It’s not uncommon for colleges and universities to come across the need to delete webpages. Perhaps you recently renamed a program and now you are left with two pages for the same major. Or maybe an event has come and gone and you want to delete the page advertising it now that it’s over. While deleting pages that are no longer relevant seems like a logical approach, it actually can negatively affect your site’s search engine visibility and user experience.
When you delete a webpage, Google and other search engines do not automatically deindex that page. This means the deleted page can still be served up in search results. When a user clicks on that link in the search engine results page (SERP), they will then be taken to a 404 error page, which negatively impacts visibility and creates a poor user experience (especially if your 404 page does not make it easy to search your site internally).
For example, let’s say that you changed your Green Energy program to Renewable Energy Engineering. A prospective student has heard of the Green Energy program at your institution, so they go to Google and type in your school name along with “green energy program.” The old Green Energy page is served up in search results. The student is immediately excited to have found what they are looking for! However, they click on the link and are sent to a 404 error page. Now what? Even searching your site internally for “Green Energy” doesn’t bring up any results.
You might think: okay, so just manually deindex the page then. However, if you do that, how will the student searching for the old program name find you? Here’s the thing: every webpage has what is referred to as “link juice” (an unfortunate name, I know). Basically, over time, a page often gains more and more credibility from Google and other search engines. If you have a page that is ranking well or getting decent traffic, the last thing you want to do is delete it, because then you delete all its link juice. In other words, you lose that ranking power, that good spot in the SERP, and that traffic. You also lose the ability for searchers to find you using the terms associated uniquely with that page.
So what is the best thing to do? Redirect the page you want to delete to a relevant page. To go back to our example, you would want to redirect the Green Energy page to the Renewable Energy Engineering page. That way, prospective students can still find you in search engines for “Green Energy,” but they will be directed to the new program page.
Eventually, search engines will naturally deindex the old page on their own, but since you set up a redirect, you will not lose the ranking power of the Green Energy page when that happens. So, when someone searches “Green Energy,” the Renewable Energy Engineering page will appear in the SERP, even though the Green Energy page has been deindexed. In other words, the Renewable Energy Engineering page will inherit all of the Green Energy page’s ranking power.
As another example, say that you often delete event pages as the events come and go. You can redirect these pages to your main events page so that users are sent somewhere that matches their search query. When they land on the main events page, they can browse upcoming events similar to the expired event they were initially interested in.
On a final and imperative note, it is important that you set up a 301 redirect, not a 302. To be clear, 301 redirects pass on link juice, while 302 redirects do not; 302 redirects are for temporary instances that are very rare. For example, you might temporarily redirect a webpage if the page is under construction for some reason. Generally, 302 redirects are seldom needed.
So the next time you change a program name or an event passes, don’t let your go-to process be to delete the now irrelevant webpage. Instead, set up a 301 redirect and send users to the next best thing (the most relevant page). That way, you can keep your link juice (and keep ranking for the terms you were ranking for on the old page) and ensure the best user experience.