On May 1st I wrote about the close of GeoCities and how all accounts with GeoCities will soon be deleted permanently. I wanted to take the time to discuss the importance of having your website hosted on your own domain, and also to give those currently using GeoCities a few ideas on how to move forward.

Over the years I have spoken with a handful of people looking to optimize and improve their search rankings for their GeoCities-hosted website. These are not people who simply had a personal site with photos of their families and furry pets, but people with actual tangible businesses being run through this free hosting platform.

This got me thinking over the weekend. I am not sure how many actual businesses are using GeoCities for their official websites, but I am certain that there are quite a lot – and each and every one of these businesses has a lot to lose when their GeoCities account is closed.

Initially, businesses with these websites saved only about $10 a year for a domain, and then anywhere from $0 – several hundred dollars a year in hosting costs. And today you still can get an inexpensive hosting account for as little as $5 (in some cases less), so with that in mind you can have your website up and running with as little as $70 in annual costs. Unfortunately, that $70 annual savings will cost you much more than that if the platform you use closes down.

There are two huge disadvantages to hosting with a free service like this. The first is ownership and control. At any time the service you are using can close their doors and leave you out in the cold. This is something that you can’t prevent with a paid host but it is substantially easier to recover from, if you own your own domain.

The second is branding and recognition. I was telling my wife about the closing of GeoCities last night, and she noted that whenever she is looking for a product online and sees these free domains appear, she does not take them seriously, and instead shops elsewhere. I am sure she is not the only one out there who does this. By saving that $70 per year on hosting, you could be potentially losing thousands of dollars in sales due to a lack of credibility.

If you own your own domain and your hosting company closes, at its simplest level, moving your site is as easy as finding a new host, and changing your DNS info to point to the new location. At the end of the day, the search engines will find your site as they always have, and if you take the proper precautions, business will go on as usual.

When you switch from one of these free hosts, using a provided sub domain or subfolder, and they close their doors you are left to find a new domain, and this presents a huge number of SEO issues that will most likely see your rankings disappear, at least for a few months. The biggest problem with this change is the inability to create a 301 redirect pointing from the old site to the newly purchased domain.

So you have a GeoCities Account?
So now what? Your profitable business is at risk on the heels of the GeoCities shut-down, what should you do?

To the best of my knowledge, it is not possible to create 301 redirects on of a GeoCities hosted site. I just happened to have an old account that is still active. In this account I uploaded a *.php file and tried posting some PHP 301 redirect code in the header and the code did not work. It appears that GeoCities disables php code. I also attempted to upload an htaccess file, however, am told by GeoCities “Invalid Filename”.

After a bit more digging, I did find that you can redirect your domain. There is one way, and one way only. By registering a new domain and hosting it through Yahoo, they will allow you to redirect your GeoCities domain to this new paid hosting account. The catch? You must host your site through GeoCities! (That sounds a little bit unethical if you ask me.) I could not find any reference as to the type of redirect being used, I can only assume – and hope – that it’s a 301 redirect.

So where does this leave you? Well, if you want to you can create a new paid account through Yahoo and redirect your old free site to it, but then you will be using Yahoo for your hosting. There is another way however, that may help you with your troubles.

After you have set up your site at a new top level domain, at a host of your choice, add the canonical tag to all pages of your old site!

Using the Canonical Tag
While the newly implemented Canonical tag is not intended for this purpose, it will help and, at this time, is your best bet for a band-aid solution.

For each of your existing pages, add the following tag to the head section of the source code (be sure to edit the URL as appropriate):

<link rel=”canonical” href=”http://www.yournewsite.com/page.html”>

This tag works very similar to a 301 redirect, and when Google sees the pages of your old free account, they then should ultimately attribute this old content and its rankings with the new location. While this does not 301 redirect the old domain, it will help Google transfer the rankings to the new site, which may help save your traffic and future sales!

In the mean time, you have about a year before your old site is permanently deleted, so consider contacting as many websites as possible that link to you to try to get them to update the link on their site. The more links you can switch to the new domain the better for long term success. Remember, once the old site is removed, the canonical tag will stop doing its job, so it is best to promote your new domain as much as possible, as soon as possible.

If you have an idea or solution to deal with the GeoCities closure, please be sure to chime in with a comment, I would love to hear your ideas on how to solve this problem.

I have contacted Yahoo with questions regarding redirecting the old domain, and if I am fortunate enough to get a response, I will be sure to let all of you know.