If you have a website, you should maintain the filenames (URLs) very carefully. After the domain, search engines use URLs to build up a history about all the pages on your site. Changing these (even slightly) can result in a big loss of Google love and SEO traffic.
To avoid this, you can plan carefully and ensure appropriate redirects are used – something we discuss in this post. Only change URLs if you absolutely have to. Sometimes you might have no real choice:
- You’re migrating to a new Content Management System
- Your current URLs are long and ugly
- You need to change your URLs for better SEO
The key thing to remember is to plan permanent redirects (301) from the old URLs to the new ones –that’s because these redirects pass PageRank, and search engine trust. The process isn’t complicated but it pays to be meticulous in how you do it.
Here are 5 steps to help you plan redirects to maintain search engine trust.
#1 – Get a full list of all the URLs on your website.
There are a few ways you can do this. If you are confident your XML sitemap is up-to-date and accurate, you could use that. You could also use Google Analytics to export a list of pages which received SEO traffic.
But my favourite trick is to use Xenu Link Sleuth (free windows tool). It does lots of clever things – like crawling every page on your site, and then allowing you to export every URL into a text file (.txt) that can be opened in Excel. And here is a Screencast Video (my first), showing you how to do just that:
#2 – Plan what the new URLs will look like in Excel.
This is quite straight forward. I like URLs to look contemporary where keywords are not too crammed in. Relevancy is important but remember these URLs will hopefully be around for a long time, and will be seen in search engine results pages (SERPs). So they should look the part too. E.g. /courses/seo-introduction rather than /training-courses/beginners-seo-introudction-london.
#3 – Map old/current URLs to new URLs in Excel.
This step is really important and this is where you need to be a bit anal, and as thorough as possible. This means planning redirects for every page and not just a blanket redirect to your homepage. To make things easy I have attached an Excel document which has formula to output it in a .htaccess friendly way (see step 4).
#4 – 301 permanently redirect mapped URLs from old to new.
If you have a web developer, you can simply email step 2 and 3 in an Excel document, and they can do the rest.
If you plan to do it yourself, here is a neat way to do it on a linux/apache webserver (e.g. for WordPress, Joomla & Drupal) – using the .htaccess. Remember the .htaccess is a very powerful tool, so use with caution and make sure you have a backup.
It is also a hidden file type so not all FTP software will see them. If you have checked out the above Excel file, next click the image below to see how it looks in the .htaccess file which sits in the root of your website.
#5 – Update your XML Sitemap
If you use a content management system, and have an XML plugin/module installed – the XML sitemap will most likely be done automatically but it’s worth double-checking it is accurate and up-to-date. Once it is, make sure you re-submit it through Google Webmaster Tools. It normally lives at the root of your domain e.g. www.seotraining.org.uk/sitemap.xml.
Ok, that’s you done on the 5 crucial steps but why not check out 6 bonus tips to make sure you have everything covered.
Bonus tip (1) – involve the SEO, web development and marketing teams when planning the redirects. Also if you are doing Pay Per Click (PPC), or other forms of online marketing be sure to let everyone know of the URL changes in plenty of time so they can update their campaigns.
Bonus tip (2) – defend your most important SEO pages. It’s tough to get your redirects 100% right. Make sure your top SEO traffic driving pages are redirected (use Google Analytics for this). Your pages with lots of links from external sites should also be redirected (use Open Site Explorer). Better still, get the external links updated to your new URLs if possible. And lastly ensure any Google sitelinks are also redirected.
Bonus tip (3) – benchmark where your top keywords rank before you do redirects. Check back again a few of times after the redirects are in place (a few days, a week, a couple of weeks and a month later).
Bonus tip (4) – update internal links to point to the new URLs. Xenu Link Sleuth is good at showing where to do this when you export a ‘page map’. Also run Xenu Link Sleuth immediately after new URLs go live to see whether you have any ‘404 page not founds’.
Bonus tip (5) – if you are moving domains, be sure to let Google know through Google Webmaster Tools. If the URLs remain the same and just the domain changes, you may only have to do one line of code for the redirects (like when using the .htaccess file).
Bonus tip (6) – check your redirects worked correctly. Choose a sample of URLs using a header response code checker. Ensure the status code is 301 (permanent, which passes PageRank) and not 302 (temporary, which doesn’t pass PageRank).
Hopefully all those tips will help, but if you need some more advice, Google has some useful resources on Website migration which includes aiming for minimal ‘404 page not founds’, and regularly checking Google Webmaster Tools to see if there are any new errors. Google also offers further tips on moving from one domain to another, and testing moving part of a site or section at a time – very useful if you can phase your changes this way.
Update: also checkout this great post from the Google Webmaster Blog.
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Finally, it’s handy to know that although permanent redirects do pass PageRank which helps maintain trust, they do not pass all of it. Perhaps you may lose 10% (give or take 5%). However in most cases, a well-executed site migration should not lose you too much ground and gives an opportunity to have nicer and more relevant looking URLs.
Feel free to ask questions in the comments below, or share any tips that you may have. And if you do roll out a similar approach, I’d love to hear how you got on.
Flickr credit: She’s leaving home.