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Moving domains without using 301 redirects – only works temporarily?

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I discovered a bit of an anomaly with Google today. Like many people I do ego searches now and again to see how my websites and social media profiles rank on Google. For the past year and a half, my website www.barryadams.co.uk has been the primary search results for the ‘barry adams’ search query on google.co.uk.

Before I launched barryadams.co.uk I had the same website on a different domain: www.greatwebsitesblog.com. When I bought the barryadams.co.uk domain name, I thought I’d try a wee experiment to see if I could change domains without having to 301-redirect every URL.

So I simply pointed it to the same hosting environment where I had my www.greatwebsitesblog.com site, changed settings in WordPress to make www.barryadams.co.uk the site’s primary address (including rel=canonical tags on all pages), and submitted a Change of Address notice in Google Webmaster Tools:

gwmt-changeofaddress

And almost immediately it worked. Over the next few weeks all my old listings in Google search results pointing to www.greatwebsitesblog.com were replaced with the same listings pointing to www.barryadams.co.uk. On top of that it accomplished my primary goal: the www.barryadams.co.uk site started to rank for search queries on my own name.

And that way it stayed for a year and a half. Until this morning, when I did another ego search and found this as the number one result instead:

barryadams-wrong-domain

This despite the fact the site has had a rel=canonical tag pointing to www.barryadams.co.uk since August 2011, despite the fact that I submitted a Change of Address notice then too, and despite the fact that all my social profiles list the new domain as my personal website.

It seems Google has rewound time and decided that the old domain name should really be shown instead of the new one.

I then checked how my site showed up in Google’s SERPs for a number of keywords that have been sending me solid traffic the last wee while:

google-corporate-culture

seo-multilingual-sites

w3c-compliance

Nothing wrong there, all results are shown with my new domain name. So it’s only my own ego-search that results in the old domain name.

Now I thought I took good care in changing all my social profile and links to point to the new barryadams.co.uk domain name when I made the switch, but due to some historic guest blogs and defunct website profiles I still have a few mentions point to the old greatwebsitesblog.com domain. Yet overall, barryadams.co.uk has been a much more actively promoted domain, and as a result has established a stronger backlink profile:

majesticseo_backlinks_external_backlinks_normalized

majesticseo_backlinks_history_backlinks

majesticseo_backlinks_refdomains

Even the number of ‘barry adams’ anchor texts are now in favour of the new domain:

barryadams-anchor-links

So I’m not really sure why Google has decided to revert back to my old domain on ‘branded’ searches for my name, yet kept the new domain on generic searches for content. All I can think of is that there must be some old profile link somewhere that outweighs all the new ones, and thus manages to skew Google’s SERPs for my name to the old domain.

Maybe this old profile on Search Engine People is the culprit:

searchenginepeople-profile

What I learned: I thought I’d discovered a straightforward way to move a site across domains without having to use 301-redirects, by simply pointing the new domain name to the existing site and implementing rel=canonical tags and a Change of Address notice in Google Webmaster Tools.

However, it looks like Google takes those hints only temporarily in to account, and after a while the slate is wiped clean and a domain name will rank on its own merits for specific search queries. So it’s best to just stick with 301-redirects, as these seem to be of a more permanent nature.

Update: Fili Wiese pointed out that the Google Support page on the Change of Address feature clearly states that ‘changes will stay in effect for 180 days’. So yes, it’s definitely a temporary effect.

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Claude "CodeAngry" Adrian May 22, 2013, 17:32

    IMHO, it works as expected. You move with 301s. Rel=canonicals are for when you can’t do a 301 or want to do shady tricks of diverting link juice without linkers noticing :)

  • Spook SEO February 14, 2014, 9:08

    Barry, thanks for sharing such an interesting article with us. Yes you are right this effect is temporarily because google not required a time span to perform this action, so I advise all other SEOs perform the full procedure of redirects 301 for avoiding any kind of annoying stuff.

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