Google hates change. I know that might sound odd for a technology company, but at least when it comes to Google's search engine, it's absolutely true. When you make significant changes to your website, Google will typically punish you in the short term with reduced rankings. And one of the major changes that our clients typically don't consider when updating their website is the impact of removing old pages. Of course, sometimes when websites get old and rusty, you need to kill old pages. A 10-year-old webpage often needs to be either replaced with a new one, or removed completely. So let's look at how you can remove pages while minimizing the damage to your hard-earned rankings. 

First Question: Redirect or Kill?

Before you remove any pages, you need to make a list of the old pages that you're unhappy with. Once you've got your list, you have two options with each page.

You can redirect them. 

From an SEO perspective, 301 redirecting dead pages will pass on most of that page's equity to your new page. Read more about redirects here.

You can kill them.

Sometimes the information on an old page is so outdated that there's no new webpage that closely approximates the info on your old page.

Once you've decided that you need to kill off some old pages, you've got a technical decision to make - should you 410 or 404 the old pages. Don't understand what either of those terms mean? No worries, let me explain.

410 Pages

A good rule of thumb: if you want to kill off an old page, you should do with a 410. A page that returns a 410 tells the search engines that the page is permanently gone. Google will remove pages that return a 410 from their index. While there is some evidence that Google might eventually remove a 404 page from their index (more on this in a moment), they will expunge a page that returns a 410 faster. Think of it from Googlebot's perspective.

The internet is so complex, and I love to crawl it as quickly as possible. So I really resent anyone who changes things on me. But at least when this website killed off some old pages, they did the favor of telling me the pages were gone, rather than making me spend months figuring it out on my own. So I won't punish them too harshly for updating their site.

Note: Pages that you don’t want in the index anymore should be orphaned before returning a 410, i.e. you should make sure they aren’t linked to from anywhere else on the website. The situation in which we most often recommend using a 410 is when you want to get rid of a lot of pages that are creating an index bloat issue. For example, we had a client who was hacked, later learning that the hacker created thousands of pages that were solely meant to link to other pages. Once we learned of the hack, we wanted all of those spam pages to be removed from the index, so we did so with 410s.

404 Pages

You might be familiar with a 404, which is the code that greets you whenever you’ve clicked on a broken link. The page you wanted to view is no longer there, so you shouldn’t have been able to get to that non-existent page in the first place. Rule of thumb: 404s are bad. You don't want your site returning 404s. However, it’s unrealistic to never expect a 404 to arise, which is why it’s important to have a game plan to remedy them right away. The best course of action for a 404 is to redirect users to the next best page that satisfies their search intentions. For example, if a product is no longer available, perhaps you can redirect the page to the landing page with the newer version of the product. If there is no comparable page to redirect users to, redirect them to the relevant category page. The last resort should be redirecting to the homepage. Since 404s are inevitable, you should optimize your 404 page to turn that bad user experience into a good one. A few things you can do to spruce up your 404 page includes:

  • Adding a search bar
  • Links to the top 5-7 pages
  • A button to the homepage
  • Be creative and even add some humor, such as our DTC 404 page
Example of a custom 404 page Our custom 404 page (click to expand).

Conclusion

Whenever a page no longer exists, we want to make sure that the users don’t land on it, as that creates a poor user experience. When it’s just a few pages that are returning a 404, it’s best to just set up one 301 redirect to the next applicable page. But when you have a list of hundreds of pages that no longer exist, and you have nowhere to redirect them to other than the homepage, the best way to expunge them from the index and reduce your index bloat is to have them return a 410. One of the most common situations in which you'll need to redirect your pages is when you're redesigning your website. Redirects are just one of the pieces of the puzzle when it comes to emerging from a site redesign without losing your rankings. Read the rest in our e-book below.

Download the guide to SEO for site migrations