Link Juice: Save Every Drop
Most people redesign their websites every couple of years. Maybe it’s a cosmetic makeover, maybe it’s to enhance search engine optimization (SEO), or maybe the site has grown and really needs re-organizing.
Whatever the reason, rewriting web page URLs means breaking links to those pages, whether the links are from other sites or other pages on your site. After working hard to acquire good links, you don’t want to waste that “link juice” – the extra visibility those links bring you, and possibly higher rankings in search results. Make sure you fix all the links, or at least all those that matter.
Website Redesign? Take Care of Your Links
Web designers are increasingly aware of how important it is to put a site’s most searched keywords in its page URLs. Many web designers will rename pages to include those keywords when they’re redesigning the site.
A site that sells all types of widgets might have a page about purple widgets with the URL www.mywebsite.com/widgp33.htm. The web designer renames the page to make it both more readable for people and more likely to be found by search engines when someone’s searching for purple widgets: www.mywebsite.com/purple-widgets.htm.
The designer’s next step is to make sure none of the valuable links to the purple-widgets page get broken. Every link to a page passes some link juice – that is, each link signals to search engines that this page has valuable content.
A good web designer will go through the website’s menu system, site map file, breadcrumb links and other groups of links, and change every link to the old purple-widgets page (www.mywebsite.com/widgp33.htm) so it points to the new purple-widgets page (www.mywebsite.com/purple-widgets.htm).
A very good web designer will run an automated search of all files on the website, looking for any links to the old page that he or she may have missed.
A great web designer will realize that step might have missed a few links, and will run a crawl test tool to spot any broken links on the site. For example, many sites have a blog built on WordPress, and the blog content – including links – is actually in the site’s WordPress database, separate from the website files.
My favorite crawl test tool is Xenu Link Sleuth. It’s free, works well, runs quickly, and – bonus! – it generates an XML sitemap file that you can submit to Google, Yahoo and Bing. Submitting a sitemap helps search engines index more of the pages on your site. You definitely want the engines to re-index your site if you’ve changed URLs and links.
An option that doesn’t require you to download and install an application is SEOmoz’s Crawl Test. It’s free, but you do need to register to use it.
A great web designer who knows SEO will recognize we’re not done yet: We still need to deal with other websites that have links to the old pages. Otherwise, when someone clicks a link on another site to one of the old pages, they’ll see the dreaded “404 – Page Not Found” error. Some people may have bookmarked or favorited the old pages, and you don’t want them to see a 404 error, either.
404: Like Slamming a Door in Your Customer’s Face
When a person sees “404 – Page Not Found” on your website, you’ve probably just lost a customer. When a search engine encounters a 404 error, any SEO benefit from that link is completely lost. Furthermore, the search engine will regard your site as being of lower quality. That could really hurt you in search results, because Google includes site quality as a factor in its ranking algorithm.
In an ideal world, you would find all those links on other sites, contact the webmasters and ask them to update those links to point to your new web pages. Even if that were completely feasible, it would take a lot of time.
Instead, put 301 redirects in place for the old pages. Then, anytime anyone tries to get to the old page from a link, they’ll immediately and automatically be redirected to the new page. That’s true whether it’s a human clicking a link, using an old bookmark or favorite, or a search engine spider following links.
A 301 redirect indicates that the page has been moved permanently. You can think of a 301 redirect as if you were forwarding calls from your old phone to your new one: When someone calls the old number, their call comes to your new phone, and neither you nor the caller ever knows the difference.
There’s a similar redirect called a 302 redirect, but this kind of redirect is for pages that have beentemporarily moved. A 301 redirect passes on link juice to the new page; a 302 redirect does not.
Remember, link juice matters because it affects a website’s ranking in search results. When a search engine sees a 301 redirect, it assigns any link juice or benefit from anchor text to the new page. While we don’t know precisely how much of the original link juice is transferred, experts estimate it’s at least 90 percent, but that there is definitely some loss. So if you know you have some links to pages you’ve changed at important websites – sites that are probably passing really good link juice – it could be worthwhile to contact the webmasters at those sites, and ask them nicely to update the links to your new pages. Make sure you do the same favor for anyone who asks you – it’s part of being a good net citizen.
Mistakes Can Cause 404s
Sometimes when people link to a page on your site, they mistype or accidentally change the URL of your web page. Perhaps they’ve linked to www.mywebsite.com/purple-widget.htm instead of the correct URL, www.mywebsite.com/purple-widgets.htm. If you know someone has done this, you can simply create a 301 redirect fromwww.mywebsite.com/purple-widget.htm to www.mywebsite.com/purple-widgets.htm so people will get to the intended page. Search engines will also see that redirect, and you’ll still get link juice flowing to the correct page on your site.
Tools to Spot Inbound Links
So, how do you spot all the websites that link to you, and figure out if they’ve linked correctly? A number of tools show all the links they’re aware of that point to your site – for example, Open Site Explorer. But it’s probably best to use Google Webmaster Tools, which will report any broken links to your website that Googlebot found in the process of crawling other people’s websites. It will also tell you where it found the broken links, so you can do something about them.
- Xenu Link Sleuth link
- SEOmoz Crawl Test Tool
- How to do a 301 redirect for most common web servers
- Google Webmaster Tools reports 404 errors from internal and external links