We're helping an enterprise client right now with implementing a new WordPress site. They're a multi-location, multi-language business and have had some poor results with regard to search over recent years. When we were planning their new site, we identified a few issues:
- Archives – they had several sites in the last decade with a demonstrable difference in their site's URL structure. When we tested old page links, they were 404'd on their latest site.
- Backlinks – when we did a backlink audit using Semrush,
- Translation – much of their audience is Hispanic, but their site relied only on a translate button rather than having embedded, manually translated pages on the site.
Their last site was owned by the SEO agency they were working for… in my opinion a very shady practice that basically holds the business owner hostage. So, moving forward we would have to totally create a new site from scratch and optimize it… a big expense for the client.
A critical part of the new strategy is to take advantage of those 3 issues above. We need to ensure that we incorporate redirects to all missing pages (404 errors) AND we can capitalize on their multi-lingual search users by adding translated pages. In this article, I'm going to focus on the 404 error issue – because it's hurting their search engine rankings.
Why 404 Errors Are Bad For SEO Rankings
To simplify explanations to clients and businesses, I always let them know that search engines index a page and align it to specific keywords by the content that's on that page. However, they rank a page based on its popularity – typically translated to backlinks on other sites.
So… imagine that you have a page on your site from years ago that ranks quite well and is linked to from a variety of sources. You then build a new site where that page goes away. The result is that when the search engines crawl the backlinks… or a user on another site clicks the link… it results in a 404 error on your site.
Ouch. That's bad for the user experience and bad for the search engine users' experience. As a result, the search engine ignores the backlink… which ultimately drops your site's authority and ranking.
The good news is that backlinks on an authoritative site don't really expire! As we've built out new sites for clients and properly redirected old links to new content…we've watched these pages skyrocket back to the top of the search engine result pages (SERP).
If you've got an agency that's focused on your organic search traffic (and EVERY website design agency should be) or if you have an SEO consultant that HAS NOT done this work, I believe they're truly negligent in their craft. Search engines continue to be a top source of traffic for relevant prospects with an intent to purchase.
So, with that… if you're redesigning your site, ensure that you're auditing and redirecting your traffic to new pages properly. And, if you're not redesigning your site, you should still be monitoring your 404 pages and redirecting them properly!
NOTE: If you're not migrating to a new site, you can jump directly to Step 5 on this process to simply monitor and redirect 404 pages.
Step 1: Pre-Launch Audit Of The Current Site
- Download All Current Assets – I do this with a great OSX app called SiteSucker.
- Get A List Of All Current URLs – I do this with Screaming Frog.
- Get A List Of All Backlinks – using Semrush.
Now, I have every asset and every page on their current site. This is going to enable me to properly map each of those resources to the new paths on the new site (if they need redirected).
Step 2: Pre-Launch Plan The Site Hierarchy, Slugs, and Pages
The next step is to audit their actual content and identify how we can simplify and build out a content library that's well-structured and organized on the new site. Most of the time, I build out the empty pages in a staged WordPress instance so that I have a checklist for completion later on for my writers and designers to work on.
I can review the old current URLs and assets to repopulate the draft pages so that it's easier to ensure I have all the necessary content and nothing is missing from the new site that was on the old site.
Step 3: Pre-Launch Mapping of Old URLs to New URLs
If we can simplify the URL structure and try to keep the page and post slugs short and simple, we do. I've noticed over the years that while redirects supposedly lose some authority… optimization of them drives increased engagement, which translates to better ranking. I'm no longer afraid to redirect a highly ranking page to a new URL when it makes sense. Do this in a spreadsheet!
Step 4: Pre-Launch Import Redirects
Using the spreadsheet in Step 3, I create a simple table of the existing URL (without domain) and the new URL (with domain). I import these redirects in the Rank Math SEO Plugin before launching the new site. Rank Math is the best WordPress plugin for SEO, in my opinion. Side note… this process can (and should be done) even be done if you're migrating the site to a new domain.
Step 5: Launch And Monitor 404s
If you've done all the steps up until now, you've got the new site, all the redirects in, all the content in, and you're ready to launch. Your work isn't over yet… you must monitor the new site to identify any 404 pages utilizing two different tools:
- Google Search Console – as soon as the new site is launched, you'll want to submit the XML sitemap and check back in a day or so to see if there are any issues with the new site.
- Rank Math SEO Plugin's 404 Monitor – This is a tool that you should use often… not just when you're launching a site. You will need to enable it in the Rank Math Dashboard.
As an example, we launched a site for a multi-location Dentist that specializes in kids with Medicaid coverage. One of the pages we identified that had backlinks that weren't covered was an article, Baby Teeth 101. The existing site didn't have the article. The Wayback machine only had an excerpt. So when we launched the new site, we made sure we had a comprehensive article, an infographic, and social graphics with redirects from the old URL to the new.
As soon as we launched the site, we saw that redirect traffic was now going to the new page from those old URLs! The page started to pick up some nice traffic and ranking as well. We weren't done, though.
When we checked the 404 Monitor, we found several URLs with “baby teeth” that were landing on 404 pages. We added the multiple exact paths of the redirect to the new page. Side note… we could utilize a regular expression to capture all URLs but we're being cautious to start.
The screenshot above is actually Rank Math Pro which includes the ability to categorize your redirects… a really nice feature. We also went with Rank Math Pro because it supports multi-location schemas.
Now, the page is their #8 most trafficked page on the new site within a week of launching. And there was a 404 page there for several years whenever anyone arrived! It was a huge missed opportunity that wouldn't have been found if we weren't careful about properly redirecting and monitoring old links that existed out on the web to their site.
Rank Math also has a very detailed article on fixing 404 errors that I'd encourage you to read.
Disclosure: I am a customer and an affiliate of Rank Math.