Domain change for academic program is bad, let's not instead
January 26, 2019 11:16 PM   Subscribe

New department chair directed us to stop using our current domain name (programmename.org) and switch to programmename.lifesciences.universityname.edu. She thinks this will make people associate our programme's success more directly with our department. We think this actually accomplishes little toward that goal. Instead, it does destroy our years of building a brand and following.

For context this is a research university programme (life sciences). We've built up an impressive social media presence for our area over the last ten years. It is tied to our current domain name (programmename.org). The website using this domain includes a blog cited in many scientific journal articles. Additionally a number of grant projects live at subdomains of that domain.

Do you have any suggestions for explaining the negative impacts of this change?

Or for showing how changing the domain name does less to associate us with our department, than retaining our existing audience does?

Or articles or figures showing how domain name changes impact findability and brand strength?
posted by anonymous to Computers & Internet (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I don't understand why you can't give everybody everything they want by keeping programmename.org and making it 301 redirect to programmename.lifesciences.universityname.edu.

That way, you can comply with your department chair's instructions and stop using your current domain name but the rest of the world doesn't have to. Later on, after somebody more real-world oriented takes the reins, you can redirect it all back the other way.
posted by flabdablet at 12:19 AM on January 27 [41 favorites]


Andrew Gelman's blog, which used to be at andrewgelman.com, recently did this, switching to https://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/ . I think it was because really, it's not just his personal blog any more, there are other colleagues who frequently post.

In that case, there was a short period where there were HTTPS certificate issues. If you're using HTTPS (which everyone should be in 2018), you should look into how difficult it might be to ensure no disruption when switching the URL.

It also sounds like it might get really complicated to deal with all the projects that have subdomains, especially if multiple sites link back to each other.
posted by vogon_poet at 3:08 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]


Or articles or figures showing how domain name changes impact findability and brand strength?

I don’t think this matters much at all these days. You will still be easily googleable, no academic will forget you exist because of a domain name change, and you will be probably be more likely to show up as a top hit in google searches by leveraging the huge pagerank of your university domain, rather than the much smaller pagerank of your one-off dept. domain. SEO wonks would kill to be able to easily grant the benefits of hosting a site under a research university’s domain.

Not sure where you are in the world but I’m surprised anyone decided it was a good idea to shun the Uni domain in the first place. In my world of life sciences research in the USA, 99-100% of the units that I interact with are doing what your chair wants you to do, and I personally think it’s a good idea to not be the weirdo in this case.
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:28 AM on January 27 [7 favorites]


I am an actual SEO consultant. Actual SEO wonks actually worry quite a bit about domain changes because they can be a PITA, not only from a search perspective, but also for traffic from social media and affiliated sites that link to yours, and even just generally for site organization and usability (if your site has been around for a long time there could be a LOT of internal links to change, and if you mess this up, some parts of your site could become inaccessible or broken).

But it won't necessarily be the end of the world to make this change if you do it correctly. The key is to research how to do it correctly beforehand, and recognize that changing a domain name properly is not as simple as hitting a switch; it's a serious project that will require thought and work.

It may or may not be the case that the benefits of having a university domain will eventually outweigh the loss of your well-established URL; that would depend on a wide range of factors, including how popular and well-ranked your current domain is versus the university domain, how much competition there is in search for the subject matter you cover, etc. It may be that the temporary pain of changing will be outweighed by benefits later but that is NOT something I or any other responsible SEO person could tell you without knowing the specifics of your case.

Here's a little free advice if you do wind up changing your domain:

You should DEFINITELY use a 301 redirect, to indicate that your site has permanently moved to a new address.

Do your best if at all possible to preserve the structure of current URLs on the site. By which I mean, if you have a url that is currently structured as programmename.org/funding/grant-information, as often as possible, try to make sure it gets changed to programmename.lifesciences.universityname.edu/funding/grant-information, NOT programmename.lifesciences.universityname.edu./finances/July2018/grant. It is not a good idea to radically change your site architecture at the same time that you are changing your primary domain name.

On that note, the thing I that I suspect would personally cause me the most headaches in your particular case would be the fact that you are currently using multiple subdomains. To make this change , you are probably going to need to switch from subdomains to subfolders, and individually redirect all of your subdomains to those subfolders. Which is going to add somewhat to the PITA level of the switch.

Does your university have an SEO expert on staff whom you could consult about this?
posted by BlueJae at 7:37 AM on January 27 [7 favorites]


Here is a domain change SEO checklist that you might want to show your new department head. This is SEO-focused and does not really address what you would need to do for social media, other sites you control or that have ongoing relationships with that regularly link to your site, etc. but it will at least offer an idea of the baseline of work you'll need to do to pull this off without losing traffic.
posted by BlueJae at 7:49 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]


Sounds like this is a negotiation/attribution issue, not a SEO/tech issue.

What about if the life sciences aspect was more prominently displayed on the page? It sounds like, as the department head, she wants to have some of the cultural capital spread around to the department.

You could argue that changing the domain will potentially break some links.
And instead, on the top of each page, a prominent logo/header could be placed that says “PROGRAM, part of the INSTITUTION’s DEPARTMENT” or such, and have a link going to the department. In addition, you could offer to add additional links in places so that visitors to the site make the clear link that the program is part of the department.

There’s got to be a way to align her interests with yours without changing the domain.
posted by suedehead at 9:26 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]


In my experience, this is likely coming from a decision made elsewhere in the university organizational structure, and your department head is just the bearer of the news, and probably doesn't care that much one way or another. Probably lawyers are involved. What you can do about it depends on several factors.

Case 1. This truly is primarily the program website for your program, which is part of your department, at your university. Your program may or may not have a parallel program page within the university web site already.

Your program's main web presence absolutely should live on your university's domain. There are a variety of good reasons for this. As well, this has been phrased as a request due to the norms of collegiality, but you probably don't actually have a choice in the matter. However, your university's IT folks can absolutely set you up with a subdomain of your department (myprogram.mydepartment.lifesciences.myuniversity.edu) instead of with a folder under your department's domain (mydepartment.lifesciences.myuniversity.edy/myprogram), and copy the subdomain structure of the current t web site over without change. This is likely not the organizational structure that they have set as a standard for the university web site, but BlueJay makes a good case for them to make an exception for a well-established alternate site being ported over. And maybe there's a plan in place to update the structure of your site over time, after users have recovered from the domain name change.

If your site has a small component of community input from researchers at other institutions, for example, there may be some IP issues in porting it over to your university's web space wholesale.

Case 2. Your site is primarily or significantly a community site, with its role as the web site for your program being only a small component.

Separate the two functions. Make a real web site for your program, that lives on your university's web site. Keep the non-university site as an important community site. Detangle the marketing for your program from the marketing for your community site so that the university's lawyers won't worry about randos affecting or making unauthorized use of their marketing or branding.

In both cases, you may wish to talk to an IP lawyer. If your faculty is unionized, consult with your union officers and the union's lawyer. If your university is large enough, your research office should have an IP lawyer available to consult, as well.
posted by eviemath at 7:24 AM on January 28


If it is truly just your new department head's idea, then probably not nearly as much thought has gone into it, so you probably don't need extensive studies backing up your position. Consider that your new department head may, in fact, have a valid point or concern (and try to avoid having the issue end up as a departmental power struggle); make sure that your program does have a substantive and regularly maintained/updated web presence on your department's web site; be aware of the potential issues from my last comment and proactive about avoiding them. Some good wording might be, "I see why you are concerned, and those are valid points that we didn't think about when we originally set up the external web site. Unfortunately, given that it is now well-established, I'm concerned that the negative impact of changing the domain will outweigh the positives."; express concern about the negative impact the change in domain name could have on the research programs featured on your alternate web site, with potential concomitant decreases in grant funding coming in to the department; ask the new department head for input on changes to make to the current web site to make the connection to the department more clear. And also talk to an IP lawyer, because if that doesn't work, then the issue is not likely to stay within your department.
posted by eviemath at 7:44 AM on January 28


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