UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

The UK’s Newest University

Posted by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 23 October 2007

What is the UK’s newest university? I thought that it was probably Edge Hill University. But I recently discovered that the University of Central England is now BCU – Birmingham City University. I’m assuming this is the UK’s newest university.

What are the implications of changing the domain name for a well-established Web site (http://www.uce.ac.uk/) to something new (http://www.bcu.ac.uk/)? Do you lose your ‘Google juice‘ and have to start all over again in regaining your Google ranking? Or are there techniques you can use which will ensure that links to your old site will be transferred, not only to provide a seamless transition for users but also ensure that automated tools, such as indexing software, will migrate your site’s ranking data, and not treat this as an attempt to masquerade a porn site as a legitimate site.

Anthony Colebourne has described his experiences in a post to the web-support JISCMail list, which summarised what happened when the Victoria University of Manchester and UMIST changed their domain names from http://www.man.ac.uk and http://www.umist.ac.uk to http://www.manchester.ac.uk and The University of Manchester was formed. However as this JISCMail list seems to require a JISCMail username and password I will include his comments here:

We begin with a new http://www.manchester.ac.uk site running in parallel with the old sites. The old sites informed visitors of the change and provided a hyper link to the new site. Very quickly our new site rose up the results listings (without any special effort on our part) to a point where we were competing with ourselves.

Some of our sub domains had setup Aliases of old domains to new ones. However many search engines saw the 2 domains as separate sites. So again these site were competing with themselves for position in search listings and also confusing our users too.

1) The longer domain achieved higher ranking in most cases, possibly this was due to the more relevant keyword in the domain ‘manchester’ as opposed to ‘man’ plus the new site was ‘better’!

2) Our local GSA also indexed everything twice, using up paid for page limits.

3) Our marketing people preferred that the domain in the users address bar to change (i.e. Apache Redirect preferred over Alias).

We configured old addresses to issue Redirect Permanent (301). Firstly for individual sections as we were able, then for everything (/).

We formally merged in Oct 2004, we took down our old sites home pages and redirected them in June 2005. We currently still receive around 500K hits a month to the old domains that get redirected to our new site. We are monitoring usage of the old domains and are not consider removing the redirects until usage drops significantly.

Completely closing down our old domains is a huge task, when you begin to consider non web uses of DNS (email, desktop / server host names etc) and the dependences. It will be many years before our old domains are completely decommissioned. However to the outside world we are now manchester.ac.uk.

These comments are, I feel, very valuable. But what is missing is the implications of a domain name change in a Web 2.0 environment. What will it mean if third party services are used to annotated page on your Web site? What will happen if you have embedded third party content in your Web site, and authenticated based on the URI of the page embedding the content is used? Similarly what will happen to data kept by Web statistics counters?

Answers to these questions will be of interest to many readers, I think. It strikes me that the BCU change may provide a valuable opportunity for research on the implications of changes to a domain name and advice on best practices. An interesting student project, perhaps?

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11 Responses to “The UK’s Newest University”

  1. Mike Nolan said

    I’d say that BCU was already a university and that the University of Cumbria is the newest. Cumbria’s task is actually more tricky than BCU’s as they’re merging several institutions and even parts of UCLAN. Where there’s a fairly obvious transition from one domain to another it’s easy to do 301 redirects to the new page and search engines will quickly pick up the change.

    You’re right about new types of service – while search engines are generally geared up to looking for changes – it’s in their interest to have the freshest index with the fewest dead links – other services perhaps don’t have quite as good an understanding as Google of what to do when sent a 301 response code for example.

    This is one of the things that has made me wary of using a hosted service such as FeedBurner – if you want to migrate away from them they’ll send a 301 but who’s to say that Bloglines or Google Reader or any other feed reader will actually act upon it in time and change the stored URL?

    This isn’t just an issue for people changing domain names either – anyone doing changes to their site structure should be properly redirecting users to the new locations. This is something I’m going to be working on in the coming months and I’ll be sure to report my findings.

    Googler Matt Cutts has a lot of interesting things to say about how they handle indexing and SEO in general. Well worth a read.

  2. The University of Cumbria came into being on the 1st August this year – that makes it the baby of the bunch.

  3. speaking of google juice, one thing that surprised me was that many placed (Manchester Uni, for instance) don’t seem too bothered about appearing twice in google’s index (once with prefixed www, once without). technically, it’s such a trivial thing to decide on one or the other, and simply redirect (again with a 301) to the canonical name…this aggregates google juice, rather than having it split between the prefixed and unprefixed address. just a thought, anyway…

  4. additionally…no offense meant, but a genuine question from: is the “new” BCU site based on the old UCE site, simply rebadged? or is this a completely fresh development? if it’s the latter, i’d have to say that i’m a touch surprised by some of the things i’ve seen (and not seen) “under the hood” (table-based layout? spacer graphics cum SEO-wordbaiting ALT? javascript jump menus? etc).

  5. When we became Edge Hill University in 2006 this is something we considered. I was wary of a domain change (for the reasons above) but also conscious the Senior Management would have liked to see some reference to ‘university’ in the address. We did try to purchase http://www.ehu.ac.uk to run in parallel (to edgehill.ac.uk) but this was rejected by ja.net on the grounds that three letter acronyms are no longer allowed.

    I would be extremely cautious when considering changing a domain completely regardless of the google juice and web 2.0 application considerations – thousands of people would simply ‘remember’ the old one and for that reason alone I’d keep hold of it!

  6. @Patrick, it’s a rebadge of the existing site, sadly. For a more modern approach, see the various Faculty level sites. LHDS for example.

    More generally, any decently built web service should handle a 301-redirect properly at the HTTP level… That said, even Google’s Webmaster tools is showing some oddities since the changeover (mainly in inbound link calculation).

  7. cheers matt…had me worried there for a second.

  8. Billy said

    I was thinking about this article today when I searched for The British Museum. They’ve always been pretty confusing with their urls – britishmuseum.co.uk for their commercial site and thebritishmuseum.ac.uk for their main museum site.

    I’m not sure when but they seem to have changed their main site to britishmuseum.org. The change would appear to have been at least 12 days ago, but Google still doesn’t appear to have indexed the new address and a search for ‘British Museum’ currently only returns the commercial site.

  9. Billy said

    Meant to link to this blog post which is where I got the ‘at least 12 days ago’ from.

  10. I was interested in Alison Wildish’s comment that her request for the ehu.ac.uk domain name for Edge Hill University “was rejected by ja.net on the grounds that three letter acronyms are no longer allowed“. The University of Oxford’s domain name is ox.ac.uk. I wonder if they’ll have to give that up? Perhaps not, as yesterday, on a visit to University of Oxford I read in the OUCS newsletter that they will be withdrawing the long form of their domain name (for email use).

    There are some interesting issues associated with use of short names (easy to type, easy to remember), institutional branding (I must admit I always though that Oxford was a better brand name than Ox for a university!) and the policies of the ISP provider (in our case, ja.net).

  11. Mike Nolan said

    I suspect it’s just new applications for domain names. This isn’t unprecedented – Nominet no longer allow two letter domains under .co.uk. Personally I prefer more meaningful names rather than abbreviations and I’m glad that Edge Hill no longer use the horrible ehche.ac.uk acronym!

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