Business Technology

How changing your primary domain name can influence online presence

8 min read

17 July 2014

How sites are positioned in search results is very important to businesses, and we’ve had a number of queries from domain owners in the last few weeks about whether the major search engines treat a .uk domain differently from a co.uk domain.

Although having a strong domain name is an important factor in how consumers choose which websites to visit, we know that many online journeys start by searching. In fact, estimates show that 93 per cent of online experiences begin with a search engine query.

It’s not just UK websites that are facing this question, but across the world, new top level domains are launching (such as .club, .photography, .london etc.) and website owners are considering whether to move to a new domain extension that is more relevant to their business. Like many, we have entered into discussions with the major search engines (such as Google and Bing) to try and understand how they will treat these new extensions. In every case they have said that their primary goal is to help people find the most relevant sites and content to their chosen search query, regardless of domain extension. This is good news for domain owners: it means that should you choose to change domain extension, the search engine providers are keen not to penalise you.

From a .uk perspective the second piece of good news is that we are allowing a five-year window to give you time to make a decision on whether to purchase your corresponding .uk domain. We expect that some will wish to purchase their .uk domain immediately and migrate across shortly afterwards, while others will consider migrating at a later date. We’re also very certain that many will continue to operate under their existing co.uk or org.uk well beyond this period, so it’s good to know that search engines are likely to treat all these cases equally.

Should I move to a new .uk domain?

We have been asked whether moving to a shorter .uk will have any benefits from a search engine optimisation (SEO) perspective. From what we understand currently, the search engines will not make a direct preference between a co.uk or org.uk and the shorter .uk domains. The search engines use hundreds of factors in their calculations, of which the domain extension is only one. What we do know is that they will use the .uk portion of the domain as one factor in indicating whether a site is targeted at UK consumers, however we expect co.uk and .uk to be treated in exactly the same manner in this regard.

Our market research has shown that when presented with a set of search results, consumers do have a slight preference for domains that are shorter in length. These are often more memorable and easier to read. With this in mind, we believe that the shorter .uk domains may provide some benefit when presented alongside other longer domains.

I’ve decided to move domains – what should I do next?

The first thing to do is to create a plan to manage the process. The exact course of action will depend on how your website is built and hosted as well as a number of other factors. Some Content Management Systems (CMS) have simple solutions to allow you to switch to a different primary domain, making the process of moving to a new domain very easy. If you are running your site from a CMS then it’s best to consult their documentation/FAQs for how best to implement this. There are also some basic steps that everyone can take that we believe will make the process as smooth as possible:

1. Try and keep things simple

Although it might be tempting to restructure and rebrand your site during the move, this can add complexity to any migration.

2. If you have not done so already, install analytics tracking on your website (such as Google Analytics)

This will allow you to benchmark your current site and understand visitor numbers and traffic sources. This will provide you with valuable metrics on your site’s performance, and help you to compare pre and post-migration statistics.

3. Register your site with the major search engines’ Webmaster Tools sites

This will allow you to see top level stats and spot any issues that occur when the search engines crawl your site.

4. Create a redirect strategy

This can be extremely straightforward and can be a single site-wide redirect from your existing domain to the new domain (if you want the URL format to stay the same), or a more complex page-by-page strategy (you may choose this strategy if you want to change the structure of your site during the migration).

5. You’ll also need to ensure that internal linking is changed over

Your CMS may do this automatically but its best to check.

6. Transfer your hosting settings…

contacting your provider if you are not familiar with these.

7. Notify the search engines that you have switched domain through their Webmaster Tools sites

This will tell them to index your new domain and replace the site’s entries in the search results (note: this doesn’t replace redirects, these always need to be in place).

8. Update both XML and user sitemaps

This is so that they refer to your new domain, and then submit these to Webmaster Tools.

9. Monitor your search and referral traffic

Do this through your analytics and Webmaster Tools. Look to see if there are any errors or issues that need fixing.

10. Allow the search engines time to re-index

It’s tempting to tinker with your site if you see any dips in traffic. This is can be very risky and can lead to further drops. Let the search engines fully index your site and any dips in traffic should return to normal very quickly.

Common mistakes

When talking with the search engine providers they have said that there are some common basic mistakes that many people make when moving between domains. These are best avoided!

  1. Keep things as simple as possible, don’t over-complicate your move;
  2. Don’t try and run two identical sites on different domains, you are likely to get penalised for ‘duplicate content’; and
  3. Don’t prevent search engines from seeing your redirects or crawling your old domain.

Simon McCalla is CTO of Nominet.

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