What are 301 redirects and why are they so important?
A few weeks ago I had an interesting and slightly disturbing experience when advising a client on their new website development. As part of our SEO during development process we look at a number of technical elements of a new website to ensure there will be a smooth and positive transition from any previous website. We ran our usual extensive domain crawl which tells us every possible URL on a domain and we enabled the Google Search Console to find any old pages that are now seen as “Not found”.
We created a spreadsheet to redirect all of the changed URLs and forwarded these to the developer for addition during the launch of the new website (bear with me as I will explain what this means and why we do it a little further on).
So far, so good?
Everything was fine and we gave approval to launch the new website once a few relatively minor development corrections were made.
A few days later we noticed some less than positive results. As this is a bit unusual we looked at the technical elements again. It looked like almost none of the redirects had been added and the website was seeing a large drop in organic visitors from Google.
On contacting the developers we heard that they had decided not to implement our spreadsheet and had simply redirected the URLs that appeared for the company domain on page one of Google’s results which amounted to 10 redirects as compared to the 280+ in our spreadsheet.
The result was a drop of more than 30% in the client’s organic traffic in less than a week. You can imagine the distress that would cause as this type of negative result means lost rankings on Google, lost visitors and of course this also means lost sales and reduced profit.
Fortunately, a combination of fixing the redirects and some temporary paid search has led to a bounce back in results from Google. But this will take a bit of time to correct and has cost money in Adwords spend as Google takes a while to trust new information. Mistakes can be costly.
What exactly are redirects?
To explain in simple terms, redirects are notifications that a page on your website is now located somewhere else and they take a visitor and search engines to the new location.
There are a few ways to do this:
- 301 redirect means a page has moved permanently
- 302 redirect means a page has moved temporarily
- Meta refresh means a redirect at a page level usually seen as “If you are not redirected in 5 seconds, click here”
- 307 redirect is another version of the temporary page move for HTTP 1.1 only
There are very few instances where any of these other than a 301 redirect are a useful solution.
When are 301 redirects used?
301 redirects are an extremely important tool for developers, website managers and SEO agencies. These are the key times 301s should be used.
- Any time a website page is moved to a new address, a 301 redirect needs to be created.
- If a page is deleted from your website it is usually good practice to take visitors to a page that will be useful to them such as a new version of the same product, a similar service or a category that makes sense.
- If your URL structure is changed you will need to redirect people to the new version e.g. if your page was structured as yourdomain.com/services/marketing/social-media and you decided to change the navigation to yourdomain.com/services/social-media and this happened across your services, you need to redirect all affected URLs
- Random CMS generated URLs. Sometimes certain content management systems are guilty of generating random URLs that go to a Not Found result. These need to be redirected as well
These little pieces of code keep your website and domain clean and efficient and they improve your visitor user experience.
Why is this a thing?
I recently explained to a client what happens when this vital step is missed. Sometimes it can be difficult to explain a technical element like this in simple language but this is how I approached it.
Let’s say you have a website that has 200 pages. The content is not all great and some pages don’t have very much on them. You have decided to develop a new website and you want to trim back the unnecessary pages and move to a lean, informative 40 page website. You want every page to offer some information of value to your visitors and focus on clear, easy to understand navigation.
Great! That all sounds like it will improve your visitor experience.
So, you launch the new website and omit to add the 301 redirects.
This is what your website now looks like to Google.
Google has previously added 200 pages from your current website to their index (think of this as the Google library of all web pages). You have launched a new website that has only 40 pages. This means at least 160 pages in their index are now going to a page that says “Not found” which is also known as a 404 error page. You will have seen plenty of these in your travels on the web – “Oops, the page you are looking for can not be found…”.
Let’s say that you also changed the page URL format and moved from pages that had URLs that ended with something like .aspx or.html or .index to pages that didn’t have these any more. Now you have 1 consistent page (your homepage) and 39 brand new pages with no history and no indication whether they are valuable or not. You also have 199 pages going to a Not Found result.
This is not complicated.
Before launch – 200 pages with some good stuff and some history.
After launch – 1 good page, 39 new unknown pages and 199 pages that are giving an error or bad result.
Google will reasonably assume that a website that has a 199 to 1 chance of having a visitor land on a frustrating 404 page would be giving a terrible user experience so Google will strongly demote a dysfunctional site like this. Google also has no idea whether the new pages are authoritative or not. They are brand new to the web. This means no other websites will be linking to them.
The importance of links and 301 redirects
One of the great features of 301 redirects is that they pass on all (as of last year according to top Google representatives) of your previous history and authority to the new page. This can take some time to happen so a major development with hundreds or thousands of new URLs will often experience a period of volatility in organic visitor numbers. History is based on the date when a page is published and trusted pages have usually been around for a while. Authority is measured in the quality and number of links from other websites pointing at your page and signals like social media popularity to a lesser degree.
It is vital to retain the fruits of all of your time and effort on the web and 301 redirects will do this for you.
If you or your developer fail to manage this process correctly your website will instantly appear to be brand new and will have to start from scratch in accruing all of the brand value signals Google looks for.
Here are a selection of conversations I have had over the past few years with developers, marketing managers, digital managers, web designers and other stakeholders.
We want to have a new, much more brand relevant domain name. We don’t want to mess around with redirects as we want to have a whole new brand launch.
You can imagine my response. This would be hugely damaging to your brand and to your web results. Your current figures in Analytics with Google Organic supplying 70% of all visitors will plummet and you will be back where you started 6 years ago.
Google doesn’t care about 404 pages. This is how you tell people that it’s gone. Google even says so here (insert link to general Google advice page that says not to worry too much)
Yes, sometimes what Google advises is in very general terms. However, they do supply reports that document 404 errors and advise you how to fix them and send warnings if you have a sudden influx of these errors.
We decided to delete those pages as we weren’t offering that service until next month. Don’t worry, we will create some new pages that better describe what we are doing.
The problem was that “those pages” happened to be ranking well in search. They were bringing in a significant number of visitors from Google and were seen to be authoritative. This value was suddenly removed from the domain and this affected the overall standing of the business. Creating new pages will not fix this problem.
We decided to shift the website to a secure certificate, That’s what Google is advising.
Very true. However, if you leave previous versions of the domain live or if parts of the site are not secure including links, your website will be broken or inaccessible via most browsers. It may also cause damaging duplication issues.
We didn’t need to have dates on our blog posts so we just changed the permalink settings in our dashboard. They look much better now.
Except for the fact that you have just sent every indexed blog post to an error page and have lost all history and authority that you have accumulated in your years of content marketing or blogging.
301 redirects are our friends. They are not complicated or scary.
They serve a very real purpose in ensuring a good user experience and to help search engines to understand the brand value you are building. This should be basic SEO knowledge for every website designer or developer but unfortunately there are many out there who do not understand this simple SEO necessity.
If you are contemplating a website redevelopment you should understand the basics of what Google’s expectations are. Or better still, talk to us about how we can take the stress out of your new website development with our development SEO service.
If you are moving to a new domain there are also a number of critical steps. You can learn more about our domain migration service here.
Or if you just want to talk about your plans, your goals and would like to know if we can help you can contact us here.
Mike Morgan works with innovative businesses in New Zealand and Australia developing custom web marketing strategies integrating SEO, Content Marketing and Social Media. Mike has been featured in 41 Rising Stars of SEO and Top 100 Most Followed SEO Experts on Twitter and has his opinions on SEO and Content Marketing published on a range of global content marketing blogs.