Practical Ecommerce

SEO Traffic Changes When URLs Change

You may have noticed that we recently updated Practical Ecommerce with a fresh, new design. Behind the scenes, a lot of things changed as we moved to a new platform, but the primary URLs stayed exactly the same. And that has made all the difference for organic search-referred traffic.

URL changes are a common byproduct of redesigns, especially when a platform change is included.  Unfortunately, the importance of these changes to SEO is often overlooked in the process.

URLs and navigation form the road map that search engines use to crawl and index a site. When URLs change, organic search performance changes — often for the worse.

Minimizing URL Change Impact on SEO

The typical SEO recommendation for URL changes is a 301 redirect strategy. Make certain to permanently 301 redirect every old URL that will be changing on the site to its new URL counterpart on the new site. The redirect strategy will preserve the old URLs’ link equity and pass 85 percent of it back into the new URLs. In the process, the new URLs inherit link equity instead of having to slowly earn it from scratch, and the old URLs are de-indexed over time. Assuming the redesign hasn’t hamstrung the site’s SEO in other ways, the redirect strategy will typically minimize the length of time it takes for organic search performance to return to normal.

A consumer packaged goods site recently redesigned and migrated to a new platform, completely transforming every URL on the site in the process. After a couple of hiccups in the launch, a short-term 25 percent loss of traffic and a six week recovery period, the redirect strategy and optimizations implemented on the redesigned site overcame the search disruption of the URLs and other site changes. Today it’s driving 19 percent more organic search traffic than it did before the launch, performing better than it has in over a year.

301 redirects recover organic search performance after a short period of time.

301 redirects recover organic search performance after a short period of time.

The period of instability in organic search performance after URLs change during a redesign can be intimidating, but it’s nothing compared to performance without a 301 redirect strategy.

Another consumer product manufacturer client of mine unfortunately chose not to implement a 301 redirect strategy when URLs changed with their redesign, citing a lack of IT resources. The result was a 42 percent decrease in organic search traffic after 12 days.

After averaging consistent 30 percent improvements in weekly organic search traffic year over year, the site suddenly began losing up to 31 percent of its organic search visits the week of the launch. This could have been avoided if the URL changes had been implemented in conjunction with a 301 redirect strategy.

Neglecting to implement 301 redirects for URL changes lowers organic traffic.

Neglecting to implement 301 redirects for URL changes lowers organic traffic.

What If You Don’t Change URLs?

The best scenario for SEO is not to change URLs with a redesign. Practical Ecommerce worked hard to ensure the URLs that drive the majority of its organic search traffic did not change in the migration to the new platform. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. The redesign launch had no noticeable impact on organic search traffic trends year over year. It’s as if the migration to the new platform hadn’t even happened. This is an excellent result in the first two weeks after the new site launch, when decreases and instability are all too common, from which to build a stronger SEO program going forward.

Maintaining URLs resulted in no traffic loss after the Practical Ecommerce new site launch.

Maintaining URLs resulted in no traffic loss after the Practical Ecommerce new site launch.

We’ve seen three examples here: redesigns launching with 301 redirect strategies, without 301 redirect strategies, and with a concerted effort to launch with no changes to URLs. Given a choice, and presuming you already have good URLs, lobby hard to keep existing URLs. No URL change means less confusion for search engines to sift through algorithmically, which translates to a more stable organic search performance after launching.

Sometimes platforms dictate URL structures more firmly. In those cases, make sure to implement a 301 redirect strategy as part of the launch plan. For more information, read “SEO: Launching a Redesigned Site.”

URL Change and Your Business

Frankly, talking about URLs and redirects is tedious and confusing. Representatives from both marketing and development need to be involved, and they frequently misunderstand each other based on their differing knowledge bases. There is probably a design agency in the mix and maybe an implementation vendor as well. That’s a lot of people with a lot of different skill sets that need to discuss a topic that none of them really wants to deal with.

Does it really matter to your business? If your site currently enjoys organic search traffic, and if your business would be negatively impacted by losing that traffic, then the answer is yes.

Consider the examples above. What would losing 25 percent of your organic search traffic for six weeks before the 301 redirect strategy kicks in mean to the bottom line? What about a 31 percent decrease when you had been enjoying a 30 percent increase year over year, with no recovery in sight?

The answer lies in the amount of traffic organic search drives to your site compared to other channels and how well it converts. For a site that only receives 10 percent of its traffic from organic search, even losing half of the organic search traffic would mean a mere five percent decrease in overall site traffic. Or perhaps the organic search traffic converts so poorly that the revenue it drives doesn’t merit spending resources on SEO issues like URLs and redirects.

Most sites, however, would find that a substantial decrease in organic search traffic would cause a major business issue. When planning site redesigns and platform changes, those sites need to include resources to work through discussions on how URL and other structural changes will affect SEO.

Changes in URLs are certainly not the only SEO factor in redesigns and migrations to new platforms. Changes in navigation and internal linking can filter link equity to different parts of the site more or less strongly. More or less content could be found in text form versus image form. Flash, video, iFrames, JavaScript, and other SEO-disruptive technologies could change relevance signals important pages are able to send.

In short, redesigns and platform migrations nearly always have some impact on organic search, and URL changes are just one part of that puzzle. They are, however, a fundamental and often overlooked aspect. In planning for URL change, or planning not to change URLs at all, ecommerce sites will take a big step toward mitigating organic search traffic loss in the redesign process.

Jill Kocher
Jill Kocher
Bio  |  RSS Feed


Get the Practical Ecommerce RSS feed

Comments ( 9 )

  1. Véronique Duong September 7, 2013 Reply

    Hello ! Very good article about URLs changes, thank you

  2. Michael September 8, 2013 Reply

    Thanks for your article Jill. I redesigned my site about 2 years ago with about 1,000 301 redirects. Is there a recommendation as to how long to keep these and when I can remove them from my htaccess?

  3. Molly Hanley September 10, 2013 Reply

    Thanks for the helpful info. So, if we are moving our website onto a new platform and we keep all our URL’s EXACTLY the same, there is no need for a 301 redirect – correct? But what if the new platform has a different navigation and therefor some of the URL’s no longer make sense (depending on category changes, changes to section names, etc.). Any information is much appreciated! Thank you.

  4. Elizabeth Ball September 11, 2013 Reply

    If only the drop in traffic following the Google Penguin and Panda algorithm changes could be fixed with 301 redirects!
    I’m moving to a new shopping cart so there will be even more changes but thanks for the tips, Jill, I will definitely request 301 redirects.

  5. Jon Rave October 31, 2013 Reply

    Why is there that initial dip in organic search traffic after the new URL?

  6. Karnal Singh May 1, 2014 Reply

    One month back i redesigned my blog and changed each and every url without putting up redirects…there has been a significant drop in traffic..I read your article after facing the problem – it has been nicely written but i have already lost the bus…

    • Jill Kocher June 6, 2014 Reply

      Karnal, see my reply to Michelle below. It *might* not be too late… depending on how often you get crawled and whether the old URLs are still indexed. It’s a stretch at this point but worth a check.

  7. Michelle @ Healthy Recipe Ecstasy June 2, 2014 Reply

    I changed my URLs without doing a 301 redirect (I am not tech saavy and didn’t realize the impact). Is there anything I can do after the fact to help get my traffic where it once was?

    • Jill Kocher June 6, 2014 Reply

      Hi Michelle, if your old URLs are still indexed, you can still do 301 redirects. If Google and Bing have deindexed your old URLs already, they won’t “see” your 301 redirects because they are no longer crawling the old URLs. Make sense? Here’s what to do:

      1) Check indexation. Get a short list of the URLs that USED to drive the most organic search traffic before the URL change. Then go to Google and Bing and do a site: query to see of that URL is indexed. That means pasting something like this into the search box at Google & Bing:
      site:www.yoursite.com/page/page/etc
      If the search result shows the page, it’s indexed. It not, it’s not indexed.

      2) If still indexed: Do the 301 redirects — they’ll still help! They may not get crawled frequently now depending on how long it has been since you changed the URLs. Since they’re no longer being linked to on your site, the engines are less and less interested in crawling them over time. To prompt them to crawl sooner, see #3b below.

      3) If NOT indexed: You can TRY to do the 301 redirects and prompt a crawl of the old URLs. You’ll have to decide if you have the dev resources to spend on this and if the loss in traffic is worth the experiment. But here’s what to do:
      3a) Put the 301 redirects in place. Here’s some tips on putting together the 301 redirect map: http://www.practicalecommerce.com/articles/63260-SEO-How-to-Create-a-301-Redirect-Map-for-Site-Redesigns
      3b) Prompt the crawl. There are a couple of ways to do this. You can put the old URLs you want to have crawled in an XML sitemap and submit it to Google and Bing webmaster tools. You can also post it on your site and make it autodiscoverable in your robots.txt file. (Here’s what that means: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/183669?rd=1) At some point, maybe in 6 months or so, go back in and remove the XML sitemap so it doesn’t keep requesting the engines crawl URLs that no longer have value to you or to searchers.

Email Newsletter Signup

Sign up to receive EcommerceNotes,
our acclaimed email newsletter.

And receive a free copy of our ebook
50 Great Ecommerce Ideas