Web Marketing Today

Overcoming Changes to a Website, Part 2: 301 Redirects

Editor’s Note: This is “Part 2″ of a 2-part series on mitigating drops in traffic and conversions from website changes. “Part 1: Custom 404 Error Pages” we published previously.

If you want conversions, you need to provide a quality customer experience. This week’s article on redirects — primarily 301 redirects — as well as my previous article on custom 404 error pages, address usability issues on a technical level.

Understanding the Concept, Not the Jargon

This article isn’t for the coders; it’s for the businessperson. One of the biggest issues I see when working with clients is that they don’t know what is possible and thus they cannot communicate their needs to their technical team and miss opportunities to improve customer experience and conversions.

When Do You Need These Concepts?

Websites need to be refreshed, redesigned, or consolidated. Domain names change. During this process, file names are changed, moved into directories or into a new domain. Consider these examples.

  • During a redesign, “aboutus.htm” becomes “aboutus.php”.
  • Domain addresses, such as “companya.com” becomes “companyab.com”.

When this happens, your customers may have trouble finding the information they are looking for because the search engines can show both the original and new files and domains.

Let Your Customers Find You Easily

Have you ever moved to a new home or apartment and forgot to tell people you moved? If friends or companies can’t find you, you don’t get your mail and the senders get a “Return To Sender” yellow label. This is a because you didn’t file a change of address notification.

Return to Sender

“Return to Sender” yellow address label for physical mail, from U.S. Postal Service.

Take this concept to the Internet. The search engines, which have indexed your company’s pages under the original name, will continue to serve up these pages to your customers unless they receive your “change of address” card in the form of a redirection notice.

What does this have to do with conversions and customer experience? When your clients are searching the web and come across a page that no longer exists, wouldn’t it be a good experience if they were immediately redirected to the new page?

In my previous article, I explained custom error 404 pages to be a stopgap measure. These pages direct people back to an error page located in your website, such as in this example from Cirque du Soleil’s website.

Cirque Du Soleil Refresh

Cirque du Soleil’s custom 404 error page.

The Art of Redirection

What if you could take your prospective customers by the hand and lead them to your new content? You can, by using redirects that send the searcher to a different web URL than the one they initially clicked.

Several types of redirects are available though some have serious drawbacks.

  • Meta refresh. Not recommended due to browser performance issues and they are discouraged in Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. According to Google Webmaster Tools Content Guidelines on meta refreshes: “… some redirects are designed to deceive search engines or to display different content to human users than to search engines. It’s a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines to use JavaScript, a meta refresh, or other technologies to redirect a user to a different page with the intent to show the user a different page than a search engine crawler sees…”
  • JavaScript refresh. As used in the above Cirque Du Soleil custom error 404 page, “You will be redirected in 10 seconds or click here.” The same Google meta refreshes guidelines say, “Using JavaScript to redirect users can be a legitimate practice. When examining JavaScript or other redirects to ensure your site adheres to our guidelines, consider the intent. … Keep in mind that 301 redirects are best when moving your site, but you could use a JavaScript redirect if you don’t have access to your website’s server.”
  • 301 redirect. This is the “moved permanently” redirect. It provides good customer experience because it seamlessly takes your visitor to the new page and notifies the search engines of the new location. Google Webmaster Tools states, “If you need to change the URL of a page as it is shown in search engine results, we recommended that you use a server-side 301 redirect. This is the best way to ensure that users and search engines are directed to the correct page. The 301 status code means that a page has permanently moved to a new location.”

2 Examples Where 301 Redirects Are Appropriate

  • Same domain name but file name changes.Whenever possible, keep the same file names during a redesign. Otherwise, by way of example, assume a company uses non-descriptive URLs — such as “http://samplecompany.com/policy.asp?Sub=E.” These URLs were problematic for two reasons: (a) The page content was hard to decipher, and (b) the names were misleading to prospective visitors when they saw them in the search results. The site was being redesigned and the company decided that the names of the files would be changed to something more descriptive, such “http://samplecompany.com/wedding-venues/”, to better reflect the pages’ content. The search engines already had indexed the original pages. While the company had a custom 404 error page, it would be a better customer experience if visitors were just taken directly to the new page with the new content. Employing a 301 redirect also is a good search engine optimization practice.
  • New domain name. Assume another company wanted to change its domain name to better reflect its brand and to use “.com” vs. its previous “.net.” The company also wanted to provide a good customer experience. Instead of just directing people to the new domain, it wanted to take the people to the new corresponding page on the new domain. For example, “http://www.originaldomain.net/aboutus.htm” would redirect to “http://www.newdomain/aboutus.htm.”

Additional Resources

Here are three guides on the technical aspects and considerations of implementing 301 redirects.

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Kathleen Fealy
Kathleen Fealy
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