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Changing main navigation structure without committing SERP suicide?

4:38 am on Jul 13, 2013 (gmt 0)

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I need to update the main navigation menu at the top of my site but not sure how to go about it so any advice would be greatly appreciated.
When I started my Magento based ecommerce store a few years ago I didnít have many products so I set up a main navigation menu at the top of the site to suit the small amount of products and made many of the categories model specific.
Now I want to change the whole main navigation at the top to make it better for customers to find products and give us more room to expand the product range by making more generic categories.

Currently lots of category pages are model specific and rank quite well for these keywords.

I can think of the following options but not sure which is best for SEO:

1. 301 redirect the old model specific category to the new generic category (don't know if this is such a good idea as the new category won't be as well optimised for the keywords and will be more unrelated and generic).
2. Keep the old model specific category pages active and add more content at the top of them and optimise for certain keywords. This would create good landing pages for all the manufacturers. They would not be included in the main navigation but would be in the site map so hopefully google would keep indexing them and they would be good landings for customers who are googling for a specific products. Most of them already have links to them.
3. Same as number 2 but try and include them in the main navigation a bit hidden away so things are still not over cluttered. (so they are internally linked)
4. Keep old category pages active but don't spend any time optimising them. Wait for category pages to start ranking well and then 301 redirect the old pages to the new generic ones.
5. A better solution I havenít thought of?

The product pages and informational pages will all keep the same URLS. {mainURL} /product-name.html
4:07 pm on July 13, 2013 (gmt 0)

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Google remembers urls and visits them directly, I don't think you have much to worry about. Google does keep track of how many internal links point to each individual url but it doesn't sound like your planned changes will dramatically change this.

Category pages in general: Google doesn't return them very often unless they are built in such a way as to have useful content. Google doesn't want to send visitors into a list of links of any kind really. I have made my category pages "noindex" and not lost traffic at all in the past(noindex pages still pass rank). I would not change the category urls however since they do have some weight in terms of pagerank flow, keep old urls whenever possible.

If you must change a category url then make sure you 301 redirect the old to the new and update all links to reflect the change. Above all else focus on improving visitor experience first. Since your content page urls aren't changing I wouldn't worry about losing traffic to them. Also, before ditching old category urls, do a link audit to see if you have solid incoming links pointed to them. If you do it's possible your sites rank may stumble a bit as the value is not carried 100% through a 301 redirect. If this is the case get in touch with the link owners and ask them to update the link on their site.
9:34 pm on July 13, 2013 (gmt 0)

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From the various options you have presented, I would go for option 3, with a view to move to option 4 at a later stage if new categories start to rank.

With regards to option 3, you could perhaps have a drop-down in the main nav under the name of "Most popular" or similar where you list the current model specific categories.

Once the new categories start to rank, then you can try to move to what you listed as option 4 - I would then take ONE of the current model specific category and merge it / redirect it to the appropriat category page, to test the effect, and depending on the result, proceed with other model specific categories or revert.
12:28 am on July 15, 2013 (gmt 0)

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Thanks for the advice, much appreciated. I think I will keep the URLS as they are and might try and build a shop by brand category in under the main navigation.
6:30 am on July 16, 2013 (gmt 0)

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All four of your proposed solutions have merit, merely differing by the amount of work involved. I would certainly keep the old pages active to begin with and monitor traffic before deciding whether to retain or redirect.

I am hoping that your product URLs do not contain category folder levels. If your product URLs don't contain category folder levels, you can alter the categories without affecting the product URLs.