Rebranding a business with a new domain name can be a real SEO concern when your current domain ranks well in the SERPs for your business. However, once the decision has been made to rebrand that URL to better reflect your company mission or match a copyrighted product or service name, there are a list of important things to do in order to preserve current search engine visibility and search referral traffic.
Here is the short version of an ideal domain name rebranding checklist, which I’ll expand on below in the (TL;DR):
- Planning & Pre-Launch
- Launch New Social Media Profile Pages to Match Rebranded Domain Name
- Keep Existing Platform & Code Base to Maintain URLs on New Domain Name
- Crawl Existing Site & Record all URLs to Map 301 Redirects to New Domain
- List Third-Party Tools to Prepare Updates to Scripts & Notify Vendors
- Extract Title Tags, Meta Descriptions from Crawl if not Retained by Platform
- Resolve Current Search Console 404 Errors with Redirects Prior to Migration
- Save XML Sitemaps & Hierarchical HTML Sitemaps to Edit in New Domain Name URLs
- Save Current robots.txt to Transfer to new Domain Disallows & Sitemap Pointer
- Record Top 10 Target Keyword Rankings & Landing Pages of Top 20 Pages
- List Internal & External Deep Links (source URL, count, authority, etc.)
- Test 301 Redirects by Page (from Old Domain Dev Server on text, images, videos) to new URLs
- Launch Site on the New Domain (Require Authentication Log-in to Keep Crawlers Out)
- Register and configure the new domain in Google Webmaster Search Console & Analytics
- “Change of Address” option in the Existing Domain on Google Webmaster Search Console
- Submit XML Sitemaps of New Domain in Google Webmaster Search Console
- “Fetch as Googlebot” New Domain in Google Webmaster Tools & Submit Category Pages
- Update Domain Links on External Social Media Profile Pages to New Domain Name (If not re-branding Social)
- Build New External Links to the Most Important Pages – Using Prioritized List
- Monitor Errors on New Domain 404 & 500 Errors & Add 301’s to Missed URLs on Old Domain
- Ask Linking Sites to Update Inbound links to New Domain
Planning and Pre-Launch
Launch New Social Media Profile Pages to Match Rebranded Domain Name
Social media plays a critically important role in SEO by amplifying your brand message and allowing brand engagement with category influencers. The new brand image may very well require matching social media profiles if the existing accounts require a new name and logo to update the brand image change. Secure those accounts and launch those profiles (with stealth messages if rebranding is to be kept quiet). Be prepared to promote these new profiles immediately on launch of the new domain, including them in your relaunch press release. Deep link from the social profiles to a detailed product page rather than the home page. This further focuses relevance and increases authority for the product..
Can you keep your current platform?
Often a rebranding will involve bringing in a new design firm with a preferred platform or proprietary code base which then requires an overhaul of URL structures. The ideal situation is an in-house development team with the ability to keep the URL structure from the existing site and wrap a new design template around existing content, while keeping prior URL structures intact. If an in-house team isn’t an option and you want to preserve SEO of the existing domain, confirm with all developers you interview to bid the work that they can keep existing URLs. Hire only those who verify they are capable of keeping current URL’s. This simplifies 301 redirects dramatically.
Record Existing URLs and Begin to Map 301 Permanent Redirects
Use an SEO Crawler to catalog every URL on your current site – this becomes the basis for your 301 redirect map. Review analytics data for top 20 pages – those that get the most traffic from search engines – and prioritize those in your 301 Permanent Redirects. All pages should be redirected to the new domain, but your Top 20 should be jealously guarded, preserved and optimized without fail. If the site has more than 1,000 URLs, this will be likely to require pattern matching, rather than entirely 1 to 1 redirects. A caveat here – if you have not yet begun serving only secure https pages, now is the time to do that so all content is served securely. Secure pages are a Google ranking factor. Verify that only secure pages will resolve and that non-secure pages redirect to secure.
Crawl Existing Site with SEO Crawler
- Redirect 301 /page.html https://www.mydomain.com/page.html
Prepare Updates to Third-Party Tools & Notify Vendors
The majority of web sites work with an assortment of vendors to provide online reviews, marketing email platforms, tracking scripts, widgets, chat tools, social media platforms, Content Delivery Networks (CDNs), and dozens of specialized software as a service platforms which enable core web functionalities. While this is not directly SEO related – it can have negative effects on site performance, page load speed and errors which cause poor user experience and therefore, ultimately degrade SEO. So it’s critical that all third-party vendors are notified of the domain name change, and scripts are updated to reflect the rebranded site.
Extract Title Tags, Meta Descriptions from Crawl
As basic as this step sounds, many web teams are not familiar with the importance of these two background elements which are not seen by site visitors, only by search engine crawlers. I’ve been asked to reconstruct or rewrite HTML title tags following a rebranding effort after the site is relaunched on the new domain (when prior page titles were not retained). This happens when the site doesn’t have SEO guidance during the planning of a domain move and no eyes were on previously high-ranking pages and maintaining search engine visibility.
Resolve Current Search Console 404 and 500 Errors
The “Crawl Errors” report in Google Webmaster Search Console is always important to monitor and work toward reducing all domain 404 and 500 errors. A rebranding campaign will increase the importance of correcting all site errors prior to moving to the new domain. You should also record any 301 and 302 redirects active on the existing site (also in “Crawl Errors” report) – so those can be updated to point to appropriate URLs on the new domain so you don’t end up with a three-hop redirect chain on the rebranded domain.
Save XML Sitemaps & Hierarchical HTML Sitemaps
Assuming a clean move to a new domain name and retaining codebase & platform, existing sitemaps (BOTH HTML and XML) can be retained for straightforward edits of the domain name (and secure https when moving from non-secure http). If sitemaps are dynamic and automatically update when new URLs are added, be certain to verify and test prior to launch to avoid redirects.
Edit Current robots.txt to new Domain Disallows & Sitemap Pointer
This is the first file search engine bots visit on every site – to check which pages you want them to stay out of and which you want them to crawl. Disallows in the robots.txt file are usually straightforward and exclude bots from crawling pages you DON’T want indexed, however, be certain to include a pointer to the XML sitemap index on the robots.txt file – while not critical, it gets the XML sitemap included in search engines so all URLs get indexed. Without that sitemap pointer, Bing, Yahoo and secondary search engines may not index the site fully. Be sure to submit your XML sitemap(s) within Google Webmaster Search Console. If you didn’t have a hierarchical HTML sitemap on your previous site, now is the time to add one and then make certain the HTML sitemap pages are included in the XML sitemap.
Record Current Top Keyword Rankings of Top 20 Landing Pages
If you’ve had SEO support on your existing domain, simply save the SEO report of the most recent month so you have a baseline to monitor where there are drops in search engine visibility. Drops in search ranking are inevitable with a domain name rebranding. You are losing all inbound links (even though 301 redirects will transfer some page authority and preserve a portion of search engine position – you must be aware that a loss of search engine traffic referrals of between 20 to 60 percent will occur (depending on number of pages, existing domain authority, inbound deep links, etc.) So being prepared to see losses of 50% of sales through search engine referrals and understanding that SEO focus and work are required to regain that visibility for several months after the launch of a rebranded site.
List Existing Internal & External Deep Links
Record the Google “Internal Links” showing how often pages are linked on the current site for straight comparison after relaunch. An Inbound Backlinks list is a standard part of any good SEO report, so if the backlinks list hasn’t yet been created, subscribe to your preferred SEO tool (Ahrefs, Moz Pro, LinkResearchTools or at the very least, export the current Webmaster Tools “Links to your site” report) prior to launch and pull a current backlink profile and related competitive data. Once you have that list, this will serve as a reference tool for your linking campaign to regain lost backlinks and acquire new inbound deep links using baseline data.
Test 301 Redirects by Page (from Old Domain Dev Server)
If you have access to a development server to test site changes prior to go-live, set up 301 Permanent Redirects from all previous URLs based on your site crawl – pointing to appropriate match on the new site. Depending on the size of the site – click through to each on a small site or a random spot-check of a few dozen URLs for large sites. Using a browser plug-in – verify that no redirect chain exists with two hops or more. Correct multi-hop redirects to singles. Sometimes multiple hop happens because a version without ending slash / sometimes automatically redirects to the version with an end slash. Sometimes it can be non-secure http redirecting to secure https. Sometimes it can be uppercase letters redirecting to appropriate lowercase. Try to test multiple page types such as category, sub-category, detail page and verify that URLs with query string variants properly forward if not canonical URLs. These may show up in the Google “Crawl Errors” discussed above as 404 errors on the existing domain.
Launch Site on the New Domain (Require Authentication)
Do a “Soft Launch” of the new domain that requires login authentication to test that everything is working properly and allow sufficient time to test that everything on the list above has been fully implemented and verify that no errors can be found. Launch Site on the New Domain (Require Login Authentication) and verify that both robots.txt file and XML Sitemaps are in place. Once you are satisfied everything is running smoothly, remove authentication.
Configure New Domain in Google Webmaster Search Console & Analytics
These steps should be done before any press releases are distributed or any public announcements are made about the site rebrand and relaunch. The site must be live and publicly accessible to register and include in Google Webmaster Search Console. You’ll also want to be able to start immediately recording traffic in Google Analytics prior to your marketing and email campaigns.
“Change of Address” Existing Domain on Google Webmaster Search Console
The Google Webmaster Tools “Change of Address” form helps domain authority move into your new home online. Those 301 redirects that you will start soon ship your domain authority to the new site and the “Change of Address” at Google helps with logistics. Once they have been notified, this establishes trust and simplifies the transfer of authority. Turn on and test 301 redirects from the old domain. Once redirects seem to be functioning properly, your new home is official and all visitors to the old domain will be instantly transported to the new domain.
Submit XML Sitemaps of New Domain in Google Webmaster Search Console
Even though Google should be able to follow an XML Sitemap Index file, it never hurts to submit individual sitemaps if you have more than one. If you have dozens for larger sites, submit the most important and then only submit more if Google is slow to pick up some page types or sections of the site. This is a great place to prove the value of HTML sitemaps if you don’t have one. (You do right?) XML sitemaps will be slow going and it will take Google days or weeks to pick up all pages if that HTML sitemap is missing.
Submit New Domain Category Pages in “Fetch as Googlebot” in Google Webmaster Tools
Google allows you to submit pages via a tool in Webmaster Search Console which instantly sends Googlebot to your site to crawl pages and include them in the Google index. While you can request 400 fetches, indexing is limited to 10 page submissions to Google per month where Googlebot crawls that URL and all of its links. So for a fetch on category pages choose “This URL and Linked Pages” and request a fetch by Googlebot and then choose “Submit to Index” after the fetch request. This should be enough to get all category pages indexed and all subcategory pages indexed – depending how your pages are set up to display detail pages, possibly many individual detail pages will be submitted at the same time.
Update Domain Links on External Social Media Profile Pages
If your social media business profile pages did not require a makeover or new logo (profile photo) then this is simple. Change the landing page link to your site to the new domain. Be certain that you use the secure https link if you are serving the site securely and be sure that you are linking to the landing page for the product you just did the rebranding for. For example if your domain rebrand was for a software suite which has a unique landing page with more descriptive text than the home page, deep link to the detailed page rather than the home page. This further focuses relevance and increases authority for the product.
Monitor Errors on New Domain 404 & 500 Errors
While this is always important and should be an ongoing task for the analytics team or the marketing team if there is no SEO on staff or on retainer, it’s doubly important after a rebranding and now requires monitoring two domains – the old domain you moved away from, and the new rebranded domain – to watch for spikes in errors. There will inevitably be things that got overlooked in 301 Redirects which will then show up as 404 errors on the old domain if you don’t have a catch-all domain forward on unknown URLs. Allow unmapped URLs to error instead, so that you are aware of them – then correct the oversight and redirect to an appropriate page.
Ask Linking Sites to Update Inbound Links to New Domain
If your site was ranking well and had important inbound links, you’ll need to do link reclamation campaign to recover authority lost in the rebranded domain. This is a challenging and time consuming task, but can be a great opportunity to get new attention for the brand update and any improvements or new products at the same time. This can be subtle email signature links or direct requests for them to review the new look or new products – but should focus firmly on that link update request.
Build New External Links to the Most Important Pages
In addition to ongoing link reclamation to regain links lost in the rebranding, you’ll need to do outreach to get new links to your most important product pages. The advice in the social media paragraph directly above applies here as well – deep links to product detail pages, rather than to the home page, should always be the focus of any link-building.
RealitySEO has worked with both large and small sites to manage effective rebranding efforts that preserve SEO and domain authority. Contact us to help plan your move.