Friday, January 27, 2012

Link Permanence - The Importance Of Keeping The Same URL Scheme

This post is the next in my series of posts on best practices for tea company websites. Recently, I wrote about the importance of having a product page for each tea. Many of the benefits of having product pages come from increased traffic to your site, often coming in through links from bloggers, forums, and social networking sites, when people comment on your teas and share a link to the page on your site.

These links will stop helping you if you change your URL scheme and the links become broken links. Furthermore, the broken links may also harm the people who linked to you, which can frustrate them and make it less likely for them to link to you in the future.

In this post I will make an argument for the benefits of maintaining a consistent URL scheme. The best practices, as I recommend, are:

  • Ideally, do not ever change the URL scheme on your website. Put great care into thinking about how your URL's will be organized, and then stick to it, even through a major site redesign.

  • If you do ever change your URL scheme, or move or rename the URL of a page, use an HTML redirect, such as a 301 redirect, from each old page to the most appropriate new page.

  • If you discontinue or retire any teas from your catalogue, do not merely delete the page, but either leave the page and mark the tea as discontinued, or recycle the URL and have the same page display a newer, similar tea. I discuss these alternatives below.

  • Never, under any circumstance, make any link that you shared anywhere lead to an error page or broken link. If you must take down a page, redirect the page to the most relevant page still existing on your site. As a worst-case scenario, at least redirect old pages to your homepage.

  • You can draw attention to the fact that your URL's will remain in existence permanently by using the word permalink to draw attention to them and show your commitment to URL permanence, especially if you have a box somewhere on your page that allows people to copy-and-paste the URL to your tea in order to facilitate sharing.

Below I explain why I believe these practices to be in your best interest.

Links often produce sustained traffic:

It has been my experience that most links provide sustained traffic to a website. In our society, with a culture that favors things new and current, it can be tempting to think that all that matters is recent or current coverage, but this could not be farther from the truth. When looking at the websites sending traffic to RateTea, or to any of my websites, I see a clear trend that most referral traffic from other websites comes from pages that continually send traffic over a long period of time. I provide a few examples, which I've anonymized to discourage people from spamming these sites; the graphs come from Google analytics, which is a free and easy way of tracking visits to a website.

The following link to RateTea, from a social bookmarking site, added by a user I have never had any contact with, produced a burst of traffic, with 53 visits in one day, slowing to almost zero. But over the long-run, it began sending more traffic; currently this one link has sent 491 visits to the site; the original burst was only about 11% of the total traffic through this link.

When someone links to your website, you often will see a burst of traffic coming through that link immediately after it is posted. The traffic then slows to a trickle, and may not even be measurable over a period of a few weeks. But in many cases, if you look on a larger time-scale, such as months or years, the total traffic arriving through the link in the long-run ends up being much larger than the initial burst. Why? Often, people rediscover old posts and pages on websites, and re-share them. As people re-share them and begin linking to them, traffic on those pages picks up, and the traffic tends to be more sustained, as it reflects deep interest in a hard-to-find resource, rather than subscribers to a blog, or people looking to glance quickly at something just because it is new.

In case you're not completely sold yet, check out this graph:

This link to RateTea was on a post from a blog that I suspect has very few subscribers. There was no initial spike in traffic when the link appeared. Yet the link appeared in an interesting and well-written post, one that people continued to share and link to over time, and the traffic through that link has grown and grown, and shows little sign of slowing down. To-date, over 89% of the traffic through this link arrived over six months after the link appeared.

Which of these graphs is typical for traffic to RateTea? You may be surprised, but the second graph is actually more typical. Most of the traffic to RateTea comes through links like the second; I had to really search hard to find the first example.

If you change your URL's carelessly, and leave broken links, you will lose most of your referral traffic. You will also lose search traffic, because links influence the prominence of your website's pages in search results.

What happens when links break:

When links break, and lead to error pages, such as "HTML 404 Not Found" errors, a bunch of things happen. First, you stop receiving traffic through that link. Search engines stop seeing that link, and stop using it to factor into returning your site's pages in search results, so, as links to your site become broken, your site's prominence in search results may fall, including on unrelated pages, such as your homepage.

But also, the person who linked to your site now has a broken outgoing link on their website or blog. This makes them look bad, and it can also penalize their site in search engine results. (Search engines perceive sites with a larger portion of broken links as being less well-maintained.) I will say that personally, when I link to a tea company's pages, and they repeatedly change their URL scheme or take down products, leaving broken links, it makes me highly reluctant to link to them in the future, as I learn that I will need to periodically check the links. This creates unnecessary work for me, if I am to maintain my own website as accurate and reputable. It is also annoying, because I add links as a favor to websites: I link to tea companies that I like, if I feel good about the company and want to promote them and their products.

So, by making your links break when you change your URL scheme, you risk annoying (and in extreme cases, alienating) bloggers and webmasters who have already linked to you. You are effectively harming them, in response to an action they did that helped you. Allowing your links to break is not good business, and is not a very courteous thing to do.

Dealing with web design companies:

Most tea companies do not run their own websites; they hire other companies to do them. But if you hire a company to do a site redesign, make sure to specify, before hiring them, that you want them to develop a sustainable, permanent URL scheme, and if you already have a permanent URL scheme that is good enough to keep, specify that they carry out the redesign within your old scheme, so that all links remain the same. And if you do end up changing schemes, specify that you will require permanent 301 HTML redirects from all old pages, so that all your old links will remain indefinitely.

Handling retired or discontinued teas:

Tea companies invariably retire or discontinue some of their teas from time to time. There are different ways of handling this without producing broken links. If you retire a tea that is unique, without adding a similar offering to your website, it is best to leave the tea's product page on your site, and simply mark it as retired or permanently out of stock, and remove it from search results on your site. You can remove all the links to this tea, without taking down the page for this tea. This prevents all the problems mentioned above. It is also a good idea to link to the most similar teas in your catalog, from a page on a retired tea. This increases the likelihood that you will actually make a sale when someone comes to your site looking to buy a tea that you no longer sell.

Some companies, such as Upton Tea Imports, recycle their item codes, and appropriately, replace the content on the page for an old, discontinued tea with the description and information of a new tea. This approach also prevents broken links. If the new tea is similar to the original, it also ensures that people following the link land on a page that is of interest to them. This can be a good way of solving the problem of retired teas and broken links, especially when you add similar teas to teas that had been removed from your catalog. This practice, however, can become a bit iffy when replacing a retired tea with a radically different tea.

Stay tuned for more:

How to design a good URL scheme for a tea company? I hope to address this in future posts.

What do you think?

Do you agree with my advice and think my reasoning here is sound? Am I perhaps overestimating the importance of URL permanence? Have you ever linked to a tea company website only to see them change their URL scheme and have the link become a broken link? And if you work for a tea company, have you considered these things when redesigning your site?


  1. Good advice, Alex - I agree with permanence. There's a blog I enjoy, Angry Chicken. The author said she didn't put much thought into the name and wishes she had chosen differently, but she has a great following and will never change it. The permanence is important, perhaps more than a good name/URL.

  2. Your comment raises another interesting point, which is that permanence of your name is also important.

    This blog though has a pretty boring, uncreative name. But oh well.