2003 Called; They’d like their URL structure back

Over the last decade or so of offering SEO consulting services to clients, I’ve seen a lot of interesting things. One of the more common (and surprising) things we see are URL structures in “current” sites that are completely “root based”. What does this mean?

Punk GirlBack around 2003 (hey I’m old, I don’t remember the exact date), toolbar pagerank was all the rage and most optimizers were all about creating those green pixels and maintaining it through any means necessary.

One of the things optimizers noticed early on was that Pagerank seemed to be site based and distributed from “the top down”.

What this means is that if your homepage was a low to mid PR5, any pages directly off the root of the homepage would be a PR4. Subfolders directly off the homepage would also be a PR4. But pages within the subfolders would be a PR3.

yourdomain.com = PR5
yourdomain.com/your-page.html = PR4
yourdomain.com/your-folder/ = PR4
yourdomain.com/your-folder/this-page.html = PR3
yourdomain.com/your-folder/another-folder/ = PR3
yourdomain.com/your-folder/another-folder/another-page.html = PR2

Back then, the higher your toolbar PR was, the higher the likelihood that your pages would rank (that wasn’t all there was to it – lower PR could beat higher PR, but toolbar PR was a big portion of things in those days). So a lot of optimizers took to creating “root based” sites. Which essentially means that every page of the site was built off of the root.

yourdomain.com = PR5
yourdomain.com/your-page.html = PR4
yourdomain.com/your-folder-now-a-page.html = PR4
yourdomain.com/your-folder-now-this-page.html = PR4
yourdomain.com/your-folder-another-folder.html = PR4
yourdomain.com/your-folder-another-folder-now-another-page.html = PR4

Back in the day it made sense. Nowadays, it’s pointless and messy.

First things first, Toolbar PR is for entertainment. Most optimizers have known that for a long time. Secondly, PR either didn’t remain or never was “site based” (you can decide that one) and is instead based on the individual page factors (like inbound links). Thirdly, the Google algorithm is no longer a one ingredient wonder. Nowadays, we have trust, age, authority and varying other factors contributing to how a site ranks in addition to Pagerank.

Messy ClosetIn addition to the strategy now being pointless, it’s also messy.

Not only do you risk getting crawlers confused with a lack of a logical site structure, but it is also beyond annoying to someone who has to work with a site to have to trudge through a root based site with several hundred or thousand pages.

It’s like opening a huge walk in closet to find a tie only to not be able to even walk into it because everything is simply thrown on the floor with no rhyme, order or reason.

But it seems a lot of “SEO firms” didn’t get the memo and we are constantly seeing sites with this “SEO method” employed.
Cleaning things up

So now that you know this “method” of SEO is archaic, ineffective and sloppy, how do you go about fixing your site?

Whether or not you should “fix something that isn’t broken” is something only you (if you have the knowledge), your in-house SEO or outside SEO firm can really answer as it really does need to be looked at on a case by case basis. There IS POTENTIAL RISK INVOLVED with changing URL structure that should be assessed. That said, I’ve had a lot of success with site structure migrations and most times, will choose to slowly migrate the site to a new, sensible URL structure.
Some tips for site structure migration

If you do choose to change your URL structure, you’ll find some tips based on my experience with my previous migrations below:

Migrating Birds

  • Prepare for the fact that it takes Google a bit to “figure things out”. The more often you get crawled, the less time it will likely take for Google to get with the program. I’ve seen URL migrations take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to get sorted out.
  • Always choose a small, “mid-level” traffic section to start with. This way, you can see the results before enacting things on a larger scale and/or with your most important keywords.
  • Make sure you have a good 301 plan in place for pointing the old URLs at the new ones. Without it, your new URLs will not “take the place” and the authority, link popularity and the rankings of your old URLs.
  • Change site navigation, but use your internal sitemap as a “reminder”. What I mean by this is that I usually change the links to the new links throughout the site naviagtion and within the site content, but I leave a link pointing to the old URL on the internal sitemap (not the one you feed to Google via WMC) until I’m sure Google has seen the redirect and removed the old link from the index.
  • Wait a few days, watch for the new URLs to be indexed, the old URLs to be removed and wait to ensure the new URLs take over the rankings formerly held by the old URLs.
  • If everything goes smoothly then I wash, rinse and repeat with other sections. Take things slow. It takes a while, but if anything goes wrong, you want it to go wrong with one small piece and not your entire site.

In addition to the above tips, it never hurts to go out and get some quality links to the new URLs from tightly themed sites to let the engines know that your new URLs are just as relevant as your old ones and that their still important to crawl regularly (and hopefully speed up the migration process).

About Rae Hoffman

Rae Hoffman aka "Sugarrae" is an affiliate marketing veteran and the CEO of PushFire, a search marketing agency specializing in SEO audits and link building strategies. She is also the author of the often controversial Sugarrae blog. You can connect with Rae via Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

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