If you’ve ever re-launched your website, hopefully you’ve heard the phrase “ranking retention” or maybe “ranking protection”. At its most basic, it’s a series of steps you should take when you’re re-launching your website that are designed to minimize the impact of a re-launch. While this phrase implies that you need to do something to preserve your search engine rankings, it’s also something that you’re doing to preserve the user experience.
So, what is ranking retention exactly?
We tend to think of it as two separate tasks, actually. The first is matching up old URLs with new URLs and applying re-directs, and the second is updating deep links to your site.
Let’s say that your old site was built with urls that ended in .html (or .asp or .php) and your new site doesn’t use this extension (a common scenario for sites that haven’t been rebuilt in the last 5 or 6 years). Even if you keep the page names exactly the same (i.e. www.site.com/about-us.html vs. www.site.com/about-us), because of the extension being removed, Google (and other search engines) still view these as two separate URLs. Since one is really just an updated version of the other, you need to re-direct about-us.html to about-us so that the search engines understand that they should stop indexing the old URL and start indexing the new URL in its place. These are called 301 re-directs. Wikipedia defines a 301 re-direct as follows:
“The HTTP response status code 301 Moved Permanently is used for permanent redirection, meaning current links or records using the URL that the 301 Moved Permanently response is received for should be updated to the new URL provided in the Location field of the response.”
And Google in particular recommends using them when you want to change the URL of a page as it’s shown in search results.
While the actual setting up of the re-directs is probably something you’ll have your web development or hosting team handle, creating the list is something that you or your marketing team should do. It’s usually as simple as setting up an Excel file with the old URL in one column and the new URL in another, and every page from your old site that has a version on the new site should be matched up against a new URL.
If there are pages on the old site that won’t exist in any form on the new site, you do not need to (or want to) create a re-direct – just let these pages go. Once you have the list, provide it to the appropriate people and they should be able to apply these at launch.
Once applied, there are 2 benefits:
- You’ve now directed Google (and other search engines) on how you would like them to index and rank your site. There is, of course, no guarantee – Google might decide that even though they showed your page for a particular keyword search before, it no longer is the best fit, but if you’ve lined up your re-directs well and have had an eye towards choosing the right keywords and creating good content, you are in the best shape possible for this to be successful.
- Users who click on your site on a search results page will be re-directed to your new site instead of just getting a dead link.Can you skip this step? Sure, but why would you want to? This is the easiest way to a) make your links in the search results still clickable and b) tell the search engines what you would like for them to do. And, having seen sites try to recover from a re-launch without doing this vs. the site who have done it – I’d vote for this every time, if for no other reason than it is incredibly easy to do, and it is terribly frustrating sending users to dead page after dead page while you wait for Google to crawl your new site and figure out on its own what pages it should index and de-index and how it should rank them.
As you continue to grow and market your website, you will likely come up with other legitimate reasons to use 301 re-directs and you may wind up re-directing a page to a page that has been re-directed to another page, and then re-directing that page to another page, etc. etc and so on. Sounds crazy, but we’ve seen it happen. And what we’re left with is a loop of re-directs that don’t always work the way they’re supposed to and can sometimes land visitors in the wrong place or no place at all. So be sure to monitor your site’s performance (is Google indexing the updated urls?, etc) and consider removing 301s when they are no longer needed. You will lighten the load on the server and minimize the possibility of crazy 301 loops down the road.
The second step in a ranking retention project is updating links to your site. To be clear, these are not links from your site to your distributors or partners, but rather links from their sites to your site.
There are a lot of different tools that can help you find a list of sites that are linking to you – Google WebMaster Tools is usually a good place to start. Once you have this list, you’ll need to separate the links so that you have a list of sites that link to your homepage (this URL usually isn’t changing, unless you are changing domains) and deep links (i.e. links that go to a product page or somewhere else in your site other than your homepage). It’s usually this second list where you might consider requesting updates. If you’ve only got a few links, it’s not such a big deal but if you’re a larger site that’s been around for years, you might have hundreds or even thousands, and you’ll want to set up a spreadsheet similar to the 301 list so that you can see what sites are linking to you, where they are linking and where you want them to link to. During this research stage, you should also be collecting contact information for these sites so that you can reach out to them.
There’s been a lot of questions over the years on whether this step is even necessary. Is it more valuable to have a site that correctly links to exactly the right URL vs. leaving the link alone and letting your 301 re-directs handle passing the user over? A recent response from Google says that it doesn’t actually matter.
So…. Can you skip this step? As much as I want to say “yes” (because, let me tell you, requesting link updates is maybe my least favorite thing to do at work ever), there is at least one good reason to keep doing it:
Your 301s might not always be on the server. Let’s say that you re-launch your site and put 301s in place. Some time down the road someone (maybe you!) notes that Google is indexing all of the new pages and decides to remove the 301s from the server. Although the 301s served their purpose and helped Google re-index your site, if you were counting on them to re-direct users who clicked on now-defunct links, once they are gone, users are now reaching dead links. Talk about a bad user experience! This is especially troublesome for the sites that were referring a lot of traffic to you. Once the 301s are gone, all of that traffic is instead going to your 404 page (if you have one, hopefully you have one. You do have one, right??) Bummer.
If you’ve got thousands and thousands of backlinks, you may need to prioritize where you make these link request efforts (for example, the sites that actually send traffic) but it’s worth taking the time to determine where you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck and at minimum make those update requests.
Sadly (and this is why it’s my least favorite task), despite your best efforts, you may not get a lot of response. We’ve done some really successful link update campaigns and a lot where our requests fell on deaf ears… but as part of our due diligence and settings sites up in the best possible way, it’s still something we recommend doing. And, we tend to find that the sites with the best links get the best response – and there’s a lesson in that too!
Have you re-launched your site recently? Did you engage in ranking retention? How did it go? If you didn’t do it, what impact did you have from skipping this step? Tell us in the comments!