A New Domain Doesn’t Have to Ruin Your SEO

3 Mar 2017 / Aliesha Ellington

A new domain may be necessary when you are trying to build a memorable online brand. You may also want to consolidate multiple domains into one. These types of scenarios may actually provide you with an opportunity to improve your SEO - if you approach it correctly and know what you are doing.

If you are switching your websiteto a new domain, you have probably considered the pros and cons of such a move, as the task will seem daunting for most people. The fear of losing your site traffic and the SEO rankings that you worked hard for, can be overwhelming.

The following are some strategies that you can help you realise the opportunities with a new domain - without losing your search rankings.

Backup your site

You should already be backing up your website regularly, but it is critically important to do so before moving to a new domain. This way, you can have a copy of all of your content in the event that something goes wrong during the process.

Imagine starting the migration, running into trouble, and finding your backup is corrupted or incomplete. Unfortunately, this happens all too often. Before attempting any major changes, make sure you have a complete working backup of your files and database. If you have a WordPress site, you can use a plugin likeBackup Buddyto back up your website.

Audit your site before changing your website domain

Before you begin, you need to run an SEO audit on your site to find out how it is currently performing. You can useMoz’s On-Page Grader Toolor Google’s Search Console to analyse your content optimisation. Using the SEO report provided by these tools, you can make strategic improvements as part of your domain change.

Once you’ve thoroughly prepared your new website, check it over and test out all of the links before it goes live. You’ll then want to register and verify your old and new website domain withGoogle Search Console(previously called Google Webmaster Tools).

Clean up your new domain

You’ll want to make sure that your new domain is not carrying forward any old penalties if it has been previously registered. To check for any outstanding issues, you can claim your new domain in Google Webmaster Tools and wait to see if any manual actions show up.  If there are no issues it's a positive signal, but this doesn't rule out any algorithmic penalties.

If there is a manual action, you’ll need to make the necessary changes and then submit a reconsideration request. Once your request is approved, you should be free to move your content over to your new domain, but note that securing a reconsideration can be a difficult and painful process.

If you do see manual actions you should think very carefully before going ahead with this domain. The vast majority of SEO's would probably recommend against it unless you really know what you are doing. 

You can also check the wayback machine to see what kind of site it was, and use tools like ahref.com or majesticseo.com to see if there are any backlinks.

Redirect traffic from your old domain

It’s important that you get your redirect right. If you don’t, you will lose all the valuable search engine authority indicators from your old URL. It's surprising how many even experienced people get this step wrong; for example using a 201 instead of a 301 redirect. 

Step 1: Create an XML sitemap
The first part of redirection involves creating an XML sitemap of your old website. You can do this by crawling through it with an online tool such as Xenu Link Sleuth or Screaming Frog. Once you’ve got an automated report listing all of the title tags and meta descriptions across your website, cross-check it manually to ensure that every page is accounted for. Then, create a sitemap that ranks these links in order of domain authority and relevance.

Step 2: Match the pages
Once you have the listing of old URLs, you’ll need to create an XML sitemap of the new website, and then match the old pages to the new. This would ensure that your users get what they expect when they click on a link.

You can create 404 (Page not found) pages for pages that have no equivalent on the new domain. Your 404 page can remind users that your site has moved, and link them to the new site. Alternatively you can redirect these pages to your home page or another relevant page to transfer any page authority. 

Step 3: Set up the 301 directs
Once you’ve tested the redirects and you know that they’re working, set up 301 redirects on your server. This will automatically transfer the old URLs to the relevant new URL. 301 redirects also inform search engines that the link has permanently moved. It’s worth keeping the 301 redirect on forever to avoid confusion.

Notify search engines

When your 301-redirects are in place, use Google Search Console and other similar tools to inform search engines of your change of address. Then, submit both your old and new sitemaps to the search engines. Your old sitemap lets them crawl your old site and make note of the 301-redirects you created, while the new sitemap allows them to crawl and catalogue any new content that wasn’t included on your old website. Remember to keep an eye out for status updates and fix any errors noted in diagnostics reports.

Finally, you’ll need to fill out Google’s “Change of Address” form, which you can find through the little gear icon in the Search Console. This will notify Google of your preference to display your new website in the new search results instead of the old.

Follow up and check your work

Once you’ve completed the process, don’t sit back just yet. After you move the site, check that everything is properly linked and redirected. Go through the top keywords and inbound links to ensure that they land in the right place, and use a tool that monitors 404 errors to spot any unsuccessful redirects.

Tell your followers

Be sure to let your followers, subscribers, and email visitors know about the move in advance. This is particularly important if you’re also changing your name or website design. Consider using a pop-up box on your site to let visitors know about the change, and using a transitional logo or byline to help maintain brand recognition.

It’s very likely that you experience a temporary drop in rankings immediately after your move. Be prepared to wait 3-6 months for your rankings to reach pre-move levels. For this reason, it’s important to avoid making the move during a busy time of the year.

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