Does Your New Website Need Redirects? 404s Can Tank Your Business

Every few weeks or so, we’ll receive the following phone call from a business owner:

“Hi, I think I need help with SEO and marketing. I recently got a really nice new website, but 80% of my traffic has disappeared. My business has dropped like a rock. What’s going on?”

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The cause of the caller’s woes is usually pretty simple—most their site’s pages have disappeared. Here’s what I mean by that.

Let’s say you run the website lotsofphonecases.com, where you sell protective cases for cell phones. You had the website built several years ago, and it’s done well. You have a lot of pages that rank well for search terms like “Samsung Galaxy S7 phone case.” But a few months ago, you decided that the website was starting to look pretty dated, so you hire a web developer to create a brand spanking new website.

Your old website has a page for each model of phone that you sell cases for, and these pages are grouped by manufacturer. So for instance, you have pages like:

  • lotsofphonecases.com/apple/iphone7plus – This page sells cases for the iPhone 7 Plus
  • lotsofphonecases.com/apple/iphone7 – This page sells cases for iPhone 7
  • lotsofphonecases.com/samsung/galaxys7 – This page sells cases for the Galaxy S7.

There’s a predictable structure here: your website name, a slash, then the manufacturer, another slash, and then the smartphone model. Everything’s nice and organized.

Your new website developer creates a site that works pretty similarly to your old one, which a page for each cell phone model. But, he decides to take a slightly different approach when it comes to the URLs. He decides not to use the hierarchy the old site used. Instead, the above three pages are found at:

  • lotsofphonecases.com/apple-iphone7plus
  • lotsofphonecases.com/apple-iphone7
  • lotsofphonecases.com/samsung-galaxys7

We no longer have that /apple/ or /samsung/ that went in front of the phone model. Instead, now we just lump the manufacturer right in with the phone model. But the user interface still works much the same, and the site looks fantastic and modern now. Awesome! The site’s ready to launch.

It launches. And… your orders fall off a cliff. Last week you had 700 orders. This week, you got 92. What’s going on?

If a page URL changes, Google assumes that the page is simply gone.

Here’s the issue. When your old site was up, the page for your iPhone 7 Plus phone cases ranked really well, and it pulls in a lot of customers. Well, that page was located at lotsofphonecases.com/apple-iphone7plus. That’s where Google expects to find it.

But Google constantly updates its search index. It will crawl and recrawl the same pages over and over again, taking note of any changes and updates. Well, one day it goes to look at lotsofphonecases.com/apple-iphone7plus, and it’s gone. It gets a 404 Not Found error. The page simply no longer exists.

Well, Google’s not going to link to a page that doesn’t exist anymore, right? It doesn’t want to direct searchers to a non-existent page. So it essentially deletes that search result from its index.

Google isn’t a big fan of websites with lots of 404 errors.

And here’s the larger problem. It’s not just the old iPhone 7 Plus page that has disappeared. Every single one of your old product pages that Google tries to find is suddenly gone. It’s raining 404 errors. The iPhone 6s page? Gone. The Galaxy S8 page? Gone. HTC 10? Gone.

All of your old pages are gone. Now, it’s normal for old pages to disappear and new ones to replace them. That’s part of the cycle of life and death on the Internet. But when Google crawls a site and it’s suddenly a hot mess of 404s, that makes Google a little bit leery of the website. It starts to not look quite as trustworthy.

Google doesn’t really have a way of knowing that the 404s aren’t an issue if you’re just clicking through the site. All it can do is see that a bunch of pages are now gone, breaking any links that pointed to them.

So even though you have a bunch of sexy new pages that replace the old ones—just with different URLs—Google may choose not to rank those new pages as highly as the old ones. Basically, Google’s thought process is, “While some of this content is good, there are a lot of broken links on this site. If I send a visitor here, they may get frustrated by all of the broken links. I shouldn’t feature this site as prominently.”

The result is that the site’s search rankings suffer as a whole because Google has downgraded its perceived level of trustworthiness and usefulness.

Pages that are removed also lose their backlinks.

The other issue is that, if your website has been online for quite a while, it’s probably earned a lot of backlinks. Your cell phone case business has been bolstered by all the customers who’ve posted messages on countless forums and websites things like, “Hey, I got a great case for my iPhone 7 from Lots of Phone Cases. You can see their iPhone 7 cases at this link here.” That link is a backlink. And backlinks are one of the ways that Google determines whether a page is useful and relevant. Lots of backlinks mean that the page will rank higher.

But when you bought that sexy new website with the new link structure, the page lotsofphonecases.com/apple/iphone7 disappeared, breaking all of those backlinks. The new page at lotsofphonecases.com/apple-iphone7 has none of that backlink value. It’s a brand new page, starting from scratch. As a result, it will probably rank far lower than the old page did.

Redirects allow you to preserve the backlinks and search rankings of a web page when you change its URL.

Here at Post Modern Marketing, when we create a new website for a new website, we’ll try and keep things simple by mirroring the old website structure as much as possible.

In the case of our example business, we would never run into the problem that lotsofphonecases.com is facing. That’s because we would choose to keep the old URL structure. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s simple and it’s descriptive. There’s no reason to change things up on a whim.

But sometimes, it’s necessary to change things up. In a situation where we have to change the URLs for site pages, we’ll create what is known as a “redirect,” or more technically, a 301 Redirect. A redirect is simply a message that tells a web browser (or a search engine crawler), “Hey, that page that you were looking for there is actually over here,” and automatically forwards you to the new location. It’s the equivalent of a business that moves and puts up a sign at its old location that tells customers the address at which they can find the business’s new office.

If lotsofphonecases.com chose to hire Post Modern Marketing, we could fix their problem by creating a series of redirects from the old product pages to the new product pages. For instance, we would create a redirect from lotsofphonecases.com/apple/iphone7plus to lotsofphonecases.com/apple-iphone7plus.

This serves two purposes. First, anyone clicking on a link in a forum post or article that pointed to the old page would automatically be sent to the new page. Secondly, Google would now recognize that the content that used to be on each of the old product pages hasn’t disappeared, but has simply moved—that in fact, the old pages and their corresponding new pages are one and the same. Hence, Google would pass the backlink value that the old pages had to their corresponding new pages. Because the flurry of 404 errors would be eliminated, any concerns the Google algorithm had about the site’s overall trustworthiness would also likely be remedied.

As long as these redirects were implemented quickly enough after the site launched, it would be possible to recover most—if not all—of the old site’s search rankings.

Of course, the ideal approach is to implement any necessary redirects as part of the website development process, rather than after the fact. That’s why we recommend that when it’s time to update your website, you should always choose a developer that isn’t just skilled in design, but also understands the fundamentals of SEO. Otherwise, your business may pay a heavy price.

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