Theoretically, changing your domain name does not have to cause any damage to your rankings on Google – that is, if you strictly adhere to Google’s instructions. In the real word, we can find examples which make us suspect that a domain move may actually encompass a serious SEO risk.
Theguardian.com loses 50% Visibility
On the July 30, 2013 the British newspaper The Guardian relocated from the domain guardian.co.uk to the domain theguardian.com. As a result, the Visibility Index fell from about 550 points (guardian.co.uk) to about 280 points (theguardian.com) on Google UK. That is a decline of almost 50%.
It took a total of 3 months after the move (until November) for the Visibility to return to the previous levels.
Permanent loss for Lush
The next graphic shows that the Visibility Index graphs for both lush.co.uk and lush.com for Google.co.uk. In this example, the Visibility fell by more than 75 percent from 8.808 points (lush.co.uk; December 14, 2015) to 1.646 points (lush.com; March 7, 2016).
While all URLs on lush.co.uk are redirected to the exact counterpart on lush.com (https://www.lush.co.uk/emotionalbrilliance/, for example, redirects to https://uk.lush.com/emotionalbrilliance/), most of these redirects end in 404 pages (page not found). In many cases, the product seems to not exist anymore, but other cases, as with /emotionalbrilliance/, are simply close by (in this case at https://uk.lush.com/emotional-brilliance/). Sadly, both the user and Google are not made aware of this through a 301 redirect.
The 301 redirects from the old pages to the new location of each content are important. They tell Google how the structure of the domain has changed, if at all, and which trust signals belong to which page (URL).
tz Online loses more than 75 percent
I want to add a very current example from Germany, as it shows some interesting features. Here we see the domain move for the daily Munich newspaper TZ, from tz-online.de to tz.de. This move is interesting as there was a lot of SEO knowhow behind the team responsible for the move. Even with this expert team did the Visibility Index of tz.de stay well below the old level of tz-online.de.
The relaunch brought along a radical change of the entire frontend, which made this situation more difficult from an SEO point of view. For this example we were able to confirm with the team that they used both Google’s “change of address” Tool in the Webmaster Tools and the necessary 301 redirects.
I hope that, like with theguardian.com, they will regain their Visibility after three months at most.
Are there some website traits that do not get transfered during a domain move?
When we look at the Visibility loss of the above examples, especially theguardian.com and tz.de, we can speculate that Google may not (immediately) transfer all traits – such as trust and/or user-signals – from the old domain to the new. Another trait can be the PageRank, with the attached crawl- and index-budget. Google might also have to re-crawl all the previous links in order to figure out the redirects, before the links can send their trust to the new domain.
If we look at the Visibility curve for tz.de at the start of 2014 and overlay it with a very similar curve for a very strong but also very new domain, huffingtonpost.de, we will notice that they look quite similar. It seems that Google is treating tz.de just like a domain for which they do not yet have an extensive data-history.
Does this mean that Google first decides to collect user data, before giving the domain more Visibility in the SERPs, or are the trust-calculations – including redirects – reliant on lengthy update-cycles?
Is Google careful with domain moves in order to protect themselves from spam?
In the past, it was a popular SEO technique to revive a website punished by Google through a domain move. An example for that would be the move from misterinfo.de to misterinfo.com. That way they could keep beating their dead horse a little longer.
It is understandable that Google’s intentions are to protect the quality of the search results and that would explain why they are more careful with domain moves, in order to minimise the effectiveness of such techniques.
Example for a successful domain move
Of course, there are also cases where the entire Visibility managed to get transferred. An example is the relocation of adviceguide.org.uk to citizensadvice.org.uk:
In this case it is important to note that the citizensadvice.org.uk domain was not a blank page for Google, they were able to get at least some user-data for the domain over the years. This leaves us with the hypothesis that Google may have “Trustlimit” for Domains with a certain size, when they move to entirely new and unknown domain names.
Update from January 31, 2014
I asked John Mueller from Google how long it takes for Google to trust the new domain as much as they did the old. John confirms the suspicion that it may take a while:
“Basically it always takes a while until all our signals are transferred. Most of those, we can transfer right away, especially after a redirect, but a few of them just take a while until they are completely transferred, until they obtain the same strength or are about as strong on the new domain as with the old one. Even if we could do this a little faster, when looking at the Crawling side of things, I think that there will always be, let me say, a few weeks differences until everything has been transferred and balanced.” – John Mueller, January 31, 2014
What are your experiences with domain moves? Do you know more examples for successful and not so successful moves? It would be nice if we could collect a few more examples in the comments and share some tips.