Website Redesign: Marketing Suicide?

Search engine optimization (SEO) has become an important marketing tool. With so many professionals paying so much attention and money to SEO efforts, I am shocked by a huge mistake I see made repeatedly – site redesigns that break old links.

There are three primary ways of generating traffic to your website: push (email, advertising, promotion), pull (RSS/Atom web feeds, monitoring services) and referral (third party links, search engine results, PR, word of mouth). All three should be important aspects of your marketing strategy since people have different preferences for how they interact with your website. In fact, most would agree that you ignore any of the three at your own peril. Yet, while many write about the importance of getting third party links to improve search engine results, few seem to discuss the importance of making sure those links remain valid.

A link from a third party is something to be proud of and something to be protected. It drives visitors, enhances your site’s reputation and contributes to enhanced search engine results. Broken links destroy all those benefits. If a web page is valuable enough for someone to link to, then it is valuable enough to maintain.

Some prominent websites I have seen destroy old links with a site redesign include: INSEAD knowledge, strategy+business, Chief Executive, A.T. Kearney, Prism, Across the Board, and Business 2.0 magazine. My goal in listing these sites is not to criticize them (I read all regularly) but rather to show the problem isn’t unique to small businesses. If sites such as these, whose primary focus is on content, can make such a mistake, sites with a different focus may be more at risk.

Even if your site redesign involves changing the technology platform, maintaining old links is easily accomplished with a small script that translates the old structure (assuming there was one) to the new structure via 301 redirects (301 is a standard Web code search engine spiders understand to mean that the page has permanently moved). Any competent webmaster can do this. If your old site didn’t have a well-defined site structure a different script can be written to convert each old URL to its corresponding new page. The legwork to map the old links to the new ones may not be trivial but the technology needed is.

Here’s another useful tip: monitor 404 pages. You know 404 pages–that page not found message you see all too frequently when surfing the Web (your site’s 404 pages is customized and offers useful information, right?). All web analytics software includes 404 reports. It is also quite easy to write a program to email someone when a 404 page is generated. This might be overkill but could be useful in the days following a redesign. By monitoring 404 pages, you won’t have to rely on visitors to point out your broken links.

If you are planning a redesign you may wonder how much of an impact this issue could have. Most search engines allow you to search for the pages indexed and for sites that link to your domain. For example, with Google you can find all the pages indexed by searching:
site:www.mydomain.com
and you can search for sites that link to your domain with:
link:www.mydomain.com
Of course there are sites, such as Marketleap’s Link Popularity Check which can help you find third party links as well.

Changing URLs for archived pages
In addition to worrying about URLs after a redesign, you should consider those that change regularly in your current design. A common example of this is a site which changes URLs of pages when they are outdated and/or move off the main page into archives. This can make it difficult to build good search engine placement, as links to pages of your website become broken or are never linked to in the first place because a savvy webmaster or blogger recognizes the link will soon be bad. My advice is to make sure that your website functions in a manner that allows you to move content into archives without having to change the URL.

Conclusion
In this tech-driven age, marketers are becoming obsessive about tracking changes to websites via analytics software, A/B and multivariate testing, SEO copy, UI testing, etc. And well they should be. But this obsession is internally focused. Marketers need to start considering the extended network of sites that are a de-facto component of any website and its search engine marketing. That includes ensuring that once a page is created and publicly available it remains that way.


Jeff Blum is an entrepreneur, consultant, and researcher focused on business and leadership principles, strategies and best practices. He also created and maintains the website, MBA Depot.

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