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Jan 17, 2011 | 2 minute read

SEO Tip: Recovering Backlinks When Changing Domains

written by Linda Bustos

Changing your domain name has serious search engine side effects. Namely, the sacrifice in search rankings and traffic that follow a move, as search engines drop your old pages from their indices and crawl and index your new site pages. This process can take several months, therefore you must have a very good reason to change your domain.

Seattle ski and snowboard shop evogear faced an “identity crisis.” Its online customer base knew it as evogear, while the Seatown locals’ pet name evo had better swagger. So the company decided to drop the “gear” – knowing full well the consequences.

Domain change best practices

SEO-savvy evo followed all the domain change best practices, including submitting site maps through webmaster tools and setting up 301 (permanent) redirects from every single URL to its counterpart. (SEOmoz has a nice summary best practices in its SEO Guide: How to Properly Move Domains).

evo also did something not mentioned in the SEOmoz guide. evo reached out to a number of webmasters that had linked to (including Get Elastic), informed them of the domain change and kindly requested an update to the link(s) to point to Time consuming as it may be, this tactic helped search engines sort out the link graph faster, and opened the door for new linking opportunities (this post is an example).

Another reason to seek out direct links, even with 301 redirects, is a bit of “link juice” is lost through the redirect. All inbound links contribute to your Page Rank (some more than others), but a bit less juice multiplied over hundreds or thousands of links can be significant.

The road to recovery

evo flipped the switch on page-to-page 301 redirects on August 17, 2010. Through daily tracking using the site:search operator in Google, evo believes the re-indexation process took roughly 5 weeks. Rankings did sink about a week after implementing the redirects, which impacted organic visits. For about 3 months, organic traffic had decreased 30% from the previous year.

August was the right time to make a move, because ranking and search engine traffic made a recovery mid-November – just in time for Black Friday, and evo is back to beating last year’s numbers. Swales credits the link building effort for shortening the “time to heal.”

How do you find backlinks to your site?

There are numerous backlink checkers available. evo used Google Webmaster Tools and SEOMoz's Open Site Explorer. Swales especially likes the SEOMoz tool because it assigns a 'page authority' which allowed evo to prioritize which link partners to contact first.

The takeaway

Changing domains has a major impact on SEO, and you should make the decision very carefully. If you can suffer short term for long term benefit, expect the entire process to take a minimum of 6 months, even up to a year. A bit of extra manpower (or womanpower) to retain direct backlinks can shorten this time, and help retain as much link credit as possible.