Don't delete a webpage or a site without a plan!
Whether you are simply moving content to a new page, revising your site architecture, or launching an entirely new site, it is important to plan for creating redirects for URLs that will no longer exist.
For one, broken links in your site, and to the queensu.ca domain generally, negatively affect search rankings. More importantly, it is bad for user experience. We want to ensure that our audiences can always easily find the information they need.
Before changing a URL, check the analytics for the page in question:
- check the pages in the Google Analytics Behaviour section for a time frame of 1-2 years
- check landing pages in Google Search Console (if available) for a time frame of 1-2 years to see which pages get traffic from Google
- check the most important referral sources
Use a simple spreadsheet to map out and track the changes to be made. For example
301 Redirect to
There are a few different ways to code redirects, depending on whether the change is temporary (a "302" redirect) or permanent (a "301" redirect). For Queen's sites, we recommend sticking to 301 or permanent redirects.
What is a 404?
Simply stated, if a user tries to visit a page that is not available, they’ll be sent to a 404 page.
A “404 error” is the standardized code for indicating that specific web content cannot be found – i.e., it can’t currently be reached or no longer exists. The message is generated by the web server and sent to web browser.
Typically, a 404 error is returned when any of the following conditions apply:
- The URL path/page or its referenced content (downloads, images) was deleted or moved without consideration to redirecting the user to active content
- The URL was written incorrectly – in the link, or when typed into the browser
- When not only the page, but the whole site / domain name no longer exists
- The host server is not running, or the connection is otherwise broken
Custom 404 error pages
A custom 404 error page is a page hosted by and personalized to your site, letting the user know that the URL they requested is not available.
For websites under the queensu.ca domain, without a custom 404, users are directed to the top-level queensu.ca 404 page. For examples of custom 404 pages specific to sub-sites of Queen’s, visit the following sites and type in a URL for a page that does not actually exist:
- Student Wellness - try https://www.queensu.ca/studentwellness/xyz
- Smith School of Business - try https://smith.queensu.ca/xyz
- Faculty of Health Sciences - try https://healthsci.queensu.ca/xyz
- Faculty of Arts and Science - try https://queensu.ca/artsci/xyz
- Library - try https://library.queensu.ca/xyz
- Research at Queen’s - try https://www.queensu.ca/research/xyz
A custom 404 does not negate the need to use the redirect tool for redirecting users to individual pages/content that you know has moved. But for page errors that cannot be anticipated – such as when a link to your page from another site has errors or when a user types in the wrong URL – having those errors land on a custom 404 page can provide a better user-experience by reorienting your users as much as possible with a message and help links, such as contact information.
Tips for an effective 404
Be creative, but be appropriate: With a custom 404, you have a chance to add a little levity and turn around a bad user experience. A quick search of “creative custom 404 page” in a search engine results in many examples a brands injecting a little personality into their custom 404. If you choose to go the creative route, be sure that the tone of your text and images is appropriate, on brand, and lands well with your audience (i.e. get some feedback from users).
Be clear: Users don't necessarily know what “404” means and they don’t need to. Write your error page content in plain language. Including the term “404” in the page may be helpful for some users, but it doesn’t have to dominate.
Be sympathetic: Include brief copy expressing your regret and a tip for how your visitor can get back on track. Provide a link to contact information or additional help.
Tracking links with Site Improve
Use your Siteimprove account to find links from other Queen’s sites into yours. Create a Site Improve "policy" that searches for links to queensu.ca/yoursite and/or any specific page within the site. This will provide a list of websites and webpages in Queen's that link to yours. When you launch, you can reach out to campus webmasters let them know that they have broken links.
Decommissioning a website
Similarly, before removing a website entirely, either removing content permanently or moving it under a new domain, subdomain or path, it is important to understand your incoming traffic sources and have a plan for communicating the impending change.
IT Services can place redirects at the server level temporarily (usually 6 months or for no longer than a year) to redirect traffic and/or explain the change.