Tips for moving domain names

Moving your website from one domain to another is no easy task, as the American Bar Association is currently finding out.  The ABA is in the middle of a transition from their long-term home at over to their new domain at I say middle because many of the established addresses on their old website are throwing 404 errors (file not found).

Out of Google’s eight site links — those sub-links that are shown right underneath your homepage listing — only four of them are currently working.  Google is also still showing as the Association’s domain:

Now, Google will figure this all out on its own, eventually.  An organization the size of the ABA has enormous publishing power (and the associated PageRank) which gives it a natural boost in how fast Google crawls the website.  The web page re-directs will push the changeover process, as will any new in-bound links to the new domain from outside sources.  In addition, we would expect that the ABA also has a Google domain movement plan – a defined set of actions to preserve its current relationship with the search engine. A dedicated plan, you say? Absolutely. Any outside source that provides more than 80% of your website’s referral traffic (not type-in traffic) deserves special treatment.

Giving proper consideration to this relationship, here are the tasks that I think must be involved in a domain move:

  • GW Tools: Step one in any domain move is to register and verify both domains within Google Webmaster Tools (GW Tools).
  • 301 permanent redirects – This is also critically important.  Upload a text file named .htaccess into the root of your old domain (applicable to UNIX servers, there are other methods) mapping all URL variations with 301 permanent redirects from their old file location to their URL on the new domain. Every sub-page of your old website should be routed; and yes, even when you have thousands of URLs.
  • Submit an updated sitemap in GW Tools: As soon as the servers have been flipped, register a current and exhaustive sitemap file for your new domain in GW Tools. The sooner the new URLs are in play, the faster the transition.
  • Add/Update the robots.txt file in the root of your website: Adding a robots.txt file tells search engines which directories you want in their index, and which are denied.  When moving domains, don’t forget to update this file with the corresponding changes to the directory structures.  Your robots.txt file should also be confirmed in GWTools.
  • Boost the temporary crawl rate in GW Tools for both domains: Don’t max out the crawl rate, but a moderate boost can ensure URLs are forwarded as fast as possible.
  • Use the Change of Address tool: Don’t skip ahead to this step! You can’t use this tool until both domains are verified, regardless; but it works best when you have completed the above steps – especially having a comprehensive set of 301 redirects.
  • Schedule time to clean up 404 errors: File not found (404) errors are never good. Users hate them, and it’s a poor quality signal to Google. Review crawling errors within GW Tools, and fix your lost traffic issues.

Law firms should take notice: moving a domain is no easy task, and one that I would try to avoid at all costs. Even with all the above steps, it’s very difficult to replicate the trust factors of an aged-domain; especially with respect to its performance in the search engines. Staying at one location has real benefits, and that domain (like fine wine) will improve with age.  Unless you have a name Partner that leaves on bad terms, I would preserve your domain investment.

And if you must move,  use the steps above to create an actionable plan. It’s worth the time.


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