Transitioning URLs During a Site Redesign

3/25/2008

- Danielle Leitch, Exec. Vice President

I spoke last week at a Marketing Conference and had several audience members individually ask me the same question. It led me to realize what a large problem this actually may be for some advertisers; particularly if they are unaware the problem even exists.

The question was:
How do you preclude old website pages that are appearing in the natural search results? (Outdated material or pages from a former design of the site that no longer exist on the new site. In either case, they are typically dead links, possibly outranking some of your current site’s pages)

This is extremely important to address, and sometimes a seemingly overlooked step during the redesign process. Having a mapping strategy in place, prior to the new website launch date is critical to avoid this circumstance from happening. A mapping strategy is a game-plan of what to do with the existing (old website) pages (urls), more specifically mapping them to the new pages. This is particularly critical when pages will be added or page names (urls) will change from old site to new site. This transition approach needs to be checked and double checked, as there are usually floating pages on your website, not within the main navigation, which could go unnoticed.

The following is valuable information to consider from our SEO Team in answering the above question:

If the links are truly dead and returning 404 (Page Not Found) errors, they will fall out of search engine indexes pretty quickly. If you want to make sure that anyone who finds these links (either via search engines or outdated inbound links) still finds you, you can create a custom 404 handling page (here’s an example: http://www.morevisibility.com/nobodyshomehere.html.) When the non-existing page is accessed, the server issues a header response of 404 and then displays the custom page. Ideally, this will be a page that tells the visitor that they have accessed a non-existing page. In our case, we then automatically redirect after a short period that allows the visitor to read the “Sorry we missed you” message to our sitemap, so visitors can find the page they are looking for. However, you could just let the visitor use main navigation or even provide a search query box on the custom 404 handling page so they can do a site search. If it’s a shopping site, a search box here may be more appropriate.

If the pages are still listed in the search engine indexes and they have inbound links pointing to them (which a site owner can check for by using Google’s Webmaster Tools or Yahoo’s Site Explorer), then it is worth while to redirect them. In other words, by redirecting these links to pages on the new site, you are transferring the link value from the old links/pages to the new ones. If you take this course of action, make sure the old page redirects to the new page using a method that will cause the server to issue a header response of 301 (Permanent). This is the only response that is uniformly interpreted by all three major search engines as a request to index the new page and transfer the qualities of the old page to it.

So before you launch a new site, there are some non-design factors to also consider:

  • Create a transition strategy to map old pages over to new ones
  • Identify existing pages that have valuable inbound links
  • Redirect links where appropriate, using proper techniques
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