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Search engines: what happens when your content moves

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We’re hearing some concerns about how moving to GOV.UK will affect your visibility in search engines. In fact, we think many organisations are likely to benefit from the strength of the single government domain.

GOV.UK’s status as a large, authoritative website means that we’re often ranked as the top search result - or in many cases, several of the top results.

Search engines use hundreds of factors to decide which pages are the most relevant answers for a search query. These include:

  • the URL, title and words on the page
  • the quality and freshness of content
  • links from other websites
  • whether the site is trustworthy or a recognised authority
  • the user’s location and search history

There’s more information in Google’s How Search Works (you can also watch a video), with more advanced details in Search Engine Land’s Periodic Table Of SEO Success Factors.

Keeping your search rankings

We’ve seen some examples where GOV.UK content is already hot on the heels of existing websites, or even outranking them. In most cases, the new content will simply take the place of the previous content in search results after transition.

For instance, if you searched for ‘British citizenship’ in Google last month, the top results were from the UK Border Agency’s ‘British citizenship’ section, immediately followed by GOV.UK’s ‘Become a British citizen’ guide:

When the agency completed its transition and closed its website, the new GOV.UK ‘British citizenship’ section appeared at the top of the search results a few days later:

We tend to focus on Google because of its market share in the UK - more than 9 out of 10 visits from search engines to GOV.UK come from Google. The rest are mostly from Bing or Yahoo (which is powered by Bing), so it’s worth looking at their results too, though we’ve found them more erratic.

What happens when content moves

When new content is published on GOV.UK, it’s usually added to Google within hours, or at most within a couple of days. As a busy website, GOV.UK is revisited by Google’s ‘crawlers’ every day to check what’s changed, whereas other sites may be crawled less often. Some search engines visit less regularly, so it can take longer for their search results to be updated.

David Mann recently explained the redirection and mapping process with the new Transition Tool. Once your old URLs are redirected to their nearest equivalents on GOV.UK, search engines will discover those redirects and automatically update their links. Associating every old page with the most relevant new page will help the content to retain its search rankings.

For content that isn’t moving to GOV.UK, the old URLs will be redirected to The National Archives’ government web archive instead. This archived content can still appear in external search results, often with ‘[ARCHIVED CONTENT]’ in the title to make it more obvious for users.

During the changeover period, any search results that still link to your old URLs will automatically redirect users to the new or archived content.

Our experience with the transition of Directgov, Business Link and the 24 ministerial departments was quite smooth. Lana Gibson wrote about the search performance of Directgov and GOV.UK at the time. For any queries where pages weren’t ranking as well as expected, we looked at ways to tweak the content for better search results.

Search-friendly content

So what can you do to make sure your content is findable? If you’re following the style guide then you’re already on the right track: user-friendly content is search-friendly content.

Titles are particularly important, as they’re what people look at most in search results. They should be unique and descriptive, but fairly short - no more than about 65 characters. If they’re too long, search engines may automatically shorten the title to fit; not always by truncating the end, but sometimes by missing out words from the beginning or middle.

Our search engine optimisation (SEO) guidelines give more details on choosing the best keywords to use in your titles, summaries and headings.

What about site search?

We’ll be writing soon about how GOV.UK site search works, and what we’re doing to improve the search results. In the meantime, see an earlier post about search from Neil Williams on the Inside GOV.UK blog.

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