Technical SEO

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 Brown
Jill Kocher Brown
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