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What you lose when you change URLs

September 9th, 2008 by mdmcginnis

You’ve launched the new website. Everything looks fresh and beautiful. Nice. And all your Web pages have new URLs and new names? Not so nice. Even changing a directory name from “Resources” to “resources” can be annoying for visitors, with serious consequences for webmasters. Why?

  1. You lose all the inbound links from other sites and pages. You create broken links. There is no World Wide Web Directory Assistance to automatically redirect your visitors to the page you want them to see. Other webmasters who link to your old pages might get around to fixing their links eventually. Visitors who follow the old links will get an error page. Everybody will get annoyed. See above.
  2. You lose all the PageRank that Google and our Google Search Appliance use to decide which pages are most important. Search engines are not as smart as people, so they might bury your pages in irrelevant results if they don’t have any cues, such as PageRank, to tell them which pages your visitors really want to see. Some of the main criteria for PageRank are – you guessed it – inbound links. Which you lost in point number one. See above.
  3. You lose the visits of those who have bookmarked your previous web addresses. All of this is particularly sensitive for people who are not Web-savvy, such as the under-represented schools and students we’re trying to attract. They may assume that your website is gone, that your program has been canceled, and that you’ve packed up and moved to that other university. Especially if they can’t find your pages using a search engine either. See point number two.

Of course, sometimes it’s necessary to change URLs on a website. Getting a new name is one example. TAMU couldn’t stay TAMC forever. Switching to new software can require new page names or directory names – though not always. Careful advance planning can reduce the chance that you’ll have to rename your pages with every site design – and that’s cool.

Apache’s mod_rewrite, which is often used with content management systems, can redirect visitors to a new page on the fly. It can eliminate question marks in the URL or the need to rename every page if you switch from html to cfm or php.

Before you change your site structure, take a look at your server logs to see which pages are most popular. Search Google for “link:yoursite.com” to see who else is linking to you and how. Then, see if you can add some carefully chosen redirect pages: “We see that you’re looking for our privacy policy, and we know exactly where it went to.”

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008 Search
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3 Comments to What you lose when you change URLs

  1. For example, we recently received an email telling us that they want their event web page to come up at the top of the search results whenever anyone searches for their event name. Their Web page is called ourgroup.tamu.edu/ourevent2008/ The problem is that, next year, all links to their event will have to be changed to /ourevent2009/. What will happen to any links to this year’s site? That’s up to the webmaster – she could change the 2008 home page “It was great in 2008, but it will be really fine in 2009 (click here)”. Personally, I’ve decided to stick to the URL /ourevent/ and when each year’s event was over, I created a new page or directory /ourevent2007/ and moved the previous year’s pages into it. That way, menu structure would automatically link to the current information at /ourevent/ and refer people there.

  2. Michael McGinnis on September 11th, 2008
  3. What if you’ve deleted the old pages, but Google still thinks they’re there? If Google is still sending people to workshops.html after you’ve deleted it, then I would recreate the old page. You don’t have to put anything on your recreated workshops.html besides, “For current information about our workshops, visit our new and improved page (click here).” Then Google (and Web searchers) can find the new page. You should add <meta name=”robots” content=”noindex” /> to your resurrected page, though, since you want Google to forget about it as soon as possible.

  4. Michael McGinnis on September 16th, 2008
  5. Another point: Google pays attention to redirects, according to Matt Cutts, who works for Google. A code 302 means the page has moved temporarily. A code 301 means it has moved permanently. If your web server says that your site has moved temporarily, and Google finds that other pages are still linking to your old content, it may keep indexing your old pages. Best to nip that in the bud. Search for link:yoursite.edu and encourage other webmasters to correct their bad links to your site. And ask your IT people to send a code 301 if possible.

  6. Michael McGinnis on September 16th, 2008

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