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Taking care of old URLs after a redesign

By on Feb 27, 2008 in Web Design, Web Engineering

Existing links are an oft-overlooked challenge of a website redesign. Your site probably has a plenty of inbound links from published material, online articles, press releases, marketing collateral, internal links embedded in old content, the Google index and who knows what else. Unless a project explicitly covers broken links, you’ll give your visitors (and potential customers) a frustrating experience.

Happily, you can address this. We recommend four levels of increasing helpfulness and expense.

Create a custom 404 error page.

Nothing is worse than some standard, Apache or IIS-generated error page telling your customer that “this resource object was not found” or some similar technical gobbely-gook.

Create a custom page that looks like it belongs on your site. You can include your navigation, etc., and maybe try some humor.

Include your site map in your custom 404 page.

As long as you’re creating a custom 404 page, you might as well include your site map (you do have a site map, right?)

This way your visitor can try to find what they were looking for. We did this on agitar.com.

Another method that I’ve seen on some sites is to redirect visitors to the homepage. We don’t recommend doing this: it’s confusing to visitors because they aren’t told what’s happened, and it frustrates their attempt to reach a goal.

Create a content mapping table.

A content mapping table maps old content to where it lives in the new site and automatically redirects visitors to the new page.

There are two levels of redirect: global pattern redirect, and specific page redirects.

A global pattern redirect will correct standard changes that are applied to pages sitewide. For example, when we relaunched louddog.com recently, we made three changes to all old articles. First, we made them end with `.php` instead of `.html`. Second, they all live in the “bloggity” folder, instead of “entries” or “articles.” Third, we replaced underscores in the URLs with dashes, which is better for search engines. We wrote a few rules that covered all these, and now most old links are redirected to their new pages.

A redesign effort will often make more changes than simple renaming. Entire pages may disappear, be moved into different sections and the entire site structure may change. These changes require specific page redirects that match individual pages to their new location. Sometimes this effort is more difficult than others. If there are massive changes occurring, we recommend identifying the most popular (or most important) pages and limiting your remap to those.

A properly created redirect will be seamless to your visitors, and will also help Google by instructing it to update its index.

Use the sitemap as a backup and log missing URLs.

If a missing URL isn’t included in the table, be sure to still direct visitors to the sitemap to give them another opportunity. At the same, log the missing URL so that you can add to the redirect table.

Give visitors smart options using integrated search.

After you’ve done everything else in this guide, a few broken links will probably remain (unless your site is quite small). By offering search results on your 404 error page, you can cover missed links and make your error page future-proof.

If a visitor is trying to reach a missing page, parse the URL and perform a search based on that. For example, if someone is linking to “http://www.louddog.com/entries/search-engine-optimization”, we could parse out “search engine optimization” and return those results to the 404 error page.

Integrated search is more appropriate for websites with thousands of pages, and less so for a smaller site with a couple hundred pages, for which a mapping table should be sufficient.

Hey! This wasn't written by a bale of turtles! It was written by , who does awesome work at Loud Dog, a digital branding firm in San Francisco that helps businesses express themselves authentically via identities, websites, and marketing collateral.

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