301 Redirects are one of the oldest tactics used in SEO and they are still incredibly important and have become more versatile in the last several years. Out of the different analogies used to describe redirects, my favorite is the post office analogy. When you move to a new home, most people know to inform their post office of the move so that they’re able to forward all of your old mail to your new address. Some of us forget, and as a result lose a bunch of mail. In that same way, a 301 redirect informs search engine crawlers that the URL that used to “live” in X location has moved to a new Y location.
There are three types of redirects:
- 301, or “moved permanently”
- 302, or “moved temporarily”
- 307, 302’s successor, also a “moved temporarily” redirect
- meta refresh
Since this post is titled 301 redirect SEO guide, we’ll focus on the 301 redirect. Just so I don’t leave you completely in the dark regarding 302, 307 and meta refresh redirects, here’s a brief description on them before we jump into the world of the 301 redirects:
- 302 and 307 types:
- These are temporary redirects, and while they’re technically different types they are really doing the same job so I’m bundling them into one here. This type of redirect will point the crawler to the new URL location, but it won’t treat it as a permanent change. As a result, it won’t transfer any of the SEO authority that original URL has gained over the course of its lifetime. Back to our post office analogy, 302’s would be as if you had asked the post office to hold your mail while you’re out of town. If you needed to execute a redirect for a few days and then pull back to the original URL, or have a redirect that purposefully doesn’t pass SEO authority to the new location, this could be a viable option. However, since 302 and 307 redirects do not transfer any SEO authority from the original source to the new source in most cases they should not be used.
- Meta refresh:
- Meta refresh redirects are slower, and more of a usability tool. Think of government websites or other secured websites with external links. Have you noticed that when you click on an external link you get a countdown such as “You will be redirected to site example.com in 5 seconds. If you’re not, click here”? That’s an example of a meta refresh. It’s mostly used for time delay redirects that will actually load the original URL first. Although Meta refresh redirects pass a small amount of SEO authority, they’re not the recommended route for SEO purposes.
301 Redirects Guide
The 301 redirects, or “moved permanently” redirects, are your best friends when changing URL paths on your site. Back to our post office analogy, the 301 redirect will see that your old mail (SEO authority) makes its way to the new location.
Before we get to technical about the redirect itself, let’s dive into how search engines crawl websites to add some context to this guide.
Think of a search engine (you thought of Google didn’t you?).
Pop Quiz: How does Google crawl my website?
A. Google crawls my website as one unit. The whole website is either crawled or it isn’t.
B. Google crawls my website as a group of web pages. Some web pages may be crawled while others may be left out.
If you chose B, you’re right!
Since Google crawls websites as groups of web pages, each web page on your website is assigned with:
- Keyword phrases that page is relevant for
- Page-specific SEO authority (or ranking power)
- Backlink profile (or external hyperlinks that point directly to that page)
- Rankings in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs)
- Search Engines will display different pages on their search results depending on the end-user’s query and which page on your website is most relevant to that query
- …and number of other search signals
After a while, you end up with a website that has a group of pages, each with specific strengths and weaknesses. You would be surprised to know that your website’s homepage isn’t always the strongest SEO asset on your website – though it tends to be most of the time.
Do I Need A 301 Redirect?
There are several different scenarios where the use of 301 redirects is recommended. Here’s a list with some of the most common scenarios:
- You are updating your website and some (or all) pages will have a different URL path by the time you’re done. For example:
- Original “About” page: http://www.example.com/about.html
- New “About” page: http://www.example.com/about/
- You are acquiring a security certificate (SSL) and will be securing your whole website. For example:
- Original: http://www.example.com/
- New: https://www.example.com/
- You are discontinuing a service or product, and would like to redirect your visitors to your new service or product:
- Original: http://www.example.com/old-service/
- New: http://www.example.com/new-service/
- You need to remedy canonicalization problems to consolidate different versions of your URL from “non-www” to “www” or vice-versa:
- Original: http://example.com/
- New: http://www.example.com/
- Any other scenario where you need to redirect users from one URL to another.
Why Does It Have To Be A 301 Redirect And Not Another Type?
301 Redirects can transfer somewhere between 90% to 99% of the SEO authority (rankings, pages indexed, search signals) from the original URL to the new URL. Thanks to this you’re able to make needed changes to your website while preserving as much of your historical SEO authority as possible.
How Do I Create & Implement 301 Redirects?
There are different ways to approach the implementation, here are a few scenarios and resources:
- Apache Server
- If the redirection needs to encompass several files and folders changes (major site-wide domain redirect) you’ll want to tap into Apache’s mod_rewrite module.
- If the redirection is specific to files and folders (simpler site-wide, specific pages, canonicalization, etc), you’ll want to make use of your .htaccess file where you can hard code in specific redirects.
- You’ll need to tackle your 301 redirects through the ISS URL Rewrite Module.
- Too much information? You can always hire us to do it for you.
I Deployed 301 Redirects But I’m Having Problems!
Like everything revolving around Search Engine Optimization, you can do everything right and not get the desired result.
When deployed properly and timely, 301 redirects can get the job done in transferring your SEO authority from the original source to the new location fairly quickly. However, it’s important to be aware that search engines like Google will take some time to acknowledge the transfer and update their index. Add a little more time for the SEO authority to transfer to the new location.
In our experience, a website that has a healthy crawl frequency rate will see some ranking fluctuations after the deployment of 301 redirects, but things seem to stabilize after a couple of weeks. This can take longer if the 301 redirect is between different top level domains.
Back in 2012 I wrote a blog posts about 301 redirect problems. Check it out for more potential hazards.
The 301 Redirects Worked At First But After A While My Rankings Dropped
You really need to make sure that the new location is still relevant to what the old page was about if you hope to maintain your rankings.
Here’s an example scenario:
- Let’s say you sell Nike shoes, and decided to discontinue your Red Nike Shoes page.
- Your Red Nike Shoes page ranked really well in Google for the keyword phrase “red nike shoes”. You didn’t want to lose those rankings and traffic, so you 301 redirected that page to your Green Nike Shoes page.
- At first the 301 redirect worked, but overtime your rankings for “red nike shoes” disappeared.
In the scenario above, you can clearly see why the rankings dropped. The new page, Green Nike Shoes isn’t relevant to Red Nike Shoes, so overtime that authority dissipates.
As long as the destination pages you’re pointing your redirects to are still relevant to the content from the original source, you’ll have a better chance at retaining that SEO authority and all of the goodness that comes with it.
My Page Used To Rank #1 But Google Penalized It, Can I Redirect It?
Be aware that if you have pages that have been penalized by Google, 301 redirects won’t save you. If you 301 redirect a penalized page, that penalty can follow the redirect into your new URL.
People have tried to game the system through redirects before. So much so that we feel Google takes longer to acknowledge major redirects these days in an effort to avoid spam redirects.
However, we have seen in rare cases URLs that have been penalized recover in rankings after an algorithmic penalty expiring – usually after a few years. If you see this happen to a URL, in theory, it would be safe to 301 redirect that URL to a new destination.
How Long Should I Keep 301 Redirect Active For?
Google recommends that 301 redirects should remain active for at least a year after implementation. Most of the time it won’t hurt to just leave them active in your rewrite module or .htaccess file indefinitely. In fact, the longer they’re active the better.
What Else Do I Need To Do To Launch My New Site?
301 redirects are a major tactic to ensure historical continuity of your SEO authority as your website(s) evolve. However, they’re one item from a much longer check list.
Check out my post from earlier this year about five completely avoidable mistakes people making when launching a new website.
Please be sure to collaborate with us through the comments below. I’d love to hear of any other scenarios where 301 redirects are needed that I may not have mentioned. Also, any ideas, insights, tactics are welcome. Last but not least, if you need help with your online business, please get in touch with us, we’ll know if we can help in minutes.