SEO 101: 301 Redirects When Changing URL Structure & How To Do a Mini Site Review

From the archives…

At the Google Dance in 2007, I did a site review for Scott Jones, who runs jonestshirts.com. He asked me about his site and I did a quick review.

Recently, he asked me a few questions in blog comments, and while I started answering him there (as did a few others), things were getting long enough that I thought my answer would be worth doing a blog post about.

When I looked at his site originally, my quick thoughts were:

  • Use of “tshirts” in the domain was good, and should help get good anchor text.
  • Use of keywords in the copy was good, although he might be overdoing it a little in terms of making it useful copy for visitors. He could also beef up the descriptions of his best selling items.
  • He should make sure that he’s not using stock manufacturer descriptions, since anyone else who sells those same shirts would have those same descriptions. Search engines (and visitors too) look for unique content that sets a site apart and makes it more useful than anything else out there.
  • The content and navigation are still available with javascript and images disabled, so search engines can get to them, which is great.
  • The use of keywords in the URLs, and lack of noisy parameters is good.
  • He should do some keyword research to see how people most often search for wholesale t-shirts. Is it [wholesale shirts]? [Bulk tshirts]? Something entirely different?
  • The site primarily caters to businesses so he should look at not only search traffic, but at the directories and other types of sites that businesses might use to look for wholesale t-shirts. Can he talk to those sites and get links and reviews from them?
  • He should look at the other sites who are ranking for the keywords he cares about to see what they offer to visitors. What is it about those sites that makes them relevant and valuable for the query?

We also looked at his Google Search Console account to see what queries he’s currently ranking for. There’s lots he can do to capitalize on what’s listed there. And we looked at his links and found that it’s one area he can definitely improve to help out his rankings.

In the comments, he said:

“One of your comments on my site was that you liked the page urls like jonestshirts.com/tshirts. well, a lot of my other pages just had random numbers assigned from my site builder so last week I changed a lot of them to things like /ladiestshirts and /youthtshirts. Googlebot accessed my site yesterday and now for my main term of wholesale t-shirts, I dropped from about # 11 to somewhere in the 200s. I posted this issue on the webmaster tools forum but I just wanted to ask you too since you seem to know a lot about this topic. I know you’re busy and you might not get a chance to get back to me but any thoughts or advice would be totally appreciated!”

When people say that they dropped in ranking, I always try to find out more about what’s going on. For one thing, what URL used to rank highest? Is it the same URL that is now ranking in a lower position? Or has that previous URL dropped out and now a different URL is ranking (lower). Also, sometimes people find association where it may not exist, so it’s worth digging deeper. In this case, I asked him:

“Did you do a 301 redirect from the old number-based URLs to the new word-based ones? Also, was the URL that was returned in the search results for “wholesale t-shirts” one of the URLs that you renamed?”

He said:

“Vanessa, I did not do a 301 redirect. I guess I was thinking that since the old URLs still work that it would be ok. The site builder that I use has a redireict tool that I can use. I will have to find out if it uses a 301 or not. Do you think that once I implement the redirects that my ranking will be back to where it was or what would the process be? Also, the search result for that term was pulling up one of the newly named pages and it wasn’t my home page. What do you make of that? You are the coolest for responding to me! you seriously rule.”

When you change your URL structure, you should definitely 301 redirect the old URLs to the new ones for a few reasons:

  • You don’t want to have to maintain multiple versions of the same page.
  • Search engines will see those pages are duplicate content and will sort out for themselves which one to show in search results. They’re unlikely to want to show both.
  • You’re splitting link credit and anchor text (both internal and external) and neither page will ever rank as well with both of them out there as one page would alone, with all links pointed its way.We should not forget the lessons learned from Highlander. There can only be one. You run across another and you just have to chop off its head, um, HTML, and absorb all that link power for the one true URL. (Todd would like me to clarify that I mean the first movie and not the crappy sequels. And obviously that’s what I mean, although I might watch the crappy sequels if they happened to come on TNT or something while I was lounging around on my couch some Sunday. But who among us wouldn’t?)301ing duplicate URLs

The other thing about Scott’s response is that one of the new pages is ranking highest for the query, which means that something has likely happened to the page that used to rank. And that could be completely unrelated to whatever is happening with these new URLs. It sounds like it used to be his home page that ranked. So, I checked that out.

“As for your home page not ranking, it looks like the problem is that your home page is no longer indexed at all.

It loads ok and you don’t seem to be blocking it with robots or a meta tag, so I’m not sure why it dropped out. You might check your webmaster tools account and see if anything is listed on the summary page regarding home page access and if the URL is listed in the web crawl errors. It’s possible your host was blocking the Googlebot IP when Google last tried to crawl the page or that your server was down. The crawl errors page should have this listed, if so.”

And JLH noted that:

“It sure would help to link to your home page on your own site. Home links to http://www.jonestshirts.com/wholesaletshirtshome which is also not indexed at the moment. Was that a recent change?”

It turns out that this is one of those layered onion things, although possibly not those blooming onions that Spike on Buffy liked, more like when you’re making soup and you’re chopping an onion and you’re sobbing so hard that the tears are making the soup a little salty and you’re thinking, is this onion chopped yet? But no, it’s a pretty big onion and all those tricks about running water and lighting a candle and humming just don’t seem to be doing the trick. The real solution is just just keep chopping ’til the soup is ready. So, I kept chopping away.

Back in the comments, Scott said:

“By the way, you asked about http://www.jonestshirts.com/wholesaletshirtshome. This is the home page, it is just another instance where I used the “custom page url” feature in order to get more keywords into the url. This is one that I changed several months ago though. Let me know what your thoughts are on that. Should I make it so my home page is just the domain? or should I keep the custom one and do a 301 redirect? Or, since it has been this way for a while already, should I just leave it as is?”

This is when I decided Scott deserved his own blog post, rather than just comments. I did indeed tell him that keyword-rich URLs are the way to go, but that’s not the only factor to consider. A URL like /tshirts.html is better than /12345.html for several reasons. It’s more useful for visitors. It might help search engines know what the page is about. It can jumpt start the external anchor text you’re looking for.

But the home page? I think that’s better off resolving to the domain, in this case, www.jonestshirts.com. As before, if you do have other URLs for your home page, you should 301 redirect everything to one URL, and for the home page, I would keep things simple and do all of that resolving back to the domain. Make sure all internal links are to that one URL and encourage external linking to do the same.

Scott came back later to say that his rankings had returned (he is, in fact, #6 for [wholesale tshirts], and that the 301 redirecting might be problematic to do. This leads to a few simple tips:

  • Rankings always fluctuate and that will only continue to heat up as the search engines are able to reindex more quickly and tweak their algorithms more often, so don’t panic. Always carry your towel. Etc.
  • If you’re watching your rankings for particular keywords, make note of the specific URL that’s ranking to help you troubleshoot things later if your rankings dip. It might not be a ranking issue at all. It might be a technical problem with that particular page.
  • A lot of SEO is about on-page and off-page copy, and while I wouldn’t call any of that easy, the much more difficult, and often even more vital part of SEO is the technical site architecture.
    • Can you implement 301s?
    • Can search engine bots get to the site, or are pages hidden behind things like forms and javascript?
    • Are you blocking everything with a robots.txt file? One of the first things we added to Google Search Console (way back when it was called Google Sitemaps!) was the crawl errors report.Many site owners see indexing problems and immediately assume a penalty or think that if they just squeeze one more keyword in their title, everything will be fine. But sometimes, the real story, once you peel back those onion layers and get through the tears, is that search engines couldn’t technically access the page.

36 thoughts on “SEO 101: 301 Redirects When Changing URL Structure & How To Do a Mini Site Review

  • mercutiom

    I’m pretty sure you covered all the 301 and redirecting bases in there. Wow, that’s a lot to think about. As for movies on TNT, looks like Demolition Man is on tomorrow,and I only have one thing to say on that, “Teddy Bear.”

    Reply
  • qwerty

    Once a Googler…

    Reply
  • g1smd

    I see a few sites that fix the non-www to www 301 redirect domain canonicalisation problem just fine, but forget that the site can also be accessed at the IP address too.

    Additionally for virtual hosting, an additional alias for domainB.com/ can ofen be found at domainA.com/folderB/ and that needs fixing as well.

    For a few select sites, where I see that wildcard sub-domains are allowed, the site will resolve at an infinite number of subdomains: domain.com/ http://www.domain.com/ whatever.domain.com/ vanessa.likes.buffy.domain.com/ ad infinitum.

    Duplicate Content is all around. There are lots of holes to block on moat sites.

    Reply
  • g1smd

    Spelling: “moat” should be “most”

    Reply
  • Vanessa

    Yeah, I think my site does that wildcard subdomain thing. I should probably fix that. 🙂

    Reply
  • Jehochman

    We’re watching Sophie Scholl tonight…It’s good, especially if you understand German, but otherwise subtitles are fine.

    My recommendation is to slap rel=”nofollow” on any of the links that point to pages that aren’t going to generate good traffic for him, and where he’s not endorsing somebody else. For instance, the links to SecurityMetrics and Verisign. Maybe he should nofollow the link to his policies page. When somebody searches, does he want them to enter his site through that page? Probably not. Links to the shopping cart and the login screen should be nofollowed, and those pages should be excluded via robots.txt.

    Reply
  • TheMadHat

    Great post to keep us thinking about the basics! I wanted to point out one thing g1smd said about wildcard subdomains. We do use subdomains for some backend stuff and originally I would just check host headers for any non www subdomain and throw in a “noindex,nofollow” to eliminate dup’s.

    I’ve changed that up a bit and now we cloak use completely white hat IP delivery and redirect all Googbot requests to the www version.

    I’m not sure how effective that is because it’s newly implemented but hopefully it will give us a little boost.

    Reply
  • Tom

    would you need to 301 a non-www domain to the www even if the non-www wasnt actually indexed anywhere?

    Reply
  • Vanessa

    I wold always use a 301 in this situation so that any potential URL for a page resolves to one single URL. In the situation you describe, the non-www version may not be indexed now, but one day, someone might link to the site using the non-www version. And by having a 301 redirect from that to the www version, you’re able to effectively consolidate link credit.

    Reply
  • aaron

    Vanessa – I sell my product from a domain that does not have a “keyword” in it (that describes my product), are you saying I would benefit by 301ing the domain to a new domain with a keyword in it?

    I also notice that 1-5 page websites dedicated to a single product do much better than those that have many pages, should we be afraid to offer our customers more if we are trying to be found for an important “phrase”?

    I want to show people how to do all kinds of cool stuff with the product I make AM very nervous about diluting my “keyword(s)”.

    My head hurts after reading this post, thanks a lot! ;-(

    Reply
  • Vanessa

    Aaron, if you already have a domain, I’d probably just hang on to it rather than setting up a new one. Others may have other opinions and maybe they’ll post on that. One benefit of having your keyword in your domain is that some sites linking to you will use the domain as the anchor text, which helps you get the anchor text you’re looking for. But other links will use the name of your site as anchor text, so you could try incorporating a keyword there as an alternative.

    There are differing opinions on whether search engines use the domain name itself in determining what the site is about, or if it’s simply that lots of anchor text uses the domain name and that is what helps. I know that this site ranks really well for nude, but is it because nude is in the domain or because nude is in lots of link text? Or is it because once again, I’m using it in the content of the page?

    I definitely think you shouldn’t limit the number of pages of your site. You may notice small sites ranking well, but there are many examples of large sites with lots of disparate categories ranking well also (wikipedia, amazon…).

    I wouldn’t worry about diluting your keywords, but depending on the exat content you’re thinking of adding, it may make sense to add separate pages rather than mix different types of information on one page (hard to say without seeing the site).

    Sorry about your head!

    Reply
  • Rishi Lakhani

    Hi Vanessa – not sure if this is good advice or not but here goes:
    On quite afew of his internal pages, I see that he hasnt take care of spellings in the meta content and there is a distinct lack of creativity in the “description” tag see the below URL for instance:
    http://www.jonestshirts.com/product/3930

    I would suggest cleaning up the description tags to make sure that the page main keywords are covered, but also rewritten in a salesy way to create cobnversions – after all – humans see that content on SERPs.
    On the other hand, this may be intentional – as the title tag of the page does describe the product – and the description tag covers the specs of the product – but I still dont see a “whole sale fruit of the looms” sales message.

    another point I found starnage is that his home page resolves at:
    http://www.jonestshirts.com/
    The text link to home (right hand top)at:
    http://www.jonestshirts.com/home
    And the image based navigation to home resolves at :
    http://www.jonestshirts.com/wholesaletshirtshome

    At least 2 of these are included in the G search index : http://www.google.co.uk/search?hl=en&safe=active&q=site:http://www.jonestshirts.com&meta=

    Maybe worth looking into?

    Reply
  • Pingback: Is Your Home Page Exactly That? : UK Search Marketing Services From upthejunction.com

  • David Payne

    Well, these aren’t going to be on TNT but . . .

    Tonight – Heroes, Journeyman
    Later this week – Bionic Woman
    Highlight of the Week – Smallville w/ Bizarro, Martian Manhunter, and Supergirl.

    Wemaster Central Question . . . I have over 40,000 errors in Webmaster Central that is being caused by a very large RSS feed that is malformed. I have contacted the site owner with no response from them. How can I disassociate myself from this error causing site? I want a way to list domains in Webmaster Central that I don’t want used for pageranking, error reporting, etc. I have mentioned this a dozen times and nobody seems to get excited about it.

    Thanks,

    David Payne

    Reply
  • Vanessa

    Oh thanks for reminding me. I want to set Bionic Woman up to tape, er, tivo, er digitally record.

    You’re talking about web crawl errors? There may be nothing you can do, although if there’s a pattern in how the URLs are malformed, maybe you could implement a site-wide 301 redirect to working pages.

    People have certainly asked before about “disavowing” other sites, but I’m not sure where that is on the team’s current roadmap. I know they’re aware of it though.

    Reply
  • Susan Esparza

    It’s not going to be on TNT but I feel like I should point out that I actually own the original version of Highlander 2. Aliens from Zeist and all. I like to torment the unsuspecting with it.

    Reply
  • Pingback: Search Engine Land: News About Search Engines & Search Marketing

  • David Payne

    Thanks Buffy Vanessa.

    Here is another and it’s more specific to 301s

    What is wrong with this redirect?

    http://www.onecall.com/ProductDetails.aspx?id=14994

    I have 1,212 of these errors in Google Webmaster Central as well. They are all discontinued products that we don’t want to remain on the web but we want to maintain the inlink juice. We have also another set of URLs that that we removed the 301 on, that simply shows different availability messaging. None of those are having issues just the URLs we are pointing to the homepage.

    Reply
  • David Payne

    Sorry malformed HTML

    Here is a clean URL

    http://www.onecall.com/ProductDetails.aspx?id=14994

    Reply
  • Vanessa

    What error are you seeing in webmaster tools?

    Reply
  • David Payne

    This is the error I am seeing . . .

    http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=35157

    Reply
  • David Payne

    So any thoughts?

    Reply
  • Vanessa

    Yes — I’m getting ready to board a plane right now, but as soon as I have a few spare minutes, I want to try a few things and will get back to you. The quick answer is that it appears there must be multiple redirects on the URL. But I haven’t actually had the chance to check yet to see if that’s the case. Is there a redirect chain? Sometimes this is set up in the htaccess file and it’s hard to tell at first glance, but a wget should trace it, I think.

    Reply
  • Scott Jones

    WOW!

    A few days go by with me not getting a chance to catch up on your site and to my total and complete amazement, you dedicate a full on posting about my my site! How cool is that? I was right all along, you DO rule! I was seriously beyond stoked when I read the title to your posting – I immediately forwarded it to everyone I know. Too cool. So, seeing how I am tied up at a work conference for the rest of this week and then my anniversary is this weekend, I am going to need to make time to come back to address several of the discussion points that have been brought up. I just wanted to at least comment tonight so that you didn’t think I fell off the end of the earth. Anyway, take care and I will add more later.
    Thanks again!!! I feel so lame that I am just now seeing this. (my day job which is not jonestshirts.com has been insane this week with no time for surfing)
    Later,

    ~Scott Jones, the t-shirt guy.

    Reply
  • Pingback: SEO WORLD NEWS » Blog Archive » Best Practices for Targeting Generic & Specific Terms & Phrases

  • Adam

    One thing we’ve seen when implementing 301 redirects is that for a period of time, the increase in 301 redirects can hurt your rankings a little. It’s as if a large spike in 301 redirects is a negative signal- google seems to need some time to trust the pages again.

    May be a non-issue if you’re dealing with a site that isn’t thousands of pages all generating 301s

    Reply
  • Richard Hearne

    Best use of a film clip image in an SEO post goes to…

    Still chuckling at the sword images – cool 🙂

    Reply
  • Pingback: isedb.com

  • g1smd

    Heh. But the real question is, is Vanessa’s sword bigger than Matt Inigo Cutts’ sword? 🙂

    Great post, and very timely! You posted just before the story broke about Google taking exception to the site-wide redirects recently implemented at the ODP. That problem seems to have now passed.

    Reply
  • AussieWebmaster

    Nice piece…. working Highlander and a short Buffy scene into the mix was a great touch…. you should be blogging more

    Reply
  • Pingback: links for 2007-09-28 | Ge Xiaofei

  • Pingback: Search Engine Land: News About Search Engines & Search Marketing

  • Pingback: » The Name My Domain Contest! Get Your Entry In Now For Fame, Glory, and Fabulous Prizes! | Vanessa Fox. Nude.

  • Mohammed Shakir

    I just saw your blog. It is amazing, we put in the same change on our website around New Year.

    I had the same comments after we replaced old pages with pages with new names. My old pages are still showing up with higher rankings, but my new pages with keywords text instead of parameter/numbers still do not show up in searches. Luckily, I have a smart son, who answered my question just couple of hours ago. that it will take time for Google and Yahoo to rank my new pages.

    However, as many of our old pages are showing up on searches, we left couple of pages with the same name, but they direct search results to the homepage. This may not be the best solution, but at least, we do not lose the traffic that is coming to us.

    Next, we did not change the name of the homepage. It is still named index.

    Surprisingly, one of our website is for selling wholesale t-shirts online. During t-shirts searches, and looking at the other high ranking wholesale t-shirts websites results, we gathered we had to replace our queries from parameters with numbers to keywords. We knew this for almost a year ago, but had no time to figure out how to implement it with our existing back end. About a month ago my son took some time out to figure out how to do it, then implemented it on two of our major websites.

    Now we have to wait and see, when our new pages web rankings catch up and if surpass the old ones.

    Reply
  • Internet MarketInternet MarkeInternet Marketing Softwareting Softwareing Software

    I was planning to change some of my site’s pages to new ones, your post will help me in redirectly old pages to new onew.

    When i started reading it, i absolutely had not any idea that it is about redirect. interesting too…

    Reply
  • Internet Directory

    Google some times don’t act according to our expectations. Even key word building won’t help much some times.

    Reply

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *