Clean-up Your Links – Permalinks, 404′s and Redirects
If you’re just now launching a website for you or your business, aside from being a little late to the party, consider yourself lucky. The reason I say that is because there’s a large task that you can kind of ignore at this point. Because you haven’t had a website sitting out on the tubes for years, you don’t have a lot of old links to your site that are collecting traffic that you need to worry about redirecting to an appropriate page on your site. You should still think about your URL and link structure.
For example you should decide if the following URL is appropriate:
or if something like the following would be better:
Both would function and display content for the user, but one is “friendlier” and helps describe slightly what the user may expect when they click on the link. Links, when well organized, can also serve as a navigation method for some users to identify where they are and how to get back to where they were before.
Generally, you want to make sure that your URL’s are as simple as possible while still getting the job done. Many CMS (content management systems) like WordPress and Joomla make displaying friendly URL’s a fairly simple and straight forward task. Take advantage of those features.
404′s – File Not Found Error
If pages are published to the web and indexed by Google, or linked to by other sites then visitors are probably using those links to get to your pages. If you un-plublish a page, rename it, change your permalink structure or completely restructure your website through a redesign, your visitors may find themselves looking at a 404 page on your site. Do you know what pages are creating 404′s for your visitors? You should be and free tools like Google Webmaster Tools and Bing Webmaster Tools make identifying these and fixing them fairly easy.
Notice I said “easy” and not quick. Depending no your website, you may have 1000′s of pages that are broken and creating errors. These need to be updated and addressed for your visitors. Hopefully there’s a new, active page on your site that has similar information and content on it that you can direct the user to instead of the broken page. Taking the extra step to provide the user with a suitable replacement for content is better than a default 404 page, but even your 404 page can be used to market you, your business and your content. Get creative and Give Your Visitors the 411 on Your 404 Page.
Once you’ve identified the pages and links you need to fix for your visitors, now you need to create redirects to pages whenever possible. Redirects do exactly what the name implies, they redirect the user from your broken page, to the appropriate new or related content page automatically.
This is the area that can get time consuming. Google Webmaster Tools will let you export a list of all of your broken pages to a CSV file. To speed up the process I’ve created an Excel spreadsheet that allows me to paste in that information and start automatically building the text file I can copy and paste into the .htaccess file on the server to handle all these redirects.
Sometimes the broken links on your site will make sense, other links may make you think, “Who is linking to me on that!”. Sometimes these links are created dynamically. Sometimes they’re guessed by users, sometimes it’s attempts by hackers to find holes in your security. Google Webmaster Tools will also show you where links are coming from and how frequently. You can use this information to prioritize managing your efforts to fix all of these issues. Some links you can just ignore as anomalies and move on.
Depending on the framework your site is built, there are plugins and tools that will also provide help in these instances. I recommend the “Redirection” plugin for WordPress and “sh404sef” extension for Joomla installations.
There are plenty of other things to think about with regards to links and URL’s and your domain. Canonical use of URL’s. Link shorteners. No indexing and no following pages and links as well as how to handle the myriad of variations of links to just your homepage. But those are topics for another day.