Having a top ranked site on Google is the web Holy Grail. But if you change your website without careful planning you could easily lose that coveted spot and it may take years, or perhaps never, to get it back again. And that’s a shame because, just like moving house, all you need to do is tell people that you have moved to keep things as they are.
Links to web page addresses are stored in many places: Search engines (Google, Bing etc.), other websites and even people’s private bookmarks. If you move a page to a new address, even if it is still under the same base URL (e.g. mycompany.com) then those links are can easily be broken leaving your customers confused and lost.
If you’re lucky then people will find your new site and update their bookmarks, but it is just as likely that their search will return a competitors web page instead. Search engines will eventually just drop the broken links and then you are back to square one.
Fortunately the web has its own version of the “We’ve moved” notice. It’s called a “301 Redirect” and is the web equivalent of the form you give the Post Office telling them your new address.
Properly set up a 301 redirect tells anyone going to the old link that the page they are looking for has permanently moved. Search engines will self update and old links and bookmarks used by your clients will automatically deliver them to the new page without anyone being any the wiser.
What isn’t obvious is that websites, unlike houses, are made up of multiple pages and each page has a unique address that needs its own “we’ve moved” notification. Even if your base URL (e.g. mycompany.com) hasn’t changed the pages below the top might move, especially if you have changed technologies such as replacing a static HTML website with a content management system like WordPress, Joomla or Drupal.
So what do you need to do?
- Figure out which pages are bringing content to your site.
- Install something like Google Analytics on your current site and let it watch the traffic for a while and then take a look at the visitor flow to see which pages people are regularly arriving at.
- Run your own searches using keywords and see which pages are being served up by Google and Bing. Write down exactly the addresses that returned.
- Write down the URL for each major section of your website (e.g. Home, About Us, Contact Us, Products, Menus etc.)
- Each page logged needs to be mapped from the old site to the new site. Put all of URLs (old and new) into a spreadsheet ready for the next step. Don’t forget that mycompany.com and http://www.mycompany.com are actually considered different addresses and both might need to be mapped.
- Add 301 redirects before you switch to your new website or, if that isn’t possible, as soon after going live as you can. How you do this will depend on the technology you are using but if you are using a CMS then there is almost certainly a plugin that will let you just fill in the old URL and the new URL.
- Test!!! Take an old bookmark or manually type in the old address. Don’t be surprised if your old website still comes up even if it no longer existing. Browsers will cache websites to speed up browsing and may have full copies of your old site lying around. Usually hitting refresh (F5) will clear that up and take you to the new site.
That’s it! The hardest thing to do is to plan ahead and remember to do it. Considering that the cost of not telling people you’ve moved could be catastrophic it’s well worth the time. And if you have hired a company for your website redesign have a chat with them and make sure that they have a plan for this.