Enterprise SEO is all about mitigating risk. Slow and steady, fix what is broken, don’t let anyone do anything radical chasing the latest fads, don’t push the envelope into anything black or even grey and keep your IT department from inadvertently destroying your rankings.
So what do you say when a large, branded site wants to go about changing a well-established domain?
For the last 6 years or more, moving a website from one domain to another has been fairly straightforward and low risk endeavor. Set up a 301 redirect that maps all of your old URLs to your new ones and then sit back and wait 1-2 weeks while the search engines crawl all of your primary URLs and you were good to go.
If you wanted to speed things along a little, you could also do a change of address in Webmaster Tools and submit critical pages through Fetch As Googlebot.
Sure, Bing and Yahoo would take longer to update and, yes, it might take months for all of the pages in the supplemental index to finally clear out, but in most cases, your site was above 80% of your previous traffic levels in a month and returned to previous levels within 60 days of your switch.
Re-branding was not painless, but as long as you were simply moving from one domain to another the results were predictable, the process was well defined and the risks were minimal.
If you took it as an opportunity to thoroughly audit your indexation and clean up some legacy issues, it could even be the foundation for some significant gains in your overall traffic.
This no longer appears to be the case; the experience of Nuts.com illustrates that there is now a greater risk when changing domains, especially for older, more established sites.
Case In Point
Changing your domain is no longer certain to be painless or low risk.
As a consequence of rebranding from NutsOnline.com to Nuts.com, The Newark Nut Company is losing thousands of dollars in revenue every day.
The Newark Nut Company is a multi-generational 83 year old family business started in an open air market in New Jersey at the beginning of the Great Depression. The company grew into a brick and mortar store with a warehouse and a mail order business for loyal customers.In 1999, one of the grandsons of the founder decided to try e-commerce and launched NutsOnline.com.
Through hard work, personality, and great customer service, the company became one of the premier online retailers of nuts, seeds, and bulk foods, as well as a category leader for decorative candies such as Jordan Almonds. In other words, the poster child for a family business going online and succeeding with a quirky persona and a commitment to quality.
Preparing To Move
Even though changing domains is usually straightforward, I am a data junkie and I favor a methodical approach that allows me to track the progress of the re-indexation, as well as monitoring rankings and traffic.
Prior to the move, site traffic and rankings were very healthy. During the seven month period prior, they averaged 30,000-44,000 visits each week from organic Google searches with traffic steadily rising 5-10% each month.
Every client engagement begins with an audit to discover and correct canonical issues, duplicate titles and descriptions, spiderability problems and any other technical problems that may be hindering rankings; in the case of a migration, this is especially important because we can address the issues before the move to eliminate potential variables and uncertainty.
The first step was to determine how many canonical pages the site contains and to build a sitemap that included those URLs and only those URLs. This provides a baseline to measure progress and be the first metric to gauge the indexation of the new site.
In the case of nutsonline.com, we determined that we had about 4,800 core content and product pages, 365 pages in the blog, about 500 tag pages, and 3,250 images that we wanted indexed. This works out to less than 6,000 pages to monitor. Before the move, over 98% of our core pages were being indexed in the sitemap for nutsonline.com.
While the target number of pages was under 6,000, the site: query for Nutsonline.com, depending on what data center we hit, showed between 198,000 and 245,000 pages in the index.
Some quick digging around found the usual suspects:
- About 100,000 URLs indexed at site:nutsonline.com/search
- About 60,000 URLs indexed at site:nutsonline.com/tag
- About 20,000 URLs indexed at one of the following subdomains: cdn.nutsonline.com, staging.nutsonline.com or https://www.nutsonline.com
- About 10,000 URLs indexed with parameters such as GCLID, Sort, SID, item, source or department.
This list gave us an excellent starting point for changes we needed to make to the site during the transition in order to right-size our indexation footprint.
In a perfect world, we would have waited until the site was pruned to the correct canonical URLs before we changed the domain. It might have taken months for Google to clean out the extra URLs from the index.
Despite the obvious canonical problems, Google had no difficulty returning the correct pages in SERP. Of the top 500 landing pages for organic traffic, not a single one was a non-canonical version, and of the 645,000 organic entries in Q4 of 2011, only 464 were on non-canonical URLs.
Based on this, we decided to procede.
- We implemented “rel=canonical” throughout the http://nuts.com implementation to resolve the tracking and display parameters, since blocking them in Webmaster Tools parameter settings was not removing them from the index.
- We redirected all of the sub-domain on nutsonline.com to http://nuts.com.
- We put staging behind a password and used robots.txt to block http://cdn.nuts.com.
- We decided that the search results were not something we wanted in the index (despite generating 1,395 organic entries in Q4), so we added follow, noindex to the header of the search results template.
- Finally, we reviewed all the the tag pages and discovered how different navigation paths could generate 4, 5 and 6 level deep tag taxonomies with elements in different orders, creating a canonical nightmare. We added robots meta noindex, nofollow to all tag pages that were more than 1 level deep.
The Big Switch
On January 6th, 2012, we implemented a global page-to-page 301 and did a change of address in Google Webmaster Tools.
Within 2 weeks, almost all of the queries and impressions on NutsOnline.com had disappeared. These Google Webmaster Tools charts very clearly show the drop off in impressions for nutsonline.com and the pick up of impressions for nuts.com.
Within a week, over 98% of our canonical URLs on nuts.com were indexed (4408 of 4484 in the primary sitemap) and 95% of the Google organic traffic was gone from NutsOnline.com.
The Big Drop
Unfortunately, 2 weeks after the transition, overall Google organic traffic for nuts.com was down over 70% and rankings were down across the board, much as though the site was hit by Panda or some form of penalty.
The third week, January 23rd to the 31st, showed promising signs of a recovery, reaching almost half of the pre-change traffic levels on the 31st. Instead of continuing to recover, however, traffic headed down again as if it were once again weighed down by Panda or some related algorithm.
It is very difficult to compare week over week traffic and account for seasonality.
It is noteworthy, however, that the week just before the migration (January 1, 2012 to January 7, 2012) represented the single best week for Google organic traffic in the history of the company.
The chart below shows incontrovertibly that traffic took a dive as a consequence of the change of address.
Ranking reports are generally not as valuable a tool as they once were, but of the 81 keywords I track for the baseline report, 19 of 25 top ranked terms dropped, along with 26 of 41 top 3 spots. In all, 39 terms have simply dropped out of the top 50.
The most important (lucrative) keyword used to return as #1 with a sitelink with 4 entries and almost 10,000 visitors a week. For that same term, the site now fluctuates between 14 and 20.
The domain nuts.com was used previously and the Webmaster had acquired a spam penalty. My client purchased the domain in October of 2011, registered it with Google Webmaster Tools and submitted a reconsideration request that detailed the history.
The domain was reviewed and we were told that the penalty had been lifted.
Despite this assurance, 17 days after the switch over and 10 days without any significant ranking improvement, we theorized that we may be suffering from some legacy penalty against the nuts.com domain and submitted a reconsideration request. A few days later we were informed that no manual penalties existed against the site.
Why Has Google Forsaken Us?
NutsOnline.com has been operating almost as long as Google has been in existence. As such, they had a domain history, trust, and other social signals to rank well despite whatever issues may have been sub-optimal.
As soon as the site switched domains, we found ourselves in a position where Google is not ranking the new site the same way as the old. I believe we are suffering from the loss of domain history and trust that accompanies a change of address.
This has sufficiently weakened the domain strength that we have been pushed over some penalty threshold. Nothing on the site has changed significantly since the switch but we are no longer the old, crusty domain that has earned trust. We also lost all our our social signals, including thousands of Likes, Tweets, etc.
You May Be Nuts To Try This
Regardless of the underlying cause, the bottom line is that changing your domain is no longer painless or low risk.
As a consequence of changing their domain, The Newark Nut Company is losing thousands of dollars in revenue every day. The options going forward (apart from Google recognizing this is unintentional and somehow fixing the issue) are all less than ideal.
- We could reverse course and redirect the search engines to nutsonline.com instead of nuts.com.
- We could implement cross domain rel=canonical on nuts.com to nutsonline.com while still using Nuts.com in marketing materials and for PPC. Not only would this be a terrible example of engineering for search engines, it would also create tremendous cost, confusion, and potentially loss of trust from our actual customers.
- We could roll back for Google only. Bing seems to be delivering about 80% of traffic we got before the 301 and they are gradually getting better. Bing reportedly doesn’t honor cross domain rel=canonical in any event. This would create no less cost or confusion, but it might be slightly less damaging.
- We could embark on a massive link building campaign and hope that new links will over power whatever is holding us down but high quality, organic link building takes significant time.
- Face Mountain View and Pray.
Google went to great pains to develop tools and educate webmasters who want to change domains.
As a result, many companies have succeeded in changing their domain and lived to tell about it. Now, however, with the ever increasing emphasis on brand and the indirect benefit of social signals, it appears that search engines do not have a mechanism to transfer the complete history of the domain, not just its PageRank.
Be warned, if your enterprise is planning to rebrand, you may find yourself swimming against the tide and desperately trying to avoid getting swept out to sea in what started as a “simple” change of address.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.