Website Migration and 301 Redirects

by Geoff Hineman

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For e-tailers of all sizes, maintaining an up-to-date and optimally-functioning website is of paramount importance. As such, it is sometimes necessary to move on from your current platform to one that better suits your business model and objectives. There is no shortage of options, of course, but as important as it is to be on the right platform, it is also important to maintain all of the web-equity your current site has built over time. That is where we come to the essential, but too-oft-overlooked step of implementing 301 redirects. Let’s take a look at the whole of the situation, covering why you might need a new platform, exactly what 301 redirects are, and how you can go about implementing them as part of your website migration process.

Reasons Why You Need a New Platform

There are many reasons why your organization may be considering a new platform. These can span from changes within the business, which may render your current platform insufficient, to changes in technologies that will help you better realize your business goals. Here are some more specific examples:

  • Your business has expanded to offer a complementary product line that will be hosted at another website address, but whose inventory and order processing should be handled in the same system as your current site;
  • Your current platform is becoming long in the tooth, with waning support and fewer developmental updates;
  • Evolutions in other technologies used by your business are necessitating a change in your web platform;
  • Your current website creates pages dynamically, making it more difficult to rank on search engines.

These are just several of the more common reasons we see for platform changes here at Lett Direct. Whatever your reason may be, part of your development strategy should include a plan for handling 301 redirects right from the very start of the project.

What are 301 Redirects and Why Do You Need Them?

In short, a 301 redirect is a server-side instruction that tells browsers and search engines that the information which used to exist at a certain URL now permanently resides at a new URL. Depending upon which type of server your site is hosted, implementation of 301 redirects will vary. We will delve further into implementation in the next section. For now, let’s look at some of the critical reasons why you need them, namely: bookmarks and search engine rankings.

301 Redirects and Bookmarks

There’s an old adage which states that there is no accounting for taste. This is one that e-tailers often keep in mind, as nearly every product offered will appeal to some customers more than others. One must assume that, over time, the likelihood of users bookmarking even the less-than-popular items on a site is good. When you make changes to your site that renders those bookmarked URLs non-functional, you run the risk of losing certain customers. These are customers who cared enough about your products and site to actually bookmark certain pages for repeated reference. The least you can do is save them from having to do the work themselves to find the correct new webpage.

301 Redirects and Search Engine Rankings

If you have ever been around for the launch of a brand new site, you understand how (painfully) long it seems to take to begin getting decent search engine rankings and traffic. One reason for that is because search engines take into account the age of a site itself, as well as the quantity and quality of inbound links it accrues over time, as measures of value and trust. If you abandon URLs that have these things going for them, it’s like starting all over again. By implementing 301 redirects, you can essentially tell search engines, “Hey, that page you (and everybody else) loved didn’t go away; it’s just over here now.” In kind, search engines will transfer and apply the equity that the page has built up over time to the newer version, thus preserving all the time and effort that went in to making said page succeed in the first place.

Implementing 301 Redirects

So that brings us to implementing 301 redirects themselves. Some platforms, such as WordPress, offer plug-ins that allow you to make updates individually. If you are looking at bulk changes, however, you’ll need to do it at the server level. That said, the process will be different depending upon whether you are using an Apache server or a Microsoft server. Let’s take a look at each.

301 Redirects for Apache Servers

The process for implementing 301 redirects on an Apache server is actually relatively straightforward and involves a simple change to the .htaccess file. You download the .htaccess file, add a line similar to the following for every URL you are updating to the .htaccess file, then upload the file again: 301 redirect /oldversionofpage.php /newversionofpage.php Always start by making just one or two redirects at first and testing them before making full-scale changes.

301 Redirects for Microsoft IIS7 Servers

The process for 301 redirect implementation for Microsoft IIS7 Servers is a little more involved, but is still much better than it has been with previous IIS servers. Now, we can take advantage of a URL rewrite map, the rules for which are stored in your web.config’s section. The code you will need to add in is as follows: <p><system.webServer> <br><rewrite> <rewriteMaps> <rewriteMap name=”Redirects”> <add key=”/oldversionofpage.aspx” value=”/ oldversionofpage.aspx” /> <add key=”/contactus.aspx” value=”/contact” /> </rewriteMap> </rewriteMaps> <rules> <rule name=”Redirect rule1 for Redirects”> <match url=”.*” /> <conditions> <add input=”{Redirects:{REQUEST_URI}}” pattern=”(.+)” /> </conditions> <action type=”Redirect” url=”{C:1}” appendQueryString=”false” /> </rule> </rules> </rewrite> </system.webServer> To add more URLs to the code, simply keep adding “add key” data to the document.

Plan Ahead

To ensure the best possible results, your current URLs should be mapped to the newer versions of the URLs long before the new version of the site is ready for launch. Be sure that your tech team or vendor keeps a running list of these changes. Too often, this process is overlooked and trying to go back, after the fact, can take considerably more time. Further, in some cases, that old URL data is so different from the new URL data that trying to match them becomes a virtual impossibility.

In Conclusion

The only constant is change and you may, one day, need to migrate your website to a new platform. Beyond improving aesthetics and/or functionality, however, the move should also be planned to maintain all the benefit the old site has acquired in its lifespan. The proper implementation of 301 redirects is a very significant step in that process. Launching a new website without 301s in place at the time of launch, will most definitely damage your organic rankings and will undoubtedly negatively impact revenue.