For any number of reasons it can sometimes become necessary to move a website to a new domain. When done correctly, moving to a new domain can be simple and flawless.  Unfortunately, there is only one way to do it right, and a million paths for getting it wrong.

Often times the major hurdles are not the redirects themselves, but rather the webmasters who are making the changes.

It is important that you or whoever is overseeing the move, understands the difference between the various types of redirects.  When moving a website, there are two common ways of redirection:

  • a 301 redirect
  • a 302 redirect

The 301 redirect is the only redirect which will help you to retain search rankings. Improperly redirecting your site can result in problems for visitors, such as 404 errors or major slides in website rankings. Getting it right can result in no change or even an improvement in rankings.

When a browser, such as Firefox, Internet Explorer, or Safari comes across a 301 or a 302 status code, they know to send a user to the new location.  Often times the redirection is seamless, and the user has no idea they are being redirected.

301 Redirect The 301 status code tells website crawlers and other web server software that the website in question has been moved permanently.  This triggers the search engines to send any accumulated link equity currently associated with the old domain to the new domain.

302 Redirect The 302 status code tells website crawlers that the site has only temporarily moved.  When a search engine crawler comes across a 302 redirect, they do not re-point any previously accumulated link equity.  Instead the equity is retained on the old domain, and nothing is transferred to the new domain.

When moving a domain, one should prepare for the Google rankings to not transfer from the old domain to the new one for a time period of 3-6 months.  However, for many of our client’s that we’ve assisted in a domain move, rankings have returned in as little as four to six weeks. Yahoo and Bing can take up to one month.

Here are step-by-step instructions for 301 Redirecting an old Domain to a New Domain:

  1. Create 301 redirects for all pages from the old domain, and point them to the proper URLs on the new domain.  If the site structure is remaining the same, it is OK to wildcard the entire domain.
  2. On the old site, update all of the links that pointed to the old domain, to point at the new domain.
  3. If possible contact the webmasters of the top referring sites that send traffic to your site and provide them with the new URL of the page they are linking to.
  4. Make sure that the old and the new sites have both been verified with Google Webmaster Central, and that a current sitemap has been submitted.*** Note, that if a proper redirection from the root of the domain is setup, Google Webmaster Central, will figure out that your site has moved to a new domain.
  5. If you’re moving the website and implementing a new design, it’s a good idea to break the process up into 2 phases.  Phase one should be the redirection, phase 2 should be the implementation of the new design.  You should begin Phase 2 once the new domain and URL is showing up in the search results.
  6. Embark on a strong online media marketing campaign to gain new inbound links, and get the new domain ranking for brand related keyword phrases.
  7. Monitor your Webmaster Central account for crawl errors.

Recently we oversaw the move of several domains.  Each of these domains was moved to a new domain.  The soonest we saw the rankings transfer from one domain to another was one week, and the longest was about 5 weeks.

When embarking on a website move, the process has the potential to open up a Pandora’s box of issues related to your URLs.  Have your new URLs setup as “tight” as possible on your new website to reduce issues.  This means making sure the non-www version of your domain 301 redirects to your www version (or vice versa), and making sure that each page is only accessible by one URL.

We have typed up a quick guide on how to “tighten” up your URLs, and remove confusion from your website.

~Ben Herman

Ben Herman is the Director of Digital Strategies and resident programming geek at Mad Fish SEO. Follow Ben on Twitter @ben_herman