You Don’t Have To Be Nuts To Worry About Changing Your Domain

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.

NutsOnline.com

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.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Enterprise SEO

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About The Author: is the founder of ItsTheROI.com, a San Francisco Search Engine Marketing Company that specializes in ROI-driven SEO.

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  • http://www.poundGetSome.com JasonRubacky

    Same results I received when changing my domain from my personal name to a brand name. Just take your time and MAKE SURE you get every post, category, tag etc.

    I found pulling the sitemap and going line by line was a pretty easy and painless process.

  • http://www.jordansilton.com jsilton

    Since you are 301 redirecting everything one-to-one from nutsonline.com to nuts.com, that should help engines understand that you wish to permanently move all the “authority” of the old domain to the new on. That said, you still have the history of nuts.com to account for.

    Old domain names (especially one-word ones that may or may not have been bought purely to generate cash) don’t necessarily get a clean slate just from a transfer of ownership and/or new site. Sometimes domain history can have an impact. For example, did either engine penalize the nuts.com domain under previous ownership? This does add to the complexity of a domain transfer, but nobody said it was easy!

  • http://legeaz.net dezea

    This is an interesting article. But, have you looked at the queries that the webpage does no longer rank for?

    Imho “online” is a valuable keyword for this niche, mostly because obviously a lot of people want to buy nuts online. Google keywords tool shows 40500 monthly searches only for that keyword combination. I think the ‘online’ in the domain was quite usefull and was helping the site rank better.

    Before moving the domain, the seo firm should have checked the search querie data from the website’s account and check wether nut the domain name plays a role in ranking for specific keywords. In this case I have a hunch it is about keyword combinations with the ‘online’ term ;)

  • http://libertywebmarketingandseo.com/ Scott

    My personal experience in the SEO time lag for Google has changes significantly since Panda. Pre-Panda was about 3-5 days, but now it generally takes anywhere from 1-5 weeks to see anything rebound from significant change. (i.e. Large backlink campaigns, 301 redirect, etc.) However, recently a client changed from a web 2.0 site to the WordPress platform, and with the help of “Fetch as Google-bot I was able to re-index all 9 pages over this past weekend. Despite what people may think, Google has continued to implement substantial changes across the board and changes as significant as that done with the transformation from nutsonline.com to nuts.com may simply call for a little patience…
    I will note, however, that Google Places has been all over the place! I’ve had clients drop from the 1st page to the 3rd page with no changes having been implemented (I think its going through an update?? ;-))

  • http://www.inkode.co.nz Aidan

    Hi Jonah
    Interesting one.
    So other than what you had covered above there were no other changes (design / cms / site structure) – every redirect matched one for one?

  • Paul

    Sorry to hear about your problems, but it seems that you forgot the Number One rule which always have existed when changing domains and is nothing new.

    - Do NOT change anything else

    I have recently changed domain names for 6 websites and 5 of them either had the same or better rankings within one week and the other one took a few weeks more before everything was back to normal.

    IMHO it has always been the case that when either changing ownership of the domain or changing domain name for the same content, the most important rule is to not change anything else until the change has completely settled in and all rankings and number of visitors have returned to normal. As long as that is not the case, do not change anything else.

    But since it is too late already, the best remedy IMHO is now to simply acquire a few high quality backlinks and wait. It sucks, but the way the change has been done just had a way too high risk, a risk that has been here for many years and is nothing new.

  • http://milkmen.com/blog Cody Baird

    Thanks for sharing your experience in detail. I am in the planning stages of a major switch for a client right now. I am going to make sure that I prepare them more for the painstaking task. I wish I knew how much of the penalty was based on social signals.

  • http://www.wyoming-interactive.com Robert Innes

    Nice article, clearly laying out the steps followed. Love these 1st person accounts of projects.

  • Lance Long

    Considering the outcome, what about keeping nutsonline.com as the store and develop nuts.com as a blog/content/corporate domain? Or visa-versa depending on the strength (profitability) of the URLs.

    Certainly wouldn’t be good advice in a perfect world but this obviously requires drastic measures.

  • http://rick.ly/myplusprofile Rick Bucich

    It sounds like all the key steps were taken care of. What nags at me was the per-existing penalty. A reconsideration request only addresses manual penalties, it does not address algorithmic ones and it sounds like there may be some still in place.

  • http://rick.ly/myplusprofile Rick Bucich

    Follow ups to my earlier comment.
    1) When using site command, your home page does not appear first which I find troubling.
    2) most of the existing backlinks to nuts.com go to the www, not the indexed version and look really spammy, I tried to visit one and received a virus warning.
    3) nutsonline.com 301 > http://www.nutsonline.com before 301 > nuts.com

    Sure sounds like you could use some really quality contextual backlinks to overpower the spammy ones.

  • http://rick.ly/myplusprofile Rick Bucich

    OK, one last thing, anytime a user goes to the login page regardless of whether they log in or not, all subsequent navigation is SSL because the links are relative.

    Many of those pages are set to noindex, nofollow, others have a canonical tag back to http. I’d rather see all the navigation set from SSL pages to absolute to avoid the situation.

    Makes me nervous having users navigation on useful pages that are being blocked from the index. What if sharing occurs naturally?

  • jet20

    I don’t think this is due to the change of domain names alone but specifically the domain the client changed to. While it COULD be the bad backlink portfolio the previous site owner has built, Google should be well aware of the change of ownership due to the reconsideration request.

    Due to my own experience, however, I suspect there is a different “handling” (read: algorithmic down-ranking) for domain names which are forms of English language keywords (such as plural form “nuts” from “nut”), maybe due to the wide spread spam abuse of such keyword domains in the past.

    My own domain also is the plural form of an existing English word and has seen a remarkable decline for its primary keyword (domain name) from page 1 to page 5 exactly around that time (January), even without me changing domains! Note this is only on Google and Bing still shows it on pole position! This makes me believe that Google introduced a ranking factor that penalizes such domains for no obvious reason. My reconsideration request is still running…

  • http://connect.icrossing.co.uk/ Modesto Siotos

    I agree with Paul 100%.

    Changing too many things whilst changing domains is too risky. If things go wrong, then it is very difficult to figure out where the problem is.

    Moving a domain of 200,000 indexed pages to one with just 6,000 doesn’t sounds good. All pages (even duplicate ones) pass internal link equity which makes me think that by resolving the duplicate content issues the site’s overall link equity dropped significantly.

    Also, did you you try to contact webmasters of authoritative backlinks to link to the new domain? Given that you’ve lost all likes, tweets etc that must have contributed to the drops.

    Building new, authoritative links and bumping up the social metrics on the new domain is the way forward.

 

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