Updating Your Web Store? Don’t Do This!

The backstory

We work with a lot of web stores here at StyleFeeder, both in terms of user-added links and also by importing affiliate data feeds.  There are literally thousands of these, of varying quality, and we import a good number of them and load them regularly to keep the product listings up to date.

When dealing with lots of feeds, occasionally something odd happens.  A couple of months back we noticed that our conversions of clicks to sales at a certain retailer had dropped to basically zero, which naturally was a concern.  Looking further into it, all the product links that we had were going to 404 pages all of a sudden.  A quick comparison of the URLs we were using to the ones currently in use on the site revealed a change in link structure for the same items, which were still for sale on the site.   A look back through the affiliate messages from that merchant showed a notice that the ecommerce software would be changing but that the links in the affiliate interface would be updated to work.  Looking back, that probably meant the simple banner/text ads that they provide and not the data feed links.

The point

Changing ecommerce software to get new features or performance is a fine thing.  It’s always good to make a site run better and offer a better customer experience.  Having said this, unless you have tremendous brand recognition and customer loyalty there are few things you can do to harm your web site more than introducing an upgrade that breaks all of your inbound links.

  • Assuming your home page is still your homepage, those are the only links that will still work in the eyes of search engines, so you’ll lose all SEO benefits to your deep-linked pages.
  • In the modern web world of user generated content, and URL shorteners, you’ve likely just broken the bulk of product links on your site that users have added to sites such as StyleFeeder, Facebook, or TinyURL
  • Probably minor compared to the other two, Affiliates who have loaded your product feed and do refreshes based on product content changes (or don’t do refreshes) will be tripped up since your changes will hide behind an affiliate URL and possibly not be noticed as changes.

How to Avoid This

If this is something that absolutely has to be done, take an inventory of your inbound links and your affiliates.  Then notify them early and often that  a change is coming.  It’s likely that they’ll react as if you’re announcing a jump off the local bridge, but through the wonder of email you don’t have to watch or listen to this.

Preferably, something like mod_rewrite in Apache could be used to remap the old URL structure to the new one.  Or, if the product identifiers in the URL change then some other sort of page or script or program could be written to map the existing IDs to the new URLs.