, if I advertise http://www.LeonesHomes.com and build up the inbound links to my site using that web address which website will google crawl? Will google be directed to the old website and will it continue to crawl the old website? There is no actual page for http://www.LeonesHomes.com as it is directed to http://www.SurfAlaskaRealEstate.com. I know this seems to appear a bit backwards but I can not take the risk of losing traffic right now. I am open to suggestions.

  5. Jill Olkoski Says:

    Hi Leone,
    It looks like the SurfAlaska site has the actual content and that LeonesHomes is just redirected to it. Therefore, there is no real content on LeonesHomes and Google will never crawl it because there is nothing to crawl. Any links that you get to LeonesHomes will NOT be credited towards SurfAlaska – and so I would recommend having all links go to the main website, SurfAlaska where the content is. So what you have won’t hurt anything, just make sure all links go to SurfAlaska. I have clients who have certainly bought easy to remember domain names and then used redirects – but the main website needs to get the links and will be crawled because there’s where the content lives.



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