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Changing your Web Page URLs? Don’t Forget Those Old Links…

Here is a common scenario in the digital marketing world:

A business owner wonders why their competitor’s web page URLs say something like www.goodclothes.com/shoes/ladies/red-shoes while their own looks like someone just closed their eyes and hit a few random keys on their keyboard (e.g. www.betterclothes.com/?=fnklgjfenriog2g)

They bring it up with a well-meaning techie pal who tells them all about permalink structures and how they can log into their CMS and update them all to so-called ‘pretty URLs.’

In a rush of excitement, the business owner goes into their website back-end, locates the menu they need, makes a few simple changes and – voila! As if by magic, all of their webpages now look neat, organised and – well, as if they were written by a human being.

The Curse of the 404 Page

Many people fear the number 13.

Web developers have a far more rational dread of the number 404. This is the HTTP code for a missing page. It shows up when a visitor tells their browser to visit a web page and their browser finds no content when it gets there!

404 errors can occur for many reasons but a classic culprit was outlined in the scenario above. Changing your URL structure after you have created content is a risky strategy especially for very big, well-established sites. This is for four main reasons:

  1. Any internal links* will now direct browsers to the wrong URL
  2. Any external links will now direct browsers to the wrong URL (from ads, linked articles, bookmarks, etc.)
  3. Any printed promotional links will display the wrong URL
  4. Google bots will visit the wrong URL (and, more to the point, won’t visit the right URL).

In summary, your website is now pretty much broken and any page rank you’ve built up from Google will be slowly draining away.

*Some internal links may be OK. For example, if you change the permalink structure on WordPress, all core menu and sidebar links will be updated automatically.

301 Redirects to the Rescue

Fortunately, the solution is usually fairly straightforward. The eager business owner above just omitted one small but critical step: setting up 301 redirects on any web pages that had had their URL structure changed.

301 redirects are also known as ‘permanent redirects.’ They tell the visitor’s browser or Google bot that the page that was at that URL can now be found at the new URL.

Instead of seeing the 404 page, the visitor will now instantly arrive at the page they were expecting to see. Meanwhile, Google’s bots will know to transfer all Page Rank (this was confirmed by Google back in 2016) to the new site.

301 redirects should be set up in almost all cases of URL change (with the possible exception of temporary 302 redirects for site maintenance purposes). For example, if you want to optimise some individual URLs at post level (e.g. by adding in important keywords), you will need to set up a 301 redirect for that page.

Manual and Automatic Redirections

You now know what a 301 redirect is and why you should be using them. Now you just need to know how to add them to your site.

Manual 301 redirects require a little bit of technical knowhow and access to the .htaccess file (an important configuration file hosted on your website’s server). As such, you might want to speak to your web host or developer for help.

Another option, especially for WordPress users, is to use a 301 redirect plug-in. These tend to be free, quick and easy to set up. They are ideal for bulk URL changes as in the example at the beginning of this article. All that the business owner would have had to have done is copy and pasted the old and new permalink structures into the relevant fields of the plug-in and all will have turned out peachy.

Oh, and one final thing. It is a good idea to create and submit a brand new XTML sitemap for your site. Google will eventually index your new pages but this should speed up the process.

If you have a Vu website and you are thinking about making any changes to your URLs, make sure you understand the above first. If in any doubt, please give us a call first.

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