When to Rename URLs for SEO
Not too long ago, the notion of search engine friendly URLs surfaced and many people scrambled to make sure every URL on their websites included keywords each separated by dashes. Now that the initial flurry has passed, friendly URLs have become yet another recommended item from those involved with search engine optimization (SEO). But, I think people aren't considering the potential consequences with changing URLs before making the switch.
Before getting in to a discussion about when and when not to rename URLs, it's important to recognize the characteristics of a good URL. A friendly URL is one that includes some information in it that provides a hint as to the page's topic. This means including words rather than identifiers that are what database-driven websites typically use. For example, this is an unfriendly URL for both users and search engines: www.searchgrit.com/?id=123&p=456. You can't tell what the topic of the pages is, right? And neither can search engines. Here's a friendly URL: www.searchgrit.com/when-to-rename-urls/. Much better, wouldn't you say?
The risk with renaming URLs is that any trust assigned to the original URL by the search engines may not get transferred to the new URL even if you use proper 301 redirects. What this means is that before you rename a URL you should ask yourself if you can afford to lose that trust until you can build it up again. And with that in mind, here are some situations along with my opinions on whether to make the switch and how to do it.
If your site is new and the URLs aren't friendly, you might as well switch. The newness of your site likely means you don't have much to lose in terms of search engine trust.
If you're changing domains and the URLs on the original domain aren't friendly, go ahead and make the switch for the new domain. New domains aren't trusted by search engines anyway so there is no risk.
If your site is well established and the URLs are somewhere in the middle of being unfriendly and friendly, try switching over just a few pages and see what happens over the course of a few months. If traffic is unchanged or it increases, switch over some more. This is a long process, but reduces the risk of losing a good chunk of your traffic even for a short period of time.
If your site is well established and the URLs are completely unfriendly, make the switch. These sorts of sites often need the change to be done globally so there's probably no way to just move over a few URLs at a time. You may take a hit in the short-term, but with a little luck you'll bounce back. As I've said, there is some risk so please consider the pros and cons before embarking on any initiative. You might also want to consider a link building campaign, either in house or outsourced, once the switch is made. Introducing a few links to the new URLs can help jump start the process of regaining the trust your site once had.