When you are updating your website, as part of a major overhaul, consolidation of pages, or routine maintenance, you will occasionally need to change the URL of a particular page. When you change the URL, anybody attempting to access the old URL will receive an error message saying that URL can no longer be found. If robots from search engines encounter these errors, the broken URL will be removed from the search index and that means people will no longer be able to access that page from a search result. This can have a negative impact on your website’s organic traffic.
The best practice is to prevent human visitors (and robots) from finding that error. Instead, you want to redirect visitors and robots who attempt to access the old URL to the new version of the URL. There are different ways to process the redirect, but the most reliable method is handling the redirect via the server. When a user accesses an old URL, the server intercepts that user and sends that user to the new URL. The user is largely unaware that the redirection occurred.
A server-side redirect can be configured a number of different ways. Most often server-side redirects are configured via the .htaccess file (on Apache), via IIS (Windows), or via a web.config file (also Windows). For WordPress (and other CMS systems), there are plugins that will help with configuring and managing redirects.
When configuring a server-side redirect, ensure you are using a 301 HTTP response code to indicate the redirect is permanent. This will help Google more quickly refresh their search index, making sure that searchers find the right pages on your website. A 302 HTTP response code, which is often the default setting and the easiest to implement, indicates the redirect is temporary.
Browser-based methods can be blocked in certain browser configurations and some browser-based methods are ignored by search robots. Other types of browser-based redirects can appear "sneaky" and get you in trouble with Google. For those reasons, browser-based redirects are discouraged, in favor of server-side redirects.
Even when adding a redirect correctly, you will often see a dip in traffic from Google and potentially a dip in rankings in Google search results as Google learns about the redirect and the new URL. The length of time for Google to adjust will vary with some reports saying Google recognized redirects within a matter of hours and other reports suggesting it can take months. For this reason, our recommendation at Elementive is to be extremely cautious about changing URLs and, as much as possible, avoiding URL changes unless absolutely necessary. When it is absolutely necessary to change the URL, we suggest spending time to carefully redirect the changing URLs.
One of the most common reasons for updating URLs, is when you are moving your website to a new platform. Depending on how easily the old and new platforms work together, the platforms may generate different URLs (page.aspx instead of page.php). This is an area to evaluate when selecting new platforms; a platform that requires no (or only a few) changes to URL structure is preferable since it lessens the chances of losing traffic.
When transitioning a website with only a few pages with changed URLs, redirecting each page is easy. But if you have lots of pages with changed URLs (for example, thousands of product pages all have changed URLs) sometimes it is more practical to only select the "best" pages to redirect. This may include redirecting pages with several external links, high traffic volume, a high number of social shares, a higher conversion rate, or some combination of those factors.
There are a number of tools available to help you check the server-side redirects you have implemented. In Google Search Console, you can go to the Fetch as Google tool and input the old version of the URL (the version you redirected). Google should show that this URL with the status “Redirected.” You can click on the URL for more details about the redirect, including if the redirect is using a 301 HTTP Status Response code to indicate it is permanent.
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