Google penalties hurt.
A company that saw most of its traffic coming from the search engines could end up going out of business pretty easily.
Getting a penalty lifted can and often does take months.
While it’s a last resort method, sometimes moving on and setting up a new domain is the best option.
Here’s the problem. Many webmasters who do this end up bringing the penalty with them over to the new domain. They go through all the effort of setting up a new domain for nothing, and quickly find themselves in even deeper trouble with Google.
Switching domains isn’t inherently unethical, and it is possible to do it without bringing a penalty with you. Let’s talk about how to make that work.
But first, it’s important to ask this question.
Is Switching Domains Really Necessary?
While there are some circumstances where switching domains is the right option, those circumstances are rare. In fact, even most penalized sites shouldn’t switch domains.
There are several reasons for this:
- Penalties don’t always prevent you from improving your rankings, even if the penalty is still in effect. Partial site link penalties merely ignore inbound links that are deemed abusive. They don’t prevent you from improving your rankings. In a case like this, if your site had any real authority at all, it will still be more authoritative than a brand new site.
- Google is only one source of traffic. If you have any brand recognition with your customer base, you will need to think long and hard before you choose to switch domains. If your customers know it’s still you, Google will too. You will have to sacrifice your existing customer base in order to switch domains without bringing the penalty along.
- If your site had any real authority, it may be easier to get the penalty lifted than to build up the same amount of authority on a new site. Even if the penalty is currently preventing you from improving your rankings, you have to consider whether the next few months are best spent building the authority of a new site, or recovering your existing authority by getting the penalty lifted.
Consider these three points very carefully before you decide to set up a new domain. You should only decide to switch domains if there’s little or nothing left to recover in the first place.
Starting Over Really Means Starting Over
If you do decide that switching domains is the best option, you need to be very careful. Many of the people I’ve seen attempt this ended up making a mistake that cost them the new site. There are several temptations you’ll need to let go if you want this to work:
- You can’t link from the old site to the new site at all. As tempting as it might be to recapture that domain authority, this is going to get you burned.
- If you have existing customers you want to send to the new site, you have yourself a pretty big predicament and it might be smarter to just keep the old domain. Redirecting the traffic to the new domain is very dangerous. I’ve seen no-followed links get the job done, or pasting a non-clickable URL to the new site. Consider those risky attempts, though, and keep in mind that if the penalty does follow you to the new site, removing the link or URL isn’t necessarily going to remove the penalty.
- Doing anything other than choosing a completely new brand name with a new logo is risky. If you try to retain the same brand but on a new domain, Google may track you down and penalize your new site. If nothing else, you also have to consider the possibility that at least one of your existing customers will report you.
- You can’t transfer your old content to the new domain. Not images, not text, none of it. Google isn’t stupid. If they see a duplicate of your site somewhere else on the web, they won’t rank it. At best, it’s a scraped copy of a penalized site. That’s not the kind of thing they want showing up in search results.
- You’ll need a new hosting account at bare minimum. You may also want to switch hosting providers. It’s also a good idea to get the domain from a different registrar.
- On top of that, you will probably want to use private WHOIS data, and you will generally need to pay more for that. While it’s true that private WHOIS data can be a potential flag that could cause your site to be scrutinized more closely, it’s not as bad a flag as being clearly labeled as the owner of a currently penalized site. There are enough legitimate sites with private WHOIS data that, as long as your new site is above board, it shouldn’t be a problem.
- You will need a new site design or template. Reusing the same design is a red flag, especially if it was a custom design.
- You will need a new Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools account, as well as a new AdWords account (if you are using AdWords).
While a lot of this may seem excessive, I have seen new sites get penalized because they failed to take all of these actions. All of this really is necessary if you want to assure success, and it should drive home just how much of a last resort this really is.
Assuming you don’t want to get penalized again, you will need to change your approach to link building and SEO in general. We have spoken in depth about how to change strategies post-penalty in the past, but this is a good place to summarize:
- You don’t need a massive number of links. Competitive analysis tools can easily convince you that you need thousands of links in order to beat the competition, but clients who approach us after being penalized generally see their traffic levels return to normal after building less than 100 links. Focus on building the kinds of links you would build for referral traffic, even if the search engines ignored your efforts.
- On-site optimization is underrated. While everybody understands the value of link building, more sites will benefit more by increasing their posting schedule and targeting a much wider variety of search queries than by upping their link-building efforts. While both are important, the value of on-site SEO is generally overrated.
- Build a linkable asset. Experience has taught us that most SEOs place too much emphasis on outreach and guest posting, and not enough on putting something truly exceptional on the site itself. While the industry has certainly embraced “great content,” I’m talking about assets that go much deeper than blog posts, things like comprehensive guides, meaningful data and original research, alternative media such as podcasts and YouTube videos, and interactive tools and platforms. These are the kinds of things you can reach out to people about without leaving the impression that you are trying to spam them.
- Use Robert Cialdini’s 6 principles of persuasion during outreach. Those are reciprocity, authority, social proof, scarcity, rapport, and commitments. In addition, keep your emails short, avoid placing a link in your first email, don’t get too formal, and try to explain what’s in it for them as early on as possible.
- Rethink the goal of outreach. Virtually any time you collaborate in any way with an influential person or organization, it is an opportunity to earn links in one way or another. Move beyond simply asking for links or guest posts. There are many other kinds of collaborative projects that can be mutually beneficial.
- Real content marketing is more than SEO in sheep’s clothing. Genuine content marketing is helpful for SEO purposes, but it also aims to build up an email list, gradually transform audiences into customers, and retain existing customers. It’s not actually content marketing unless it would be profitable without the SEO benefit.
- Use social media for what it’s for. Social media works best as a platform for referral traffic, not audience retention. (Use email for retention.) It’s also not the place for in-depth content. It’s a place for bite-size entertainment. While it should stay consistent with your brand, use it to expand reach and treat it as the online cocktail party it’s supposed to be.
Switching domains is a last resort, but sometimes it’s the best option available. Should you choose to do it, it’s important to take the actions you need to in order to avoid transferring the penalty, and changing your approach to SEO and digital marketing in general is also an absolute must.