Website Relaunch Without Redirect: A Common SEO Sin

by | 21.10.2018 | Web & Social Media

When relaunching websites, owners and web agencies pay far too little attention to the receipt of incoming links. I noticed this these days, when I was regularly surfing on several websites through a large number of invalid links. An unbelievable number of external links leading to other companies or blogs had become invalid on these websites and led now into the void.

Not every link has to be kept

I can understand that website owners decide in individual cases to delete content without replacement and to let incoming links run into the void with it. It is not worthwhile in every single case to define redirections for expired content. Sometimes as a website owner you even want to consciously distance yourself from content, for example if you have set wrong priorities when creating content in the blog or if you rank things that simply don’t fit. I’ve already had such experiences myself.

It would therefore be exaggerated to take the view that a website must permanently welcome every incoming link with the corresponding content or at least a corresponding redirection to the most relevant alternative content. It can also be useful to say:

“There’s no such thing here – error 404. Dear visitor, please see for yourself if you can find something suitable.”

But I find the following shocking:

Many websites don’t pay attention to forwarding at all

I checked around 100 outgoing links and investigated why they are now invalid. I found: a handful of content that was only temporarily up to date, where I can see why it’s no longer there. Within these 100 links, however, I saw a handful of websites that are responsible for the majority of all 100 checked expiring links. These sites don’t greet my sent visitors with a 404 error because they have nothing relevant to say anymore. No: The owner or the executing web agency changed their URL-structure in spite of the factual and content-related necessity and did not think about search-engine-friendly 301-forwardings.

What can be the reasons for changed URL?

  1. Change of the Content Management System or changes to it. It is quite possible that the URL of a website was provided with .asp, .html, .php or other technical extensions in the past. These endings disappear with the omission of the corresponding technical solution and the switch to a modern content management system. I myself had the effect a few weeks ago when, for strategic reasons, I decided not to offer AMP variants of my pages in the future. The result is that one has numerous URL in the Google index and possibly also links to it from other websites, which are no longer accessible on one’s own web server under the corresponding equivalent with the ending. But there are solutions!
  2. Content changes (also changes to the link structure / the subfolders in the URL structure). It is also conceivable that a website owner decides to omit intermediate steps in the URL such as /blog/ and, if possible and useful, to remove this URL component. Small change – big effect, many invalid links!
  3. Changes to names, terms etc. Some changes also occur manually, for example when Raider is now called Twixx, Piwik Matomo – or whatever. Then consider if you really want to rename everything or if another way is not more transparent and honest – but well, it can happen.

What is the consequence if URL changes?

Basically one has to assume that the old version of the URL, which is known at Google and other websites, then becomes invalid and provides the HTTP status 404. This means: From the point of view of all search engines and users, the URL is no longer helpful, but an error page without any benefit.

The fact that some systems, such as WordPress, offer the convenient service of directly setting a search engine friendly 301 redirection when renaming a page title including URL, obviously leads to a fatal misjudgement for many people who are entrusted with website relaunches and content revisions:

It may be that the Content Management System automatically sets a 301 redirection, but you can’t rely on it.

Rather, as the person responsible, you have the duty and task of checking what happens to the old URL after the change. What HTTP status does it return? Does the old URL mutate to an error page or does it provide search engine friendly 301 forwarding? A simple practical test – enter the old URL into the browser after the first change – provides a first clue. Freely available tools like present the technical details in the form of the restored HTTP Status Code:

Important HTTP Status Codes

  • HTTP Status 200 means: Everything is ok, the URL is normally reachable
  • Status 404 means: error, not found
  • Status 301 means: permanently forwarded to a new URL
  • Status 302 means: temporarily forwarded

What I personally do with website relaunches on a regular basis: Just in time before the change from the old to the new website, I carry out a site search and check which URL of the previous website I find in the Google Index. I type “site:” followed by the corresponding domain (without spaces) into the Google search field and get a list of the URLs that are currently in the index and are displayed in the search results. I click on this URL selectively and think about how it would behave after the relaunch. Does the new website deliver the same content under the corresponding URL as the previous page? If yes, then everything is fine. If not, consider whether these are relevant, valuable entries in the search results that should still be retrievable.

In Search Console, check the links

I also check in Google Search Console, which URL are the most linked pages of the corresponding internet presence. If the incoming links are not spam links, which should not be the case as a rule, these URLs will also be placed in my virtual basket of “URLs worth preserving”.

Then I think again: Does the URL actually have to change due to the website relaunch? Can’t it stay exactly the way it is?

Forwardings with and without RegEx

If it needs to change and if the links and rankings are relevant to the customer or me, I will start defining redirects. Either URL for URL – individually – and even if it takes one or more hours. Or, as in my example above, using rewrite rules at server level. There I can use so-called regular expressions (RegEx) to define, for example, that every URL that had the /amp/ appendage at the end receives a redirection to the same URL, but without the appendage. The same applies, for example, to the cases outlined above where you redirect from URLs ending with .html to the same URL, but without .html at the end.

Four advantages meaningful redirects at relaunch

The whole thing, at least in comparison to a complete website relaunch, is work, but really not an unsolvable task. And this approach has several advantages:

  1. Persons who come via search engines get the right content and no error pages, not even transitionally.
  2. Visitors who come via links from external websites see the right content instead of a 404 page.
  3. The operators of other websites who have been kind enough to link to our website will not be disappointed and frustrated to find that we have taken the link target from them at some point.
  4. Search engines are not irritated and do not have to assume that we as website operators are no longer interested in ranking on the relevant topic.

Do not Destruct Links During Relaunch

I was amazed to see how few website operators seem to care about the accessibility of their URL after major changes to their websites. I would like to recommend to all website owners and service providers that it is worthwhile for everyone involved to pay a little more attention not to destroy dozens or hundreds of laboriously set up links in a relaunch. It’s not as tedious as you think – and in the end it’s even a pleasure to see: It’s worth taking existing URL structures into consideration if you change something on your website. You can also see that in rankings and traffic.

Additional note: Sometimes it happens that you want to distance yourself from content, for example when a website has been hacked. With HTTP status 410, you can clearly signal to search engines, visitors and bots/crawlers: This content no longer exists, and that’s what’s wanted.

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Consider Redirects when Relaunching

When you change the structure of your website: Don’t forget to make sure that important URLs remain accessible. Otherwise, you risk invalid links in search results and on other websites. This frustrates users and damages the relevance of your own website.

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Check the Old Website's Search Rankings

With the Google search “site:” followed by the root domain of the current website, you can see which URL is currently in the index. Perform such a search. Make sure that the URLs listed there are accessible even after your relaunch (with appropriate content).

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Make a List of Redirects and Implement them

Make sure that you redirect URLs either bit by bit in a search engine friendly way. Where possible, use carefully defined Regular Expressions to set up multiple redirects according to a specific pattern with only one rule.

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Test if Everything Really Works

Once you have created your redirect and the new website is up and running, take the trouble to click on your search results using the site search described and check whether the redirects set up work.