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Online Marketing Manager's Guide to Moving Your Site's Content

by Christopher Hart, December 15, 2008

There are a number of necessary steps every online business should take to properly move content from one location within your Web site to another or from one site to another, without destroying your search engine optimization achievements. You may already have one or more of these steps in place, but there are webmasters who may not know to take all of the proper steps and instead just jump into moving content elements as though there were no negative effect to such actions. The truth is search engine rankings and site traffic may suffer.

If you owned a brick and mortar store, would you just move your high margin items on a whim? Would you allow your stock person to rearrange how your shelves are organized without any thought to the repercussions it will have on your bottom line or your customer? The answer is "NO WAY" - and things are not any different with your online business.

In speaking to the online business community, there are different concerns to address than the considerations your search engine optimization team might have. In many blogs or newsletter strings, people will talk directly to SEOs to gain tips on how to avoid disaster. Unfortunately, such conversations can fail to explain what the marketing manager needs to understand to capture and maintain as much ROI as possible. This article will attempt to bridge the conversation between both audiences, with special attention given to business related issues.

Step 1: Before moving any online content, always start with a review and analysis of the original site.

As a marketing manager this sounds obvious, right? But not everyone takes the time to dig through the data. Some are all too eager to just send off the initiative and to allow the IT and marketing departments to run with it. Well, just like you would not allow your stock person to rearrange your store, you don't allow anyone to rearrange your site without knowing the repercussions of the changes.

The first task is to contact your analytics department. You want to know how users get to your site, what the top entry and exit points are, what pages generate the most traffic and which pages have the most inbound links.

The second task is to contact your webmaster or IT department. You want to get a complete picture of your site's physical architecture, virtual linking and navigation structure, directory and URL structure and a complete count of your content elements. Then you need to know what is changing, and why.

Step 2: Develop a process to collect and log URLs that deliver a 404 error page.

The 404 error page is displayed whenever a user asks for a page that's not available or doesn't exist on a site. 404 error messages explain to search engines as well as users that the server could not find the page that was requested.

As a marketing manager it is important for you to know exactly what is causing your users to not find what they are looking for. It amazes me how many sites don't have a 404 page, let alone a way to log the pages that were not found. What if you received a huge traffic spike, but the URL that is linking to your site was mal-formatted. What then? If you don't have a 404 page then you just annoyed a bunch of users. If you have a 404 page, you just slightly annoyed your users. But if you are logging and watching the 404 error log, you can create a page where the mal-formatted URL was sending users and have that URL 301 redirected to the correct location. This allows you to be alerted to where your users are getting stuck and take action to help them get to the proper location on your site. This will always equal higher conversation rates.

If you do not already have a 404 page, the third task is to work with your marketing and design teams to develop a 404 page that will be useful to your users. Only telling the user "The Page You Are Looking For Was Not Found" is not very helpful. Try listing your site's top sections or topic pages. If you sell things on your site, list the top-selling products or put your coupon advertisements on this page. If you have a site search function this would be a good place for it to be front and center. Whatever you do, never just leave your users here - you need to give them options to help find what they are looking for.

The fourth task is to work with your IT department to make this page live and to have them set up a system to log the pages users were looking for that caused the 404 page to be displayed. Having a 404 page without knowing what caused it is not going to help you fix the underlying cause.

Step 3: Develop a complete XML Sitemap of the original site.

Extensible Markup Language (XML) is a specification of a custom markup language designed to transfer text and data. An XML Sitemap acts like a map of all the pages on your site and is not intended for use by a human user. Instead, search engines use an XML Sitemap to show them where your content is. Without one you are missing an opportunity to proactively say it is okay for the engines that find your site to spider it. What if you have sections of your site that are not well indexed or linked to? Do you just give up or isn't it part of your job to expose that information to the engines so that your users may have a fighting change to find it when they search?

The fifth task is to work with your IT department to have an XML Sitemap developed and placed on your site. You can learn how to create your XML Sitemaps at http://www.sitemaps.org/. One of the first things a search engine spider looks for on your site is the robots.txt file, so use the robots.txt file to point to the location of the XML Sitemap. You should also know that you can only have about 50,000 entries in your XML Sitemap, but you can have multiple XML Sitemaps. With multiple XML Sitemaps even a content heavy site you can list every URL. Along with listing each URL, you have the ability to say when the page was updated last and to give it a priority level reflecting its importance to the site.

Step 4: Develop 301 redirects from old URL formats or locations to new site locations.

A redirect is a piece of code or script that communicates to the browser or search engine spider that instead of the URL being specified, an alternate URL should be loaded. Rather than loading the originally targeted URL, a redirect will cause a specified page to load instead. There are several different types of redirects, but for our conversation will focus on the 301 redirect because it is the most search-engine-friendly redirect.

As a marketing manager it is important for you to know that there are several different types of redirects, but only the 301 redirect acts as a redirect for permanently moved URLs. In response to a 301 redirect, the search engines transfer link popularity from the old URL location to the new URL location. Using any other type of redirect is like going to the bank and telling them not to worry about giving you the interest you have earned.

The sixth task is to work with your IT and network admin departments to develop properly formatted 301 redirects and to test them before moving the content.

The Final Step: Make sure all the prior mentioned steps and tasks are working together!

Once a site's content is moved or the new site is pushed live, you should post the original site's XML Sitemap in the new site's root directory. This way when the engines come to your new site, they will be instructed to go to the old URLs. In doing so they will re-spider those old URLs and find that they have been 301 redirected to the new locations. That will instruct them to not only update their index, but also to pass any link popularity to your new URL locations. Constantly monitor your 404 error log as this will let you know if and where your users are getting stuck or where you may need to develop additional 301 redirects.

Remember, as the marketing manager it is your job to know this and to not assume that the IT, network admins, marketing and design department will be keeping track of 404 errors on your site. You must take the lead and bring the sum of your team's efforts together.


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