Moving a site from an established domain name to a new one is a nerve-wracking business: trying to ensure a seamless transition without losing any of the search engine ranking earned by the original site can feel like juggling several balls at once. Having gone through the experience myself in transitioning demosthenes.info to thenewcode.com, I thought I might offer a few pointers to help make your experience as smooth as possible.
Why A New Domain Name?
Before going into the details, it’s worthwhile exploring the reasons why you might want to have your site associated with a new domain name.
Broadly speaking, there are two main reasons why you might want a new domain name:
- The original name is no longer appropriate. The most common and persuasive reason: the company name has changed, or the purpose of the site has stretched far beyond the context of the original identity. This was the case with demosthenes.info.
- A better alternative has come along. If the only domain name you could buy at the time was shoreditchbricklayers.co.uk, but you’ve successfully purchased brickartisans.com, it may make sense to switch to the new domain name.
Before you switch, there are a few things to consider:
- Rebranding. Changing the site domain name should be done in conjunction with, and parallel to, changes to the business: logo redesign, legal registration, even changes to the business culture. This will often produce an opportunity for completely redesigning the site (see below).
- Timing: early is better than later Keep in mind that the longer a site has been in existence, the more external links will point to the “old” domain name. There’s nothing you can do to change this: external links will redirect to the new site if you do your job correctly, but you’ll be unable to change the text of those links if they’re on other sites. Therefore, switching to a new domain sooner rather than later is a good idea.
Opportunities and Necessities
Outside of branding, there may be a very strong argument to change the site itself. While this will extend the timeline of the transition significantly, it’s a singular opportunity to get things right. A few questions you might start asking when the possibility of changing domain names comes up:
- Should the content strategy of the site be reconsidered? Sites grow organically, and often wildly: is there an opportunity to review, rewrite, and reorganise content before relaunch? Can redundant or unsuccessful pages be pruned away?
- Can the performance of the site be improved? Due to that organic growth (and the insertion of media by owners) the size of each page may have grown considerably. Concentrating on performance will improve the experience of visitors, helping to create a successful and sustained relaunch.
- Was the original site responsive? If not, this transition is an excellent opportunity to make it so.
- Do you need to consider a new host or server setup? You may wish to reconsider the current hosting for your site: switching to a new domain name can be a good opportunity to re-evaluate the cost and effectiveness of the host, and research alternatives.
While the possibility of all these changes is very exciting, designers should keep one very important point in mind: many users are going to be clicking on links to the old domain name, and expect to see the site they are used to. If the site changes too radically, these returning visitors may become very confused, to the point of believing that the original site has been hijacked by a competitor.
Returning visitors must be reassured that the new site and domain name is a continuation of the old one… which is much more than presenting a tag line of “the site formerly known as” (which they may not read anyway).
I’d suggest that the new site incorporate several visual cues that harken back to the old design: perhaps color, or proportion, or significant site features being in the same place, to avoid confusing return visitors. These “transition elements” should remain in place for at least six months, until the vast majority of users are comfortable with the new domain and site.
Before You Start
In the next article I’ll look at the actual transfer process, but before you start you should ensure that four things are in place.
- Host the new version of the site under the new domain name. Given the considerations I’ve discussed above, it’s probably easier to host the new version of the site, with it’s associated domain name, on a new server, rather than trying to “paste in place” or attempting to place the new version of the site directly on top of the old.
- Make sure that both sites are registered as properties with Google WebMaster Tools. Aligned with, but separate from, Google Analytics, Webmaster Tools allows you to see your website as Google does, including any indexing errors. Registration is as simple as uploading a text file with a unique number provided by WebMaster tools to the root of your web host. Doing this reassures Google that you actually own and are responsible for the site, and will make transitioning to the new domain much easier.
- Add a
robots.txtfile to the root of your new site. This text file will contain just two lines:
User-agent: * Disallow: /
The presence of the robots.txt file will protect the new site from being crawled early by search engines and erroneously registering the content there as a duplicate of the old domain name. Note that this doesn’t prevent the new website from being used - anyone given the URL will be able to see it - but it will prevent the site from being listed on legitimate search engines until the time is right.
- If needed, register the new domain with Google Analytics. It’s possible to move your Google Analytics ID from one domain to another, but my preference was to start fresh, most especially because careless coders had copied the old ID from
demosthenes.infoand used it on their sites, inflating my apparent number of visitors.
In the next article, I’ll look at the series of intricate dance steps required to successfully redirect all traffic from the old site to the new one, under its new domain name.
Photographs by Wacky Stuff, Loco Steve and Nathan O’Nions, licensed under Creative Commons.
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