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Redirecting your old website: what to tell your designer

Yesterday I expressed my irritation with the way that so many professional website developers ignore the need to redirect the pages on old websites when designing new ones. They either don’t know how this can kill a company’s business, or don’t care, seeing it as somebody else’s problem. In my opinion, it’s their responsibility. But as the website owner, you’re going to have to make sure it gets done, so here’s what you need to tell the people who are redesigning your website. Send them this article, if you like!

Firstly, it’s critical that every page URL on the old website is redirected to the new site. Anybody typing in a URL from the old website, or following a link anywhere on the web which went to the old website, should seamlessly arrive at a page on the new site. They must not end up at a “404 Page Not Found” message.

This needs to be be done in advance, and needs to be in place from the moment the new website launches. It is not a job to be done afterwards.

The old URLs should be redirected to the new ones using proper “301 redirects“.

If you’re very lucky, the new website page URLs will be related to the old ones, and it’ll be possible to do the redirections with a single programmatic command. This is highly unlikely to be the case, however, so it will be necessary to specify the redirections on a page-by-page basis. The client may need to be involved here, in specifying which is the new equivalent to each old page.

If the old site has more than a few dozen pages, the task of mapping pages individually may be problematic in terms of resources. In this case, I suggest that as many pages as possible are redirected in this way, and all the others are redirected to the new site’s home page.

How do we choose the pages to redirect? The important ones are those which are linked-to externally, and we can find these using the old site’s visitor analytics. In Google Analytics, for example, go to Behaviour > Site Content > Landing Pages, select the last year or two as a time period, and copy off the top (say) 100 pages. These are the pages where people have been arriving on the site, and are the important ones to map to their equivalents on the new site.

Also take a look at all page views (not just landing pages), to see if there have previously been alternative ways of addressing the major pages, for example (whatever).com, (whatever).com/, (whatever).com/default.aspx, (whatever).com/Default.aspx, (whatever).com/index.html, etc. These may all need to be redirected individually too.

Finally, this should be one of the first things you test when the new site launches. Google’s website crawlers will be hitting the old site within hours, and if they’re finding the pages in their index no longer exist, the site’s performance in the search results can be destroyed, at a cost in lost business of thousands of pounds. Google might claim to be tolerant to this, but I can assure you it is not.

To keep an eye on what’s happening, make sure the domain is signed up to Google Webmaster Tools well before the launch, and ensure that it has a proper 404 page, which can be monitored in Google Analytics.

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