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?

Sometime around 2003, 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 a homepage showed a low to mid PR5 in the Toolbar, 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. (Note: 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, meaning that every page of the site was built directly 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.

Toolbar PR is for entertainment. Most professional optimizers have known that for a long time. *Edited to add: In 2013, a Google representative stated that Toolbar PR will likely never receive another update. 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.

In 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 frustrating to someone who has to work with said 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 find 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 always see sites with this “SEO method” employed.

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 answer. It needs to be weighed and decided on a case by case basis. There is potential risk involved with changing URL structure that needs assessing. That said, I've had a lot of success with site structure migrations and most times, we will choose to migrate the site slowly to a new, sensible URL structure.

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

  • 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 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 with which to start. This way, you can see the results before enacting things on a larger scale and 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.” I usually change the links to the new links throughout the site navigation and within the site content. However, I leave a link pointing to the old URL on the sitemap until I'm sure Google has seen the redirect and removed the old link from the index.
  • Wait a few days and watch for the new URLs to show in the index. Watch for the old URLs to be removed and wait to ensure the new URLs take over the rankings formerly held by the old URLs. *Edited to add that as of 2015, Google is seemingly leaving the old, redirected URLs in the index – even after they've seen the redirect. So your signal all has gone well will be limited more to seeing the new pages take the rankings the old pages used to hold.
  • 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 of your site 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. New on-theme links let the engines know that your new URLs are just as relevant as your old ones (and hopefully speed up the migration process).

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Rae Hoffman aka "Sugarrae" is a veteran digital marketer and SEO consultant. She is also a serial entrepreneur. You can find out more about her entrepreneurial efforts here. Rae is most active on Twitter.