This column originally appeared in Search Insider on August 2, 2006.by Rob Garner
In my Aug. 2, column, “Natural-Born Search Killers,” I discussed how not having a URL strategy could kill a search presence, detailing four key elements that contribute to the value of site domains and URLs. (The elements included link equity, positive search engine equity, bookmark equity and search investment.) In this article, I will discuss a few additional elements of URL equity:
1) The consequences of redesigning without a URL strategy
2) Questions every marketer and developer should ask before a redesign
3) How to assess the value of existing URLs
4) How to transition existing URL equity
The consequences of redesigning without a URL strategy
Redesigning a Web site without paying attention to the inherent value of URLs can have a tremendously negative impact on search visibility. Here are a few common issues that you should watch for during your site relaunch:
Indexed pages drop out of the search engines.
New site pages are not found by crawlers.
Backlink history is lost.
Navigation becomes difficult, and visitors cannot find what they are looking for.
Bookmarks are rendered useless, leading to “not found” error pages.
Server bandwidth is wasted.
Valuable site traffic is lost.
Lost conversions and sales
Calling out these issues should emphasize the importance of paying attention to URL strategy and structure. Here are three key questions every marketer or Web designer should ask before planning and redesigning a Web site:
1. Is search-engine based URL architecture included in the site’s business and technical requirements?
Getting URL structure and search optimization established as business and technical requirements before starting a redesign goes 90 percent of the way to maintaining positive search equity. Trying to tackle complex search issues in the middle or end of redesign is a losing battle that nobody wins.
2. How much URL equity is established in the current site structure?
URL equity should be based on several factors, including the number of backlinks, the quality of those backlinks, the previous investment in search, the age of the domain and URL structure, and positive search engine equity.
3. How can the existing URL structure be preserved?
If you have a sustainable URL structure, in order to preserve positive equity it is a search best practice to maintain that structure when going from one site design to another. While you can’t always avoid changes in URL structure (possibly because of user experience changes or technical issues), making every attempt to maintain consistent structure will provide better long-term benefits for search.
Assessing URL Equity
Once Web site stakeholders understand the value in preserving URL structures in a redesign, there are many considerations for assessing the quality of existing link structures. To assess the value of a URL prior to the redesign, consider the following:
Quality of inbound home page and deep site links–Time should be spent reviewing hundreds, or even thousands, of links through a manual backlink check in a major search engine; key links should be identified and prioritized in order of importance.
Age and history of domain and URLs–The age of a domain and internal URL structure can also have a major positive impact on a site’s search visibility.
Log file history–Based on incoming search engine referrals and link traffic, reading log files can provide a good indication of which internal site pages are performing well.
Liabilities–URLs can also have a negative history that could reduce the search performance of a Web site. If a site has ever engaged in tactics that search engines don’t approve, or if the URLs have been banned at any time, you should consider a change of domain.
Transitioning URL equity
No matter how much you prepare for a smooth transition, some URLs will inevitably change, and some documents will be removed. In this event, proper redirection techniques are essential in preserving positive search engine visibility. In most cases, 301 permanent redirects are the best solution for using multiple domains and for the pages that have moved to a new location.
301 redirects vs. 302 redirects: When a page is permanently moved to a new location, a 301 status will tell the search engine to remove the previous page from the index, and will start crawling the new location from that point forward.
Pointing multiple domains: Pointing multiple domains is acceptable to search engines, as long as 301 redirects are used. When 302 or 200 status redirects are used, you may encounter duplicate content issues. In a worst-case scenario, duplicate content issues can result in the total ban of pages or an entire site, and will often decrease the overall search engine performance of a Web site (though most duplicate content is removed without any site penalty).
URL rewriting: If URLs must change, one solution is to rewrite the new URLs in the same format as the old structure, or create a new search-friendly structure entirely. URL rewriting will give you more freedom to change platforms and file names, while maintaining a consistent naming convention.