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How to Avoid Search Meltdown When You Move Your Inbound Marketing Website

By John McTigueApr 26, 2011

In my previous post, I offered some tips on how to physically transfer your website domain to a new CMS. Now let's take a look at how to avoid, or at least fix, the dreaded "page not found" (404) errors you get with Google indexed pages from your previous site.

Before the Transfer

Your first step should be interrogating Google to find all of your indexed pages. Go to Google and search on "site:{enter your domain here - for example kunocreative.com}". This will bring up a list of all of your currently indexed pages, and let you know what you're up against! Notice immediately under the search box you can see the number of pages indexed. Since it's Google, your pages are ranked, so you can get an idea of the relative importance of your pages for SEO.

google error 404 not found

Duplicating Your Site Structure

The easiest way to avoid search errors would be to duplicate the indexed pages (especially their URL's) in your new site. Unless you have FTP access to both old and new sites and your websites will both consist of static pages, this will require a lot of copying and pasting from old to new site. You have to do this before transferring your domain to the new site because otherwise the Google indexed links will no longer work.

Duplicating your site structure is a non-starter for most companies who want to change their website to be more user-friendly and to better attract sales leads. In most cases this involves reorganizing the site architecture and changing the content and messaging. Still, there will probably be some equivalency between the old and new site, so plan your sitemap to reuse as many url's as possible. A good example would be setting your new About Us page url to match the old url. When this is not an option, you have no choice but to redirect the missing pages to new url's.

Redirecting Old Pages to New Equivalents

For any indexed page url's that you don't reproduce in your new site you need to redirect them to an equivalent page, or at least a relevant page in the new site. This involves actually creating a "dummy" page within the new site with the old url and "301 redirecting" it to a new page. This can be done either through your CMS (most have a way of redirecting pages in the page properties section) or directly through code (PHP for example) or by adding a canonical link in the HTML head section of the page. Here's a good reference on how to do that: http://www.stevenhargrove.com/redirect-web-pages. HubSpot has a very handy tool in the Settings section that allows you to redirect multiple url's to new pages without having to create equivalents. I give HubSpot an A+ for providing it.

Another thing you can do, if your site allows direct access to error pages, is to customize your 404 page. If you can access the html on the 404 page, you can make it look like your main site and include some friendly text to help the searcher find the most appropriate content, for example suggested links or a link to your sitemap page.

After the Fact

More often than not, site owners will either not have thought about the Google index or they have chosen to ignore it in hopes that the damage won't be excessive. After all, it takes planning and time to do these redirects perfectly. Unfortunately the damage can be excessive pretty easily. At a minimum you will get a few complaints from searchers trying to find your pages. Much worse is the potential business damage from a potential client searching for your site, finding an error, then bailing out entirely, a lost opportunity that may end up costing you money.

Many have debated the impact of 404 errors on your SEO. I will defer to the SEO experts, and my favorite is Rand Fishkin at SEOMoz. Here's an article he wrote on the subject. The debate centers around whether you should deliberately leave old pages as 404 errors so that Google will eventually remove them from the index. This doesn't help you during the "eventual" part if you are losing customers.

You should periodically check for missing page errors using Google Webmaster Tools. Check the Dashboard for your site and see if there are any "Not Found" under Crawl Errors. Use one of the methods detailed above to redirect the missing pages. You can also forcibly remove pages from the Google index by making a formal request. You have to be the fully authorized owner of the site to make this happen.

Well, that's it for now. Good hunting website owners!

Let me know if you have any questions or comments.

Photo credit: Yaniv Golan

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The Author

John McTigue

With over 30 years of business and marketing experience, John loves to blog about ideas and trends that challenge inbound marketers and sales and marketing executives. John has a unique way of blending truth with sarcasm and passion with wit. You can connect with John via LinkedIn, Twitter and Google Plus.
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