After months of hard work, you re-launch your website on a new domain name only to watch as your site’s search engine traffic plummets and doesn’t recover.
This is a scary and all too common occurrence, and it happens when a domain name change isn’t properly handled.
The goal of this post is to show you how to properly transition a domain so that current Google search engine visibility and traffic levels are maintained. We’ll walk through, step-by-step, the process for notifying Google of your domain change and managing the transition.
A Proper Domain Transition is Important
There are many reasons for transitioning your website’s domain name. Perhaps your company’s name has changed, or perhaps you’ve finally acquired the domain you’ve always wanted. Another common reason is that you have previously had international website versions in a sub-directory of your website (i.e. www.site.com/fr/) and want to instead give each country their own, localized website (i.e. www.site.fr).
Regardless of the reason, handling the change correctly is important because a proper transition will:
- Help your new domain rank highly in the search engines for people still searching for the old name. This not only helps maintain brand search traffic, but also reduces customer confusion.
- Ensure that search engine visibility (and traffic) for non-branded keywords is maintained, and in some cases even improved.
- Significantly reduce the time it takes for the search engines to crawl and index your new website
The bottom line is that a proper domain transition is crucial to your business because it maintains lead and sales volume from SEO.
Steps to a Successful Domain Name Transition
After having successfully managed many domain name transitions, I’ve outlined below the exact steps that I use to ensure that SEO visibility and traffic is maintained after the domain transition. Note this process should begin BEFORE you transition your domain for it to be most effective.
Step 1: Add the old domain to Google Webmaster Tools
Make sure that your old domain is added to Google Webmaster Tools, complete with a submitted XML sitemap. This is important, because the way you communicate with Google about your new site and domain transition will be through Google Webmaster Tools.
To submit the domain you will be transitioning, visit http://webmaster.google.com, and sign in with your Google account.
From there, click on “add site,” enter your website’s URL, and then follow the instructions to verify that you are the owner of the old domain.
For submitting an XML sitemap, there are plenty of guides dedicated to helping you do this. For detailed instructions on XML sitemaps, visit
To easily create an XML sitemap for your website, I recommend http://www.xml-sitemaps.com/, which is a tool that will develop one for you to submit to Google Webmaster Tools.
Step 2: Settle on the URLs and site hierarchy of your new website
Much of ensuring a smooth domain transition has to do with understanding the URLs and structure of your new website. For this reason, I recommend not moving forward with any more steps until all of the URLs and pages have been outlined for the new domain.
Step 3: Map old URLs to their new counterparts
This step is very important, and involves mapping where old pages will be moving to on the new domain. For example, www.oldsite.com/solutions/ may be moving to www.newsite.com/solutions/, and we need to record this relationship in an Excel document.
The purpose of doing this is that we need to be able to redirect old, deleted URLs to the new ones when the site launches. This ensures that when customers visit an old, removed URL, they are automatically redirected to the new URL on the new site. This also tells search engine bots where the new page is located, which helps maintain the SEO traction you’ve built to date.
These are called 301 redirects, and will be implemented in a later step once the site is pushed live.
The spreadsheet above is what I use to complete this step. As you can see, we need to match, for example, the old Contact Us URL to the new Contact Us URL.
Note that if an old page does not have a similar page on the new site, just map that URL to the homepage of the new site.
Step 4: Run an SEO audit on the new site before it’s pushed live
After the site is built, but before it’s pushed live, I always recommend running multiple SEO audits and site crawls to ensure that on-site SEO is fully implemented on the new site before it’s pushed live. This ensures not only that search engine visibility is maintained, but perhaps even improved.
Step 5: Launch new domain and immediately apply 301 redirects
Now we’re ready to launch! Remember the URL mapping in step 3? This now serves as the guide to your web developer for implementing server-side 301 redirects.
A 301 redirect is a way to tell the search engines that a page has moved. This is the most important step, as without this step, Google won’t understand the site transition and you will lose your search engine visibility.
Step 6: Add the new domain to Google Webmaster Tools, and submit XML sitemap
Now that the site is live, we need to add the new domain to Google Webmaster Tools like we did for the old domain in Step 1, including submitting an XML sitemap.
This time, however, you need to also complete the Change of Address form from within Google Webmaster Tools.
Just follow the instructions. Doing this will complete your domain transition and will allow Google to attribute all of your previous SEO traction and organic visibility over to your new domain.
What a Successful Domain Transition Looks Like
This process works! Using the steps above, I was able to work together with a database technology company to successfully transition their entire website from www.citrusleaf.com to www.aerospike.com, not only maintaining their old search engine rankings, but also improving them!
- 171% increase in monthly non-branded search engine traffic (SEO traffic)
- New website successfully ranking in the first position for past brand name, ensuring best possible user experience.
The process works as long as you make sure to follow it for your new domain launches.