For many years, Seth Newman had one big regret. In 1997, Newman, president of Action Envelope, a $12 million envelope retailer based in Lindenhurst, New York, passed up a chance to buy the domain name Envelopes.com for $10,000. At the time, the price was more than the small company wanted to spend—and Newman was happy with his website, ActionEnvelope.com.
Years later, Newman was kicking himself. He spent several years negotiating with the owners of Envelopes.com before finally buying the site last January at 40 times the original price.
Newman was excited about the purchase, but buying the ideal domain name was hardly a magic bullet. As Newman soon discovered, rebranding in the age of Google is not as simple as it was when his father founded Action Envelope, in 1971.
It's all about search—specifically, Google search. Google's search algorithm takes into account 200 variables, most of which are kept secret to prevent companies from manipulating the search results. That leaves a world of unknown triggers that can have catastrophic effects on a company's ranking during a domain name change, say experts in search-engine optimization, or SEO.
"Unfortunately, there's always some loss that you can do nothing about," says Will Critchlow, founder of Distilled, an SEO consulting firm based in Seattle and London. "The hope is you'll come back over time, but if your business relies on search traffic, it's one of the bigger decisions you'd ever make."
When it comes to domain name changes, Google recommends using a 301 redirect, a bit of code that tells Web browsers that a webpage has permanently moved to a new location. But some companies have experienced a drop in search traffic after such a move.
Newman, who runs Action Envelope with his mother, Sharon, had already spent about $500,000 developing the company's website and making sure it was search-engine friendly. For years, ActionEnvelope.com has been the first result when someone searches for envelopes on Google. The site also ranks on the first page of results for several longer search terms, including peel and seal envelopes. Still, Newman believed the Envelopes.com domain name would make his company the definitive destination for envelopes online. "The name Envelopes.com has instant credibility and market leadership," he says. The only problem was that Envelopes.com wasn't on Google's radar.
Afraid of losing some 38,000 monthly page views that come from Google searches, Newman consulted his Web developer, Alex Schmelkin, president of Alexander Interactive, a New York City—based firm. Schmelkin was against doing a 301 redirect. "We've done those with a lot of other brands, but so much of Action's business came from search results," he says. "We had to take a more conservative strategy."
Schmelkin decided to keep ActionEnvelope.com as is and spent nearly five months building an entirely new site for Envelopes.com, with plans to merge the two later. Envelopes.com uses the same customer logins and e-commerce platform as ActionEnvelope.com, but Schmelkin changed the product names and added new content. (Sites with duplicate content tend to rank lower in Google search results, he says.)
When Envelopes.com officially launched, in September, the company sent e-mails to clients announcing the news. It also contacted websites and bloggers, requesting that they link to the new site. Since then, search traffic to ActionEnvelope.com has remained constant, while the number of visitors to Envelopes.com has steadily increased.
Things didn't go as smoothly for Evo, an $18 million Seattle-based company that last year changed its Web address from Evogear.com to Evo.com. The company, which started as a retailer of ski equipment, had been selling more than just gear, including apparel and shoes. "Evo.com is a more elastic name that lets us evolve the mix of categories we offer," says CEO Atsuko Tamura.
Evo bought the new domain and did a 301 redirect last August. Each page on Evogear.com—the Contact Us page, for example—had to forward to the corresponding page on Evo.com. But something went wrong. After the move, search traffic dropped nearly 40 percent. In Google results for crucial keywords like K2 skis, a line Evo sells, the company fell from Page 1 to Page 35. And sales were down $200,000 in two weeks.
While Tamura's Web team scrambled to find and correct possible problems in the site's code, other employees quickly called vendors, asking them to link to Evo.com to boost the site's Google rankings. By November, Evo's search traffic and sales had recovered.
When done correctly, a 301 redirect shouldn't cause any drop in traffic, says Matt Cutts, a Google software engineer. He says instead of moving its entire website at once, Evo would have been better off moving the site very slowly, starting with the least-trafficked areas of its website. Changing something like the structure of a site during a move can also cause problems. "If someone changes to a new template, that can affect the rankings," says Cutts. "Sometimes it takes Google a little while to figure out how best to process, index, and rank a page."
Newman, for one, is OK with going slowly—he's still running both Action-Envelope.com and Envelopes.com. But sales are up 23 percent, and he hopes to merge the two sites soon. "I have no doubt that Envelopes.com will be No. 1," he says. "It's just a matter of when."