August 27, 2013
Over years of operation, websites pick up a lot of baggage in the links department. Google’s Penguin algorithm seems to take no account of links accumulated on your website prior to this becoming an offence against their terms of service. If you innocently built links in the sure and certain knowledge that it was OK to do so, way back when, you might now be eyeballing a disastrous drop in traffic in recent months…
If you read the book that said build deep links, with keywords in anchor text then you are surely in Google’s gun sights.
Some site owners solve their issues and are a duly restored to the ranks of the faithful. Others struggle to make sustained ranking gains, with SERPs profiles like a rollercoaster diagram after being hit by multiple algorithms and subsequent version releases.
There comes a point where the cost of fixing the problems greatly exceeds the cost of migration to a new domain. If your site has thousands of incoming links, and a close examination indicates the majority are potentially harmful, then you are at the point where the evaluation of domain migration should be made.
Efforts to clean up your link portfolio by trying to get low-quality links removed may not have sufficient impact. This scenario was expected when Google set out to tackle link manipulation by application of penalties.
Google’s Max Cutts has said publicly: “ If you’ve cleaned and still don’t recover, ultimately, you might need to start all over with a fresh site.”
In some cases it may be the only recourse that a site has, should the sheer volume of bad incoming links exceeds a certain threshold.
In my experience on a recipes site with approximately 8,000 links generated by a previous owner, many were blogroll-type links from low-quality Blogger, Blogspot and WordPress.com cooking sites. Of those sites, less than half had any contact details whatsoever. Of those that did, many were fakes; firstname.lastname@example.org being an excellent example of an anonymous site’s owners attitude to efforts to contact him/her.
Out of 10-plus e-mails sent to possibly valid addresses, a mere eight responses were received over a two-week period. One site owner wanted $5 per link to remove 23 links. Four indicated that they had removed all links. One stated that the site was only a month old and had no outward links — the probability being that the domain expired and was acquired by a new owner. Link removal campaigns can easily drag on for many months, regardless of how hard you work at it, or if you use Disavow to assist.
Traffic had already declined from 240,000 per month in January 2012 to 70,000 in May 2013. A “Starting Over” domain migration made a lot more sense under such circumstances… That was completed by late June, with an immediate response in traffic growth.
- The July traffic was 93,000.
- As of Aug. 9, the trend continues, with a predicted 135,000 visitors for the month.
A similar pattern of results has occurred on several other sites I’ve worked on.
How Difficult is Starting Over?
Actually, its not as difficult as it might at first appear… and its certainly a lot less onerous than attempting to fix 11,000 bad links.
The presumption is that this is not a “churn and burn” site — its a well-designed site with a serious investment in good content that has fallen into disrepute via inappropriate link building practices.
Pros of Switching Domains
If the original domain has great content, and the majority of bad links are directed at the domain name rather than internal pages, it should be possible to transfer significant value across to the new site. That’s done by transferring content to the new domain, and using the power of 301 redirects to transfer an individual page’s rankings and intrinsic value over to its counterpart on the new domain.
Change of Address Support — both Google and Bing Webmaster Tools provide ‘change of address’ procedures.
Loss of Links Issues — every poor link you leave behind improves your prospects in terms of rankings. Bear in mind that you may be getting penalized from multiple quarters:
- Low quality of links — bad neighborhoods, wrong genre etc.
- Deep links from low-quality sites.
- Over-optimization of anchor link text, exact-match keywords in link titles.
- Link acquisition speed of past quick link building efforts — too many, too fast.
Any combination of the above leaves a site completely crippled and on life-support. Leaving the mess behind you en masse may be more cost-effective than trying to rehabilitate it.
Many Good Links are Salvageable — in my experience, most good sites that already link to you are receptive to a polite request to edit your domain name and/or anchor text in the link to your old site. Right now, in Google’s Penguin equation, one good link is literally worth more than 11,000 bad ones.
301 Redirects will preserve all user bookmarks and deep links from other sites but DO transfer the stigma from suspect links. So, while you can preserve all of the residual page value in the existing site by adding a 301 redirect for every page, post and category etc, some caution is required.
- Identify internal pages with low-quality incoming links, especially those with keyword in anchor text.
- Either get the links removed or don’t add a 301 redirect for them. Instead, delete the content and leave a brief note with a standard hyperlink explaining where the content has moved to.
Speed — rankings start accumulating within a week on the destination domain, and expand rapidly.
Cost — given that ALL of the current site is transferred to a new location, it may take a day or so to:
- Move it to a new domain.
- Configure the 301 redirects.
- Add the appropriate settings in Google and Bing webmaster tools.
Time needs to be allocated to requesting owners of the good links to edit the links to you from old to new domain — but speed is not crucial to a positive outcome.
Conversely, there’s literally weeks of work trying to sort out the bad links problem before any improvement to rankings and traffic will be discernable.
Cons in Domain Migration — Pretty minor, all things considered.
Potential Client Confusion — There may be the odd client who gets slightly confused if you change the domain name. However, because you need to keep the home page in place for at least six months, and all required internal pages will be redirected automatically when links are clicked or followed, it should be a minor issue. Use a domain name that is almost identical and your visitors will barely notice. For example, www.mywebsite.com becomes or www.mywebsite.co or some such similar approach. If the design and layout remains similar, it should prove to be a seamless transition.
The Mechanics of Domain Change
The new domain must be selected, and this could be an opportunity to select a better fit to your brand. Businesses evolve over time, so the domain name that suited the start-up business might now bear little relevance to what you now do. Alternatively, that aspect may be fine and you will just want to use a visually similar domain name to minimize confusion.
Consider Future-Proofing the New Site
As you are creating the new site from the old content, this could be a good opportunity to fix the known shortcomings of the old website. Examine items such as:
- Navigation structure
- Search-friendly URLs
- Menu organization
- Blog integration
- Page load times
- Mobile responsive design
- Call to action and unique selling proposition
These will help ensure you make the most of the opportunities and get the best value from your relocation investment. The content must be transferred across — and if it’s static HTML, then getting it into a modern content management system makes the most sense.
Understanding Your Old Site’s Link Profile
Most links tend to be to the domain name rather than the internal pages — both good and bad. Orchestrated link-building campaigns tend to include a range of primary internal pages, so reviewing previous worksheets detailing what links were built will give you a head start on determining which pages might be a problem.
To make informed decisions on how to handle content transfer and redirection, you need access to reliable data. A thorough understanding of WHO links to WHICH pages with WHAT anchor text is required. Armed with that information, you can then prioritize which pages need special care to prevent contamination of the new domain.
Google and Bing Link Data Accuracy
Both webmaster tools provide you with incoming link information, albeit with slightly different perspective / emphasis. Combining both sets increases the overall count.
Data accuracy from both these sources is sub-optimal and makes the entire process twice as hard as it should be.
Both Google and Bing appear to cling desperately onto historical links data that may literally be years old. Some of these links you may very well know are dead and gone due to your own efforts. Percentages vary, but sometimes more than 40 percent of the links are no longer functional. This really clutters up the data because there can be a large amount of false positive links to sift through.
That also raises the question: “Is the data Google makes available to webmasters the SAME data that Penguin uses to slam sites for inappropriate links?”
If so, using substandard data to apply severe penalties would be an inexcusable state of affairs.
If the data differs, that’s equally inexcusable as it makes webmaster compliance with guidelines and terms of service unnecessarily difficult. The problem with Penguin is that it does not necessarily punish the guilty. The innocent also become collateral damage.
- Many site-owners contracted out work to supposed professionals who took unapproved short cuts…
- A site changes hands, and the new owner bears the burden of repairing the previous owners damages…
- Mr. Know-it-all next door gives the mom ’n pop site owner some seriously bad advice, and they take it.
- A good directory (e.g. DMOZ) gets cloned and spawns dozens of copies.
Third Party Tools
I use LinkAssistant to help combine and sort out the messy data — importing CSV link data files into LinkAssistant is a simple task. Then I set the software to query each linking site via the “Update Backlink Data” option for:
- Link Status — live, not found, nofollow, noindex, page not found, site not found
- Backlink page, anchor text, anchor URL
That gives the best possible information to tackle the problem of page link contamination head-on. I do that via a series of steps after the backlink data is updated. The goal is to prioritise thin out the backlinks that are not part of the problem:
- Copy all the data to a spreadsheet.
- Sort by link status.
- Remove all rows with; nofollow and page not found (link / site not found may only be a temporary status).
- Sort by backlink page.
- Remove all rows with original domain name as the backlink page (because we are leaving that behind).
- Sort by domain name.
- Remove all rows where backlink is from known good domains; dmoz.org, facebook, plus.google etc.
- Go through and highlight the potentially damaging low-quality domains.
- Sort by anchor text.
- Remove all rows with domain name / website / click here anchor text — unless they are from a known bad site.
- Highlight in red the potentially damaging “over-optimized” anchor texts.
- Sort by Anchor URL.
Now you can examine the residue closely — it will show you who links to which pages with what anchor text. You can now decide which pages you might be best NOT 301 redirecting to the new version of the site on the new domain.
The Disavow Tool
If you’ve attempted link removal and disavow options on the original site, this may translate into some value to the new site. It reduces potential damage from adding a 301 redirect on a tainted page to the respective page on the new domain.
It may also make sense to submit the same disavow request for the new site, in an effort to prevent any 301 redirects inadvertently transferring bad karma from the old site to the new site. The political correctness of doing this remains a mystery… comments on other’s experiences are welcomed.
The effectiveness of the disavow tools at both Google and Bing seems very questionable indeed. Many people have yet to see any demonstrable impact of its use — positive or negative. The conspiracy theorists that who hold that its just Google’s way to get webmasters to help identify low-quality websites may indeed have a point.
The problem is that of time. If your site has gone off the rails into the ranking chasm, and traffic has been slashed by 60 percent or more, you could literally go out of business before the disavow tool works for you.
Seriously, its more than likely going to take MONTHS before demonstrable improvements to rankings accrue via the disavow tool, or link removal for that matter.
Switching to a new domain is probably the single fastest way out of a serious predicament.
Change of Address at Google and Bing
Fiddling with Bing’s address change option is problematic because it makes the fundamental assumption that you’ve 301’d the entire site at domain level. However, Bing does respond properly to the individual 301 redirects on pages on the original site.
Google sensibly assumes that you will apply 301 redirects to each individual page across the website being moved. Google also expects and recommends that the domain and its redirects are left in place for a minimum of 180 days (six months). That gives sufficient time to transfer all residual value to the new site.
Commonsense suggests that you might want to keep that old domain under your management for a long time to come, to prevent an unscrupulous competitor gaining control of it.
Some experience of Excel spreadsheets helps with getting these sorted out. The point being that this allows you to transfer the full value of every good page from the old site across to its equivalent page on the new site. Basically, you need a URL list and there are several sites that allow you to produce such a list free, for up to 500 URLs.
Alternatively, there are free downloadable programs that will perform a similar task — I use a Windows app called Sitemap Generator.
The Carrot or the Stick?
Google’s focus from the outset of Penguin seems to have been more on punishment for breaching guidelines and terms of service than on encouraging compliance. There’s a presumption of guilt and application of punishment — meted out in dictatorial circumstances;
- By an entity that is investigator, prosecutor, jury, judge and executioner.
- And who changes the rules as it pleases, with any redress or oversight.
Why, that would be considered unjust pretty much anywhere except North Korea. Too much stick and not enough carrot, in my view…
Give Us a Carrot…
Frankly, Google does NOT provide enough quality information (let alone assistance) for a ‘mere mortal’ webmaster to confidently get their website back on the right track after link penalties. Even seasoned professionals struggle with restoration of a site’s status after a Penguin penalty. It is little short of a nightmare situation, and what would help enormously is:
- Accurate incoming link data with NO dead links included.
- Indications of which are nofollow and therefore harmless.
- Outline of which links are harmful and why.
- A Disavow Tool that actually WORKS in a timely fashion.
- Ignoring links that pre-date the change to Google’s Terms of Service.
Consider mom ’n pop, struggling to get a new venture off the ground, and studying prevailing literature. The preponderance of readily available advice is now in direct contravention with many aspects of Google’s new rules. Everyone wants to compete — across all levels — its part of the human condition to strive to do things better, smarter and faster than your competitors…
Every pre-2012 book ever written in the history of the Internet emphasizes the importance of links to attain decent rankings.
- Go down to any local library to do some research on how to improve your rankings and the book you borrow will place you in jeopardy.
- Do a bit of online research and most of the guidance you find will be wrong.
- Ask a local “expert” and they will be blissfully unaware that the SEO world suffered a paradigm shift in the past year.
- Ask your web designer / developer and he or she will have minimal comprehension of the extent and severity of penalties for doing it wrong.
Google arbitrarily changed all the “old” rules… Overnight, the efforts you made to remain visible above the ever-growing crowd of websites five or more years ago now destroys your online business… And good luck with sorting it out, because Google thinks you are guilty of breaching its (new) terms of service and guidelines. Collateral damage is no concern of theirs, it seems.
A company the size of Google really ought to have some compassion, and an ethos to helps nurture the websites that make up the bulk of its SERPs content. Sure, identify errors of judgments but provide:
• Comprehensible warnings.
• Accurate data.
• Tools that work to resolve issues.
It would be nice if that was done BEFORE a site owners had to face abandoning a much-loved domain to extricate his business from a mess that may not have been of his own making… Or, heaven forbid, go out of business as a direct consequence of draconian penalties.
The most important stage of the site migration process is gaining a thorough understanding of the potential problems lurking within internal pages. Leaving all the low-grade domain-level incoming links behind is a given as you switch to a new domain. However, you must exercise great care not to transfer any bad karma from internal pages loaded with bad links.
There’s no indication of Google providing us with a bunch of carrots anytime soon, and many more people will realize that they are between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
Migrating a site to a new domain is not rocket science – it just requires careful attention to detail. Do so, and in my experience, the results are invariably positive.
Ben Kemp, a search engine optimization consultant since 1997, is a specialist in website redesign, and a veteran of 25+ years of experience in the IT industry.