Redirecting Users to a New Site

Every time a Web site is acquired or merged into another site, much has to be done to keep the combined operation functioning and to retain the old audience.

As in a traditional business merger, everything with a logo or the company name needs to be reviewed and changed. But online mergers require a number of additional changes; it goes beyond putting a new logo on the old Web site.

Making sure the loyal audience of the old Web site is brought over to the new one takes a combination of marketing know-how and technical magic. However, unlike magicians who use misdirection to amaze their audiences, online marketers use redirection to hang on to the old site’s audience.

You’ve Been Redirected

We’ve all experienced redirection on the Web at one time or another.

If you’ve ever clicked on a banner ad or a link at a popular search engine, then you’ve been redirected. Banner ad services and search engines use intermediate pages to track click-throughs and quickly redirect users to the desired page.

When it comes to keeping an audience that uses bookmarks and links to the old site, it’s important to redirect those users correctly so you don’t lose them in the transition.

The first thing to consider is how quickly the audience should be redirected to the new site. One approach is to redirect users immediately with no warning. Frequently in cases like this, the URL of the old Web site is added to the server of the new Web site so both URLs display the same content.

This can usually be done by adding a configuration entry at the existing Web server. The disadvantage is that it can surprise users of the old site who don’t yet know about the combined site.

It’s usually better to keep the old Web site operational and display a notice about the new URL, and then redirect the user to the new site.

Automatic redirection can be handled in several different ways. First, the system administrator can reconfigure the old Web server software to perform redirection. Unfortunately, another sysadmin might come along later and, not knowing about the special configuration, remove the redirection. The result is a redirect page that tells users they will automatically be redirected to another page in a few seconds — only no automatic redirection occurs.

Web developers also frequently add a special meta redirection tag to individual pages that redirect the user to pages on the new site. This places the content of the redirection page and redirect function under the control of the same person.

Tough Cookies

As it becomes commonplace to use a Web database to create Web pages “on the fly,” the problems of integrating two Web sites will become more challenging.

When two sites use cookies to identify returning users, extra care needs to be used in redirecting users because of the security features designed into cookies. Cookies can be retrieved by the site that has the URL used to save the cookie in the first place. If the old URL was loaded onto the new server, users coming via the old URL could have their cookies retrieved in order to customize content. However, there are problems with this technique.

If the cookie needs to be updated, the server would need to use the old URL since that is the domain the browser used to access the site. That would be OK — if the new site weren’t trying to move the user to use the new URL. When the user returns to the site using the new URL, the old cookie cannot be retrieved to provide the expected personalization.

The solution is to maintain the old site so it can retrieve the cookie and pass the value to the new site during redirection. Then the new site can store a new cookie on the user’s computer using the new site’s domain.

Redirection is a handy way of taking users to a new site. Just keep in mind that it takes a little extra planning and programming to accomplish the goal of keeping loyal users during a transition.

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