August 17, 2002
Website strategies when changing company name

Company name changes happen all the time. In the unwired world, there are lots of cost associated with it: legal costs, informing customers & authorities, rebranding buildings, full page ads in newspapers and magazines and so on and so on. Today, however, I'll address a much ignored but important aspect of name changes: the Internet presence.

For some reason, many companies seem to underestimate the value of an existing internet domain name (both for website(s) and email), and I have seen many variants of how to deal with the renaming process, so I thought I'd write down some thoughts on how I think it should be done...

Once upon a time, in 1995, the University of Trondheim (UniT), Norway, was rebranded to Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). They immediately registered the domain name ntnu.no, and started setting up new sub-domain names (where there used to be stud.unit.no for students, stud.ntnu.no was introduced). None of this is revolutionary. What they did very right however, and this applies particularly in the academic world of long publication times and so on, was that they maintained all old email addresses and websites on the old domain names for many many years (as far as I can gather; my old stud.unit.no- address was available at least 5 years after the name change, and mail to it is still bouncing with a "please use ...@stud.ntnu.no-message).

Today; if you try to access www.unit.no you are automatically redirected to www.ntnu.no. A textbook example of how it should be done...

In the consulting world, many of the giant actors have been rebranded recently. Andersen Consulting (AC) became Accenture, PwC Consulting was rebranded to Monday and then bought by IBM. Such rebranding operations are not undertaken easily, but what surprised me in the first case was that if you now try to access the old URL www.ac.com, there's nothing there - not a page informing about the name change, no redirect, nothing... If you try to email people @ac.com, your mail will bounce. They only maintained email addresses on the old domain for a few months; bouncing automatic "our company name has changed"-messages to anyone emailing to them. Now, there may be legal limitations I'm not aware of in this particular case, but in general I'm much more in favour of the NTNU option described above: "backwards compatibility" for a loong time!

So - if you're working for a small or large company or just maintain a website about to change name; how can you ensure that people will still find you after the change? A few tips and thoughts:

  • First and foremost: your old website needs to link to your new webpage one way or the other if you want search engines to find you!
    • Good: Redirect from old URL to the new URL. Note! Redirect is absolutely not the same as putting a blank webpage up with a <META> Refresh tag. If you can't set up a proper redirect (HTTP error code 301, also known as "Permanent Redirect"), go for the "HTML page with a link"-solution.
    • Medium / OK-solution: Just a webpage displaying the new URL, and linking using a traditional <A HREF="..."> link. This option will maintain the majority of the "Googlejuice" of the former URL, but the old page will by default have a better Google PageRank than the new page. By informing new and old customers of the new URL, links and booksmarks should change over some time and one should notice less and less traffic on the old URL and more on the new URL.
    • Bad: leaving a page on the old URL displaying the new URL but with no <A>-link. Search engines does not parse JavaScript, so if you are trying to do something funky, like making the user add a bookmark to your new site (I've seen this on a client's website!), no search engines will let your new site "inherit" the visitors they originally gave your old site. Should be avoided at all times.
  • Secondly, make sure emails to old addresses are forwarded for the forseeable future. This can be done easily using aliases in your mailserver. It is also reasonably simple to configure an automatic bounce-message. Keep delivering the emails even while autoresponding - at least for a while!


Conclusion
if you have to remove content or move content around on the same server; leave a way for the user (and the SEs) to catch up!

In this article, I haven't addressed other relevant topics, like search engine submissions, directory submissions etc. These are obviously also important to keep in mind, but by choosing the redirect option mentioned above, many search engines will already find you automatically, and you will retain users who just remember your old URL!

Further reading:

Additions? Comments? Corrections? Disagreements? Experiences? Examples? Write a comment!

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Comments

Well, I guess that we (Accenture) just want everybody to forget that we ever had a different name :)

Great article, Anders!

Posted by: Terje Kvambe on August 17, 2002 10:20 AM

I recently changed my website to a new company. Old: Crystal Quest Water Filters New: Aqua Water Purification Systems. I simply went into www.addme.com and used their free search engine submission. I thought this would change the name but the old one still remains. What to do next. Thanks, Steve Zimmett

Posted by: steve zimmett on December 18, 2002 02:40 PM

sechrh email adsdresss

Posted by: frank on June 14, 2003 04:06 PM

Anders, I'm going out on a bit of a limb here, but are you by any chance the Anders Jacobsen that went to Ottershaw School?

If so, do drop me a line. Kevin harris (OTT 726)

Posted by: Kevin Harris on June 28, 2004 08:14 AM

Kevin: Sorry, not me.

Posted by: Anders on January 11, 2005 08:13 PM
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