Domain change: how to set up your new web address

To access a website, internet users must enter a unique domain. These internet addresses also influence users’ perception of an online presence – for example, the domain might indicate a central theme or emphasize the name of the company or brand.

If you are dissatisfied with your website address, you can of course change your domain name at any time. To do this, you just need to register a new domain and link it to your website. If the chosen domain is to benefit from your old domain’s high search engine ranking, you also need to consider search engine optimization (SEO) techniques when redirecting the domain.

The difference between a domain change and a domain transfer

A domain change refers to replacing a website’s internet address, which primarily just affects the domain name. A domain change thus differs substantially from a domain transfer.

When a domain transfer occurs, users change the internet provider, which means the entire website (including the address) is transferred to a new server. Here, changing or registering a new domain is simply an additional option (usually, one can apply directly to the new provider for a new domain). However, domain changes are simply about altering the website address, meaning the provider generally remains the same as before. Here is a short summary of the differences:

  • Domain transfer: the internet provider is changed – a domain transfer is therefore frequently regarded as a change in providers. The web presence and the domain consequently move to a new web server. Find out how this works in more detail here.
  • Domain change: this is where the web address (domain) changes. With a domain change, an existing website is linked to a new domain.

Should you change your domain name?

The reasons for getting a new web address are often quite trivial; for example, it can be that the website operator simply doesn’t like their current web address (anymore), or perhaps the website has changed direction and the name is no longer relevant. In cases like these, the domain name simply doesn’t fit with the website’s content.

However, domain changes can also be caused by a new brand or firm name, which should be reflected in its web address, or from purchasing a more SEO-friendly domain, which promises to draw in a higher number of visitors to the site. In addition, many of the new top-level domains are able to provide web addresses with a more geographical, thematic, or industry-specific domain. Website operators using an old top-level domain who wish to take advantage of this opportunity also need to register a domain change.

If you find you’ve planned or created content that is inconsistent with the website’s themes, a domain change can provide the perfect answer, but it’s not always the best solution. Sometimes, just adjusting parts of the website is sufficient. This depends on how much the new content deviates from the old. You should therefore always check to see whether a domain change is actually necessary before starting the process. If the new content is fundamentally consistent with the website’s identity and domain name, expanding the web presence with subdomains or subfolders is often a solid alternative. However, if you’re proposing an entirely new concept for your website’s content and the current domain name is no longer appropriate, it makes sense to change your web address.

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How does a domain change work?

Unfortunately, you can’t simply change your domain with the internet provider or registrar that provided your web address. When a web address from ICANN – the highest authority in the domain assignment industry – is supplied to the database of a domain name system, it can’t be changed at the drop of a hat. A domain can only be transferred to a different owner or deleted. You must therefore always secure a new domain and connect it with your web presence.

Domain registration

Before the actual domain change, you need to possess the rights to the web address that you’d like to use for your website. Once you’ve found and registered an appropriate domain name, you just have to link the new address to the web presence. Extensive changes to your hosting package and the website content are not necessary as the website’s content and framework remain fundamentally the same. However, some adjustments to the web server settings must be carried out in order to transfer the web presence to the new domain.

Configuration of the web server

With some content management systems (such as WordPress and TYPO3, you can change settings in the backend in order to link the website’s content with the new domain. For some CMSs, there are also special plugins that facilitate the easy transition from one web address to another. Learn more about the options and plugins for changing a WordPress domain name here.

But even if a CMS or plugin removes some of the steps in the domain change process, you still need to carry out some internal adjustment processes manually. The details of each process vary wildly depending on the software used. However, there are some fundamental procedures that you should be aware of:

  • The configuration of the web server must be adjusted for the new domain.
  • If you wish to carry out an encrypted transfer of your content, you also need a new SSL-certificate. You can request one of these from your provider and install the public key on your web server.
  • If necessary, you can adapt your established rewrite rules; if you rename and redirect individual web pages with forwarding rules, you have to make relevant changes to the .htaccess file.

Transferring search engine rankings to the new domain

If you just carry out the domain change via the web server configuration described above, you will encounter the following problem: while it may well be accessible under the new address, search engines will treat the online presence as a completely new website, and thus award it a correspondingly low ranking in the search engine results pages.

But changing your domain name doesn’t necessarily mean losing everything you built with your previous web address. As long as your website isn’t negatively rated or penalized by search engines, and it’s able to achieve a good spot on the results pages, you should address SEO aspects when moving web addresses. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing the ranking you’ve achieved along with your old domain.

Here’s what you need to do to retain your Google ranking:

  1. To start, access Google Search Console (formerly known as Google Webmaster Tools). Here, you will be prompted to verify your new domain and share your new website address. It’s important that you use the same account that you created for registering your old domain.

  2. If you still have the rights to the old domain, you should set up a 301 redirect to the new web address. This means visitors who try to access your website via the old domain are automatically redirected to the new address. Doing this will also prevent any pages that visitors have bookmarked from leading to empty pages. Discover how to set up a domain redirect in this article. Of course, you can also save the fee by applying to have your old domain deleted by your provider or registrar. However, it’s advised that you wait at least until the new address has been established; a minimum period of about six months is recommended for this.

  3. Now open Google Search Console again and specify the website’s XML sitemap, so that the Google web crawler can analyze your online presence. You should then request a re-crawl of the website so that the Google Index picks up the new domain as fast as possible.

  4. Finally, it’s important to keep track of your domain’s and website’s ranking over several weeks – Google advises users who have especially large websites to extend this period to about six months. Analysis tools such as the Google Search Console can assist with the monitoring process.

Aside from this, the domain name is rather insignificant from an SEO perspective; it has very little impact on the website’s search engine ranking. Therefore, it should be among your top priorities to make sure that your web address is as concise as possible and suits the target audience. Ideally, the domain should be easy to remember and represent the website’s content as closely as possible.

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Other points to keep in mind

Changing your domain name also has an impact on the following areas:

  • If you want a new domain name and you use a specially designed program such as a web analysis tool or a CMS extension, you should bear in mind that these also should be set up in relation to the new internet address. The same goes for users whose website uses an adserver. 
  • Internal links should be fully integrated into the domain structure (and not just forwarded via redirect.)
  • Give the operator a list of all the websites that host backlinks to your web presence and inform them of the new URL of the linked posts.
  • Remember to change your e-mail addresses so that they correspond with your new domain. Update all information and any mention of your e-mail contact and internet address (i.e. in your e-mail signature, on social media platforms, and on business cards).

If you decide to go ahead with changing your domain name, you first need to concentrate on adjusting your website’s server – otherwise your web presence won’t be accessible via the new address at all. In many cases, your search machine ranking will also be transferred to your new address during a domain name change; if your old domain’s search engine optimization techniques were profitable and rated positively by Google, your good placement can be transferred to the new domain in the long term.

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