When it comes to search engine optimization, your website’s domain and URL structure make a big difference. And URL structure is just one part of creating an SEO-friendly website structure. In fact, changing either your domain or URLs can hurt your site’s SEO–unless you implement changes correctly.

In this blog post, we’ll go over why changing URLs and domains is risky for your site’s SEO — and how you can limit the risk if you have to make a change. Read on to learn more!

Why Changing Domains Hurts SEO

When you read from SEO industry experts that changing domains hurts SEO, they mean that doing so may significantly slow down or halt your site’s growth in organic search traffic. The main reason for this is that Google and other search engines don’t want to provide false information on search engine results pages (SERPs).

Search engine crawlers periodically re-crawl sites and if they see a new website with content that was previously associated with a different domain, they won’t necessarily realize what happened. Instead, search engines are more likely to downrank your older content because it’s probably seen as duplicate content. 

If you’re wondering why your website isn’t showing up on Google all of a sudden, this may be the reason. Search engine algorithms typically prioritize recent content over dated content, meaning if you don’t communicate what happened to Googlebot, the old content you worked hard to create is overlooked. 

When your website’s domain has changed, search engines often conclude that the content on your site has changed as well (and in many cases, it has). 

But what if you’re just moving your website’s content to a new URL? In that case, you’ll want to set up redirects so that people who visit the old URL are automatically sent to the new one.

Why Changing Your URL Structure Hurts SEO

Changing your URL structure damages your upward momentum in the search results. Specifically, changing URLs is bad for SEO because any internal links (or backlinks) affected by that change become broken. Internal links from one page of your website to another help to signal to Google which pages are important on your website, and backlinks help to signal that your website is trustworthy and authoritative.

The moment an URL changes, without a redirect in place, you’ve just created a 404 page (also known as a “page not found” error page). A 404 is a webpage that exists on a domain but is broken or completely empty. Google downranks websites with 404s because they are bad user experiences and demonstrate that a website is less trustworthy and authoritative than others.

With no redirect created from the old URL to the new one, Google will simply drop your ranking. It’s necessary to get 301 redirects in place as quickly as possible, and ideally immediately after changing URLs. Otherwise, your hard-earned rankings will disappear and may take significant time to recover.

When Should You Change a URL?

A good reason to change a URL is to update your URL structure to have a more logical hierarchy. For example, if you’re introducing new products and services and your current URL structure doesn’t make sense with your new offerings, it can be worthwhile to revise your URL structure.

If you’re considering changing a URL, ask yourself these questions first:

  • Why does this webpage need a new URL?
  • Will the URL change improve my SEO, rather than hurt it?
  • How will my site visitors and customers be affected by the URL change?
  • Will the URL change cause me to lose any backlinks?
  • Will this URL change make it easier for site visitors to understand and navigate my website?
  • Do I have a reliable, fast means of implementing a 301 once the URL is changed?

If your answers to these questions will make your website structure cleaner, SEO rankings stronger, and traffic more consistent, proceed with the change. The next step is to edit internal links to the correct location and also implement a 301 redirect.  

Why Edit Links and Also Use 301 Redirects?

When changing URLs on your website, we recommend changing your internal linking to point to the proper location of new pages, and also putting 301 redirects in place. 

Why do we recommend both? Links to a page lose a small amount of value if they pass through a 301 redirect. We also find it to be a cleaner user experience to have internal links point to the correct destination versus routing everything through redirects. 

At the same time, even if you do update your internal links to point to the correct URLs, it’s still important to put 301 redirects in place. That’s because other websites may be linking to your old URLs, and without redirects in place, those backlinks will turn into broken links. 

How to Use 301 Redirects When Changing URLs

301 redirects (also known as permanent redirects) are the simplest way to handle a URL/domain change. Here’s how to change a URL:

  • First, determine the new URL of the page or domain you’re redirecting. It helps to track all of your old and new URLs in a Google Sheet or Excel document.

  • Second, create a redirect to the new URL using your hosting provider’s redirects feature, a 301 redirect plugin (depending on your content management system), or document 301 redirects to add to your .htaccess file. If you aren’t sure how to proceed, contact your hosting service’s customer success staff or consult your web developer. 

That’s it! After you’ve published or saved the change, double-check in a new browser window that the redirect works. Do this by entering the old URL and seeing if it takes you to the new URL. If it does, your redirect is successful. 

Use Page-Level 301 Redirects When Changing Domains

The simplest solution to put a redirect in place when changing domains is to have domain-level forwarding in place. However, we don’t recommend this approach. Instead, we recommend putting page-level 301 redirects in place from old URLs on the old domain to new URLs on the new domain when changing domains. 

In practice, this means you’ll need to keep hosting live on the old domain for a period of time (at least 6 months, preferably 12 months) in order to have those redirects in place pointing from the old domains’ pages to the new domain’s pages. That way, you can ensure that the old pages on the old domain will route properly to the most relevant page on the new domain and you’ll minimize any SEO disruptions. 

Check Internal Links and Backlinks After URL Changes

After redirecting any URL or domain, remember to go back to all of the other pages on your website that contained the old link or domain and update them. Without telling your site where the new URL is, you’ll run into the 404s mentioned previously. 

Here’s how to check and update links:

  • Use a broken link checker to find and fix broken internal links. Google’s broken link finder in Google Search Console is a great solution for this. We also recommend Screaming Frog

  • For backlinks, use your SEO tool of choice to see how your backlinks have changed since the URL update(s). The primary tool we recommend for checking backlinks is Ahrefs, but SEMrush and Majestic are other good options. Your tool should display broken and lost backlinks. After making a list of the backlinks you want to keep, reach out to the site owner and ask them if they can reinstate the backlink with the new URL. As we mentioned above, having links route through redirects can reduce some of the value of the link, so it’s best to actually update where possible, but also use redirects to be safe. 

The Bottom Line

The URL and domain accuracy of your website affects SEO more than most small business owners realize. When you have to change your URLs or domain, you’ll want to get ready for the ripple effect and minimize any potential fallout. 

Here’s a recap of how to approach domain and URL changes, if and ever when you need to do so:

  • Changing domains improperly hurts SEO and should be done with plenty of caution. Make sure your entire website will be redirected to the new domain on a page-by-page basis if possible. 

  • Changing URLs improperly hurts SEO, too. List out all of the URLs you’re considering changing before you make any changes, and make sure you have a means to update internal links and also redirect the old URLs to new ones.

  • You should only change URLs if they will positively impact your site. Changing a URL to include an SEO keyword or improve the logical structure of your URL hierarchy are good reasons to modify URLs. 

  • Implement 301 redirects right away. Without your website or search engines knowing where the new URL is, your site will get downranked and users will be confused. You will also have 404s on your website which is bad for both SEO and user experience. 

  • Check the status of internal links and backlinks after changing URLs. Chances are you’ve lost at least a few backlinks that you may want to recover. You also need to check and update internal links so your website directs readers to the new URL. 

Need Help Improving Your Website’s SEO? 

At Main Street ROI, we offer one-time SEO projects to audit and tune up your website, as well as monthly SEO management services including ongoing auditing, technical fixes, content development, link building, consulting, and reporting. Click here to request a quote for SEO services.