For those of you that know that I just moved into a new house, and that Accession Media moved into a new office-this posting isn’t about either of those. Though some more planning on our house move would have saved a ton of aggravation...
No, this posting is about moving your website - or rather, redesigning it. If you have an existing website that you are planning on rebuilding or redesigning, make sure you consider what your regular sources of traffic are. Especially if your site is larger (10’s to hundreds of pages) and depends on advertising revenue! Ask yourself these questions as you prepare to launch a new version of your website:
Is one of your major sources of traffic the search engines (Google, Yahoo!, MSN, etc)? What percentage of your monthly traffic comes from these sources? (Hint: check your web analytics referring traffic or acquisition reports to find out.)
When you launch the new version of the website, will the URLs of some or all of your sites pages change? Meaning will this http://www.yoursite.com/olddirectory/oldpage.html change to http://www.yoursite.com/newdirectory/newpage.aspx?
If the answer to #2 is "yes" and the answer to #1 is "a lot" or "about 40-50%" then you need to be sure to take a few steps to mitigate a looming problem after you launch your shiny new website.
What problem you ask?
The old assumption was that a new website launch would increase traffic. The shear beauty and usability off the revised site would inspire more visitors to stay longer. The press releases around the rebuild would drive far more traffic than was already coming on a daily basis. However, this was before the skyrocketing use of search engines in the past 7 or 8 years (I’m looking at you Google).
In that time search engines went from being a novelty that didn’t work so well to being the place to start your online session when you are looking for anything from new pressure gauges, to info on Multiple Sclerosis, to a local Indian restaurant, to a new car. This was in no small part due to the rise in the amount of content on the web, and the ever increasing ability and efficiency of the big search engines to index it all and present users with relevant results for their queries.
So where does this leave us today? Most websites (especially ones that have been around for a few years) that don’t have registration or for-pay login functionality will find that traffic from the search engines make up a big portion of their monthly traffic - usually anywhere from 40-80%! Once you launch that pretty new website you have officially broken all of the links that Google, Yahoo!, MSN and others have in their indices. When users perform relevant searches and your old pages come up, people will click on them and most likely get a 404 ("Page Not Found") error. In short order the old pages will fall out of the index, but it may take a while for the new pages to get indexed and rank as well as your old ones did. The result can often be a significant dip in traffic post-launch.
So what can be done to mitigate this? Three critical things:
Make sure you look at your stats and see which pages are bringing in traffic from the search engines. Make a list of those URLs - say the top 100 - then 301 redirect (301 is important!) those old pages to the URL of the same or similar pages on the new site.
Look at backlinks in the search engines. Which of your site pages have attracted lots of links from other sites online? Make sure those pages are also 301 redirected to appropriate new site pages if they weren’t caught in step 1. Then attempt to contact the webmasters of the sites that link to your pages and get them to update their links. This can be arduous, but depending on the value of those incoming links may just be worth the work.
Make sure your new site’s 404 page is friendly and helpful. There will probably still be pages of your old site that weren’t caught in steps 1 and 2 above, and 404 pages are a fact of life online. However, if you make sure your 404 error page offers users options, you can help keep that traffic on the site. Example: "The page you are looking for couldn’t be found - use our search box above or click here to go to our site’s home page." This is a basic example, but you can take this even further with 404 page functionality that senses the referring keyword of users hitting that page from search engines, etc. (You may find this book helpful in this area)
While these three techniques seem like basic, common sense "webmastering," I’m constantly seeing many site owners forget about these basics in the flurry of activity that leads up to a new site launch deadline. These items are often left at the bottom of the project plan as a "nice to have," but if not addressed before the launch can come back to bite you.
While there are no guarantees that these mitigation techniques will get your new pages ranking well very quickly (this is still going to depend on the other traditional SEO factors), they will help stave off a big post-launch traffic dip for sites that owe much of their traffic to the major search engines.
If you have any questions about this posting, or would like help analyzing your site traffic in preparation for a new site launch, we are always happy to help.