CitySmart Blog

Tuesday, May 09, 2017
Victoria Boyko, Software Development Consultant

Victoria BoykoYes, you read our headline correctly. The Associated Press recently reported on the city of Springfield, Florida’s old website taken over by a Japanese pornographer. If citizens checked the old website URL for a period of time, then they would have viewed the homepage of a pornographic website.

The article noted:

Springfield switched its website to a .gov domain about three years ago. The city's information technology department is seeking to buy back the old domain and any domains [sic] names similar to the city's current website, springfield.fl.gov.

Before you laugh or judge, consider your city. It’s likely you already have or will do a website redesign in the future. And it’s likely you are switching or have switched from an old URL (such as a .org URL) to a new URL (such as a .gov URL).

In other words, you could make the same mistake.

Whenever you redesign and/or assign new URLs to your website, we recommend having website professionals manage all of the parts and pieces as you go from one URL to another. But two basic website best practices could have prevented Springfield, Florida’s public embarrassment.

1. Keep ownership of all old city website URLs.

Do not give up ownership of these URLs. You will need them.

First, it’s good practice to own these URLs so that other people don’t buy them, use them for websites that have nothing to do with your city, and then unintentionally (or intentionally) confuse citizens. Think of it like a celebrity or a well-known brand buying up URLs that might contains names that people would sensibly search for. It’s a way to make sure that common, incorrect website URL searches all go to your city’s website.

Second, you will need your old URLs to redirect people to your new website. It’s like a store that needs to tell people at the old location that there is a new location.

2. Use 301 redirects.

A “301 redirect” is a technical website term. It means when a person goes to your old URL they are automatically redirected to your new URL. Hubspot uses a great analogy of mail forwarding. When you move, you set up mail forwarding so that your mail goes to your new address. 301 redirects are an online version of that concept.

301 redirects are essential for a few reasons:

  • Citizens will get automatically directed to your new website when they type in your old website. Many of your citizens will not use Google to find your city’s website. They will type in or cut and paste a familiar URL—your old website. Old habits die hard, and many citizens won’t know you changed your URL. You need to make sure that when they type in that old URL they get automatically directed to your new website.
  • Other websites that link to your city’s website need to work. If 100 different websites link to your city’s website, what happens when you change your URL? All of those links won’t work—unless you use 301 redirects. This simple website tactic is the difference between people continuing to visit your website from those 100 external websites versus seeming to go dark. Without 301 redirects, it’s like moving and then not telling your friends and family your new address.
  • Your own internal website links need to work. If you do a thorough, meticulous job of changing every single hyperlink on your website to your new website URLs, then this won’t be a problem. But if you have hundreds of hyperlinks on your website that direct people to other pages on your website, then it’s likely you won’t have the time to change every link. For the time being, 301 redirects will provide a band-aid until you can change all internal links.
  • 301 redirects help you stay visible to search engines. Search engines spend years and years getting to “know” your website through indexing your site on a regular basis, analyzing links to and from your website, and detecting how much content you produce. If you produce a new website with a new URL with no connection at all to your old website, then search engines will have to get to “know” your new website from scratch. Then it may take a long, long time before you start appearing in search engine results again. For example, if a citizen types in your city’s name into a search engine, your website may not even show up in the first 10-20 search results. 301 redirects smooth things over—essentially letting search engines know that you’ve moved and keeping your city high in the search results.

While just two simple best practices, these are technical aspects of your website that need to be managed and overseen by experienced website professionals. Otherwise, like Springfield, Florida, you may end up losing ownership of your old URL, failing to redirect citizens to your new website, and then letting them think that your city’s website apparently has switched over to providing porn.

Want to ensure that you prevent a similar disaster? Reach out to us today.

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