From oDesk To Upwork: How To Migrate A Domain And Not Kill Your SEO
Columnist Andrew Shotland presents a case study in how to rebrand and switch domains while preserving (and even improving) your search engine optimization.
When I was told that our client, oDesk, was planning on rebranding their company to Upwork, the “domain migration” alarm bells immediately went off in my head.
As Search Engine Land readers know, these pages are littered with horror stories of domain migrations that have done serious SEO damage. For instance:
- How One Brand Switched One Million URLs and Lived To Tell About It: 5 Questions With HomeAdvisor.com
- You Don’t Have To Be Nuts To Worry About Changing Your Domain Name
While the basics of SEO for domain migrations are straightforward, betting your business that both Google and your team will get it right is, in fact, a big bet. One read of that HomeAdvisor post should be enough to put off anyone from attempting the switch.
So naturally, when oDesk presented the idea of changing domains, my feedback was that they should set expectations correctly internally, put a plan in place to do everything right, and be pleasantly surprised if/when their organic traffic didn’t crater post-launch.
Spoiler alert! It all worked out better than planned. In fact, post-rebrand organic traffic and conversions are up considerably.
Given how much negativity there is out there on domain switches and SEO, I thought it might be helpful to others considering a move to hear that Google has vastly improved its ability to handle these switches.
While it still takes plenty of planning and care, a domain change can be a positive event SEO-wise. With that in mind, I’d like to share with you how oDesk — sorry, Upwork.com — did it.
Get Second & Third Opinions
Half the battle with domain migrations and SEO is getting everyone in the organization comfortable with what is about to be done.
While oDesk execs had plenty of experience with SEO, they also knew that rebranding could be a big risk. And, while we have worked on many domain migrations large and small, it wasn’t surprising to me that oDesk wanted to bring in additional SEO consultants to get second and third opinions. We’re talking about radical surgery after all, with a lot of value at stake.
The Domain Migration SEO Checklist
With the brain trust on board and expectations set, the first order of business was to make sure that oDesk’s product and technical teams had a coherent blueprint for the SEO elements of the migration:
1. Map All Old Domain URLs To Their New Domain Versions
This basically required mapping all of the dynamic and static odesk.com URLs to upwork.com URLs so they could all be 301 redirected at launch.
2. Understand How Any UI Changes Might Affect SEO
Changing UI while changing domains should be avoided whenever possible to eliminate yet another thing that could go wrong. That said, if you are going to change the UI, you need to make sure that the links, text, images and other elements are considered for their SEO impact.
In oDesk’s case, they had made a number of UI changes a few days before the launch which went off without a hitch.
3. Reduce Or Eliminate 404 (Not Found) Errors
You’ll want to do this regardless of whether or not you are changing domains, but when you make the switch, you’ll want Googlebot to be able to crawl the site quickly and effectively.
URL errors can slow down Google’s ability to find all of the URLs on both the old and new sites, so you’ll want them gone before you do anything. Typical fixes included:
- Identifying patterns that were causing 404s and deploying fixes.
- Where it made sense, changing 404s to 200s and using rel=canonical tags to canonicalize them to active, relevant pages.
- Removing broken links from the UI.
- 301 redirecting outdated URLs to active pages when there was a high degree of relevance.
The majority of “Not Found” errors were identified by using the following tools:
- Reviewing Google Search Console’s Crawl Errors Report.
- Crawling the site with text browsers such as Screaming Frog and Xenu.
- Using the broken inbound link reports in backlink analysis tools like Majestic.
4. Figure Out Your Subdomains
We identified all existing subdomains and tagged each as “kill” or “keep.” Subdomains that were worthy of making the leap to the new domain were redirected.
Those that didn’t make the cut were deprecated with a 301 redirect to a new, relevant page or area of the site. This was quite exciting for the SEO geek in me as we had long advocated getting rid of many of oDesk’s subdomains and now we had the perfect excuse to prioritize the task.
5. Clean Up Your XML Sitemaps
Once XML sitemaps on sites with millions of URLs are deployed, they typically get ignored by developers who often have better things to do than worry about a huge file that often was built by someone else three years ago with god knows what kind of logic.
As with the subdomains, the migration finally gave us a good justification to go in and figure out how to map sitemaps to the new domain while getting rid of superfluous files.
6. Figure Out Your Canonical Links
While we had fixed a lot of oDesk’s canonicalization issues over the years, the rebrand gave the team the imperative to take a fresh look at potential duplication issues between various templates and within the complex taxonomy that oDesk had built up over the years.
The decision was made to canonicalize as many corresponding similar pages as we could identify to try to tighten up the site against potential Panda issues.
All canonical links that had been previously implemented on oDesk were identified and mapped to the new domain and relevant pages. All of this data was shared with the team via a Google Spreadsheet that could be easily updated and disseminated quickly.
7. “Warm Up” The New Domain
In my experience, migrations to new domains that either have never been indexed by Google or have few or no backlinks are the ones that typically get hit the worst when they are launched.
With that in mind, oDesk set up https://www.upwork.com/ several weeks before launch and posted new content to the site once a week to help get a jump on being indexed by search engines. The content was general and not connected to the oDesk brand, so it wouldn’t be associated with oDesk before the big reveal.
8. Get PR Involved… Early
While oDesk’s PR group was heavily involved in the rebrand, the SEO team knew it was important to make sure they understood that a steady flow of backlinks and citations to the new domain would be critical to its SEO success.
The good news is that when a brand as relatively well known as oDesk makes this kind of change, it’s pretty straightforward to get a fair amount of press and links.
And because of oDesk’s relationship with millions of freelancers (many of them highly active online), the minute Upwork was announced, it suddenly had an army of stakeholders tweeting about it and linking to it to share the news.
9. Man Battle Stations!
While the preparation is half the battle, putting a plan in place to monitor and troubleshoot both immediately before and after the launch is also critical.
Two weeks before the launch, the SEO team audited the new site on its development server on a daily basis. All new issues were identified and prioritized in a shared Google Spreadsheet, and regular meeting were held to clarify these issues before a ticket was filed for the engineers.
We also set up rank tracking via Authority Labs for both oDesk.com and Upwork.com to keep an eye on the mobile and desktop rankings for the top 2,500 “money” keywords pre- and post-launch.
While we had plenty of internal analytics and Google Search Console’s rank tracking, we felt that it would be important to have an independent view of the rankings to verify that the data we were seeing was directionally correct and to give us more granularity into fluctuations for both domains.
A master dashboard was agreed upon that would be updated first thing each day post-launch. The goal of the dashboard was to provide the SEO team with an idea of traffic and ranking progress, high priority technical issues discovered that morning, and a qualitative overview that could be shared with the executive team. We also agreed to a standing 10:30am meeting to triage any issues and assign tasks if needed.
The Big Day
On May 5th, oDesk pulled the trigger and officially became Upwork.com. As soon as the new site was live, the SEO team went to work crawling, clicking and endlessly staring at Google. We also submitted Change of Address requests in Google Webmaster…er, I mean Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools.
While I won’t go into every detail of the post-launch experience, I will say that in the first few days, there were definitely a number of technical issues that cropped up. However, these were quickly identified and squashed by Upwork’s developers.
It’s amazing how fast you can completely audit a multi-million URL domain when you have three different SEOs and their teams banging on it first thing in the morning from different time zones.
As I said, at the beginning, this is a case where the SEO not only didn’t tank, but actually increased due to a domain change. Upwork was able to use the switch as incentive to clean up many of its SEO issues that had never been a high enough priority previously while benefitting from the media attention that surrounded the event.
That said, I thought it would be interesting to discuss a few items of interest we encountered once Upwork was live.
“oDesk” Queries Showing “oDesk” As Upwork.com’s Title In The SERPs
Until the majority of people get to know “Upwork,” there are still going to be a decent amount of queries containing “odesk.” Thus, Google may continue to show “oDesk” in the title tags of some search engine results pages (SERPs), even if it is displaying upwork.com URLs.
We often see this with rebrands, and it drives executives crazy. Unfortunately, these old brands will stick around in the SERPs for as long as people continue to search for them. As of this week, it appears this effect may have worn off.
oDesk.com URLs Still Indexed
While Google did a pretty good job of crawling the old site’s redirects, there are still a lot of odesk.com URLs in the index. While I cringe thinking of potential cross-domain duplicate content issues, in some cases this is not necessarily a bad thing as we are seeing both domains rank on page one for certain keywords.
Additionally, most of the odesk.com URLs that are still out there are likely relatively low-value. They will either get crawled or fade away eventually.
Upwork.com Rankings Fluctuations
Upwork’s rankings grew strongly out of the gate; however, roughly nine days after the launch, about 30% of the keywords we were tracking dropped out of the top 10 in Google. The odd thing is that this did not appear to result in a drop in organic traffic or conversions, which we suspect was the case because oDesk.com URLs were still ranking, often for the same keywords, and generating traffic.
Upwork regained and surpassed its rankings about five days later, but it was helpful for the team to have all of the data readily available so that a temporary blip didn’t cause a full-on panic.
Upwork.com has now been live for over a month, and all signs indicate that its organic traffic will remain in good shape for the time being (fingers crossed).
While you can never be sure when an algorithm change will throw a curveball your way, the experience of planning and executing the rebrand has ingrained SEO best practices even more into the culture of the company, which should hold them in good stead with the SEO gods for the future.
So, if you are planning a domain migration for your business, hopefully we’ve helped you realize that it can be done without killing your SEO.
For further reading, see the Upwork Marketing Team’s own account of the domain change and their VP of Engineering’s account.
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