Search engines, SEO and changing your site’s primary domain

November 11, 2015 1:39 pm The UK Domain

Although having a strong domain name is an important factor in how consumers choose which websites to visit, we know that many online journeys start by searching. In fact, estimates show that 93% of online experiences begin with a search engine query.

It’s not just UK websites that are facing this question, but across the world, new top level domains are launching (such as .club, .photography, .london etc.) and website owners are considering whether to move to a new domain extension that is more relevant to their business. Like many, we have entered into discussions with the major search engines (such as Google and Bing) to try and understand how they will treat these new extensions. In every case they have said that their primary goal is to help people find the most relevant sites and content to their chosen search query, regardless of domain extension. This is good news for domain owners: it means that should you choose to change domain extension, the search engine providers are keen not to penalise you.

Should I move to a new .uk domain?
We have been asked whether moving to a shorter .uk will have any benefits from a search engine optimisation (SEO) perspective. The search engines use hundreds of factors in their calculations, of which the domain extension is only one. What we do know is that they will use the .uk portion of the domain as one factor in indicating whether a site is targeted at UK consumers,although we expect co.uk and .uk to be treated in exactly the same manner in this regard.

Our market research has shown that when presented with a set of search results, consumers do have a slight preference for domains that are shorter in length. These are often more memorable and easier to read. With this in mind, we believe that the shorter .uk domains may provide some benefit when presented alongside other longer domains.

I’ve decided to move domains – what should I do next?
The first thing to do is to create a plan to manage the process. The exact course of action will depend on how your website is built and hosted as well as a number of other factors. Some Content Management Systems (CMS) have simple solutions to allow you to switch to a different primary domain, making the process of moving to a new domain very easy. If you are running your site from a CMS then it’s best to consult their documentation/FAQs for how best to implement this. There are also some basic steps that everyone can take that we believe will make the process as smooth as possible:

1. Try and keep things simple. Although it might be tempting to restructure and rebrand your site during the move, this can add complexity to any migration.

2. If you have not done so already, install analytics tracking on your website (such as Google Analytics). This will allow you to benchmark your current site and understand visitor numbers and traffic sources. This will provide you with valuable metrics on your site’s performance, and help you to compare pre and post-migration statistics.

3. Register your site with the major search engines’ Webmaster Tools sites. This will allow you to see top level stats and spot any issues that occur when the search engines crawl your site.

4. Create a redirect strategy. This can be extremely straightforward and can be a single site-wide redirect from your existing domain to the new domain (if you want the URL format to stay the same), or a more complex page-by-page strategy (you may choose this strategy if you want to change the structure of your site during the migration).

5. You’ll also need to ensure that internal linking is changed over – your CMS may do this automatically but it’s best to check.

6. Transfer your hosting settings, contacting your provider if you are not familiar with these.

7. Notify the search engines that you have switched domain through their Webmaster Tools sites. This will tell them to index your new domain and replace the site’s entries in the search results (note: this doesn’t replace redirects, these always need to be in place).

8. Update both XML and user sitemaps (if applicable) so that they refer to your new domain, and submit these to Webmaster Tools.

9. Monitor your search and referral traffic through your analytics and Webmaster Tools. Look to see if there are any errors or issues that need fixing.

10. Allow the search engines time to re-index. It’s tempting to tinker with your site if you see any dips in traffic. This is can be very risky and can lead to further drops. Let the search engines fully index your site and any dips in traffic should return to normal very quickly.

Common Mistakes
When talking with the search engine providers they have said that there are some common basic mistakes that many people make when moving between domains. These are best avoided!

1. Keep things as simple as possible, don’t over-complicate your move.

2. Don’t try and run two identical sites on different domains, you are likely to get penalised for ‘duplicate content’.

3. Don’t prevent search engines from seeing your redirects or crawling your old domain.

Help with moving
Moving between domains can be a daunting task and we recognise that every domain is different. There are some excellent online resources to help you with this and you will also want to consult the person that built your website or your hosting provider. There are also many excellent search engine consultancies in existence who will help you with every stage of the process and provide valuable expertise to assist you in this process.

Other Resources
For more information on search engines, SEO and changing your site’s primary domain:

Every business is different, for specific questions or advice you should consult professional advisors.