Natural-Born Search Killers, Part 2

This column originally appeared in Search Insider on August 2, 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.

Natural-Born Search Killers

This column originally appeared in Search Insider on August 2, Rob Garner


In April 2006, Emarketer/Marketing Sherpa reported that marketers will substantially increase Web site redesign spending more than any other interactive activity, including search marketing. As redesigning becomes a more popular option than starting from scratch, it is imperative for marketers to understand the major elements that impact a pre-existing natural search presence.

Any number of different project factors can wipe out the search presence of a Web site that is performing well. A few of the more commonly known natural born search killers include Flash, hidden content and non-search-friendly content management systems. Much has been written on each of these topics, so I want to take this time to shed some light on a lesser-known element that has just as much potential to make or break natural search presence: changing a URL structure.

One element of redesign that has a major impact on search investments is the treatment of URL equity, which is the sum of several important values tied into URL structure. Changing domains or renaming existing deep URL structures without a solid strategy can wipe out years of gains in links, traffic, sales and conversions, and prior natural search investments.

Over the last few years I have observed that client indifference to URL strategy has consistently been a major threat to a search presence. Being indifferent about URLs means that a single variable implemented in the development or planning process has the potential to erase years of positive gains. Rather than taking recommended preventive and transitional measures, most clients go into reactive mode and attempt to patch up issues than cannot be fully repaired. The impact is felt in years of lost links, lost search engine traffic, dramatic loss of indexed pages, lost sales and conversions, and lost search investments.

I am not suggesting that sites should never be redesigned, or that URLs should not be renamed. There are many legitimate reasons to alter URLs, including revamping of the user path and experience, changing technical platforms, or removing content. A redesign should be treated as an opportunity to bridge current equity and to maintain a sustainable URL structure that will position a site for a long-term positive natural search presence. Understanding the inherent value of URLs will not only help bridge accrued natural search gains, but also bridge a site’s search engine reputation for years to come.

The elements of URL equity

Uniform Resource Locators (also known as Uniform Resource Identifiers or URIs) are the axis point for all traffic that runs throughout a site. A site’s URL equity is composed of the following elements:

Link equity:
This is the positive buildup of links over time, both to the home page and the internal URL structure of a site. Links may come from many places such as blogs, newspaper sites, authority sites, directories or internal site pages. It is not uncommon for many major brands to have hundreds of thousands, or even millions of quality links pointing to a domain and deep internal site structures. Links and other “off-the-page” factors are now the most crucial element in how search engines retrieve their results. Preservation of existing links alone is a strong enough reason to maintain URL equity and natural search engine presence.

Where there is link equity, there can also be link liability. If a domain or URL has been banned in an engine due to bad linking practices, then another URL name may be considered.

Positive search engine equity:
Positive search engine equity is gained from the history of search engine crawling, indexing and retrieving over time. URLs are like a serial number for a document, and search engines use domains and internal URLs as the reference point for these processes. For sites that do not spam and have a positive history with the search engines, URLs become more trusted over time.

Using new URLs or domains in a redesign means that engines must start the crawling, indexing, and retrieval processes over again. Search optimizers share the common knowledge that legacy domains and trusted URLs are like gold; if a domain or trusted URL structure is several years old or older, there is a distinct advantage over sites built on newer domains and structures. As I mentioned above, a current or previous ban in the engines indicates a liability. In that case, renaming may still be a positive step for a redesign.

Bookmark equity:
One additional (and often overlooked) factor in assessing URL equity is bookmark traffic. A bookmark represents a site conversion for visitors who have found useful content and will return later. Failure to bridge the gap for converted visitors is a poor usability experience, because these visitors are left hanging with their intentions unfulfilled.

Search investment:
Costs are incurred whether natural search is performed in-house, by an agency or by a consultant. When URLs change without a plan, there is a risk of completely wiping out search investments. This could include previous link development campaigns, general site promotion designed to drive traffic to deep site URLs, or implementation of general search engine-based Web design practices.

In the next installment of this column, I will discuss the deeper impact of changing URLs in a site redesign, bridging URL structures and placing value on site URLs.