Did your website redesign kill your visitor numbers?

A massive mistake which many companies make when they launch a new website, with a different structure and new page filenames, is not to redirect all of the pages from the old site. Yet I’ve seen it happen to dozens of companies over the last few years. What their website designers were thinking, I just don’t know. Two huge problems are going to occur. Firstly, for weeks or probably months, the search engines are going to send people to pages which no longer exist, until they catch up. Secondly, all those links out there to the website from third party sites – links which will remain broken forever – will no longer be passing on the strength of the links. And as we know, that’s the ‘currency’ of search engines.

I often find out about this disaster when a company mentions to me that they redesigned their website a few months ago, and ever since, the traffic from the search engines has been terrible. Now you know the reason why. Whereas before, Google saw 10 or 100 or 1000 links to the site, and ranked it accordingly, now it sees none (which aren’t broken, anyway). The site gets savagely downgraded in the search engine results.

If this has happened to you, what can be done about this? Don’t panic. The ideal situation is if you have a site map (a list of pages) from the old site. You can tabulate these and their new equivalents, and set up a redirection file from this. Most people won’t have that, however. The next best approach, in my experience, can be done if you realise what’s happened within a week or two of the new site launching. You can still query Google as to the pages it has in its index using the “site:” command, although you’ll need a geeky old web hacker like me to extract the data from the Google results. You can then set up your redirect table as if you had a list of all the old pages. Finally, if it’s long after the event, you can look at the data in Google Analytics or Google Webmaster Tools, to see the page calls which have been generating errors. This won’t be a comprehensive list of all of your old pages, but it will include the most important ones. Indeed, looking at the incoming traffic which is going to non-existent pages is a useful exercise for any website owner.

Discussion

  1. Tim Hughes

    This is a valuable article. I fear this happening to our website in the future. At sometime in the future, we will change our host. Must plan carefully to avoid losing the links.

  2. Gary Aspinall

    I can not stress how important it is that people do not let this happen to their site.

    Excellent article Chris and I’m glad you’re letting people know about 301 redirects.

    If this happened to you and you’re a bit techie, search Google for “see where 404s come from in Google Analytics”, you can set up a user-defined filter on your 404 page which tells you the exact page and site they come from. Review this list on a monthly basis and redirect the broken links.

    If you don’t understand this, ask your developers to make sure they 301 redirect your old to new pages the moment the new version goes live.

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