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404: bad. 301: good. Bigger isn’t always better, and definitely not when it comes to SEO and these two numbers.
In case you’re wondering, we’re talking about 404 errors and 301 redirects.
While that first sentence (the one about 404s being bad and 301s good) completely oversimplifies things (by now you really ought to know that nothing is that simple in SEO land), in general you really don’t want somebody searching the web to find you, to find nothing but a broken link, the dreaded 404 http error code, the internet equivalent of the kiss of death: Page Not Found. It’s a bad experience for them, which is bad for you. Possibly worse: if search bots get served with a 404 a few times, the search engine in question will, in time, deindex the page from the search results. 301 redirects on the other hand, mean that, no matter where you move to – a new URL, a beautiful new website, the moon – your pages will always go with you, along with your customers, and those oh-so-fickle search engines.
But let’s not focus on the bad. Instead, we’re going to focus on the good guys: 301 redirects. What they are; why you should care; why or when you should use them; and how they affect your SEO (the good and the bad).
What is a 301 Redirect?
Let’s back up a little bit and start with what, exactly, a 301 redirect is. Think of it this way: you’re moving house (literally) from 7777 Vancouver Lane, Vancouver, BC to 8888 Toronto Drive, Toronto, ON. Before you move you do the smart thing: you set up mail forwarding to ensure that you get all your mail in your new home. This ensures you still get all your valuable mail – bills (ack!), parcels from Grandma, those crucial Canadian Tire flyers. Seriously, though, you wouldn’t move home without making sure you’ll still get your mail.
The same principle applies to your website: if you’re moving a website from one URL to another, for whatever reason (and we’ll get into possible reasons later), you need to make sure your site visitors, and, importantly, search engines, still get sent to the right place. In the world of tech, as opposed to the world of snail mail, you can do this by setting up what is known as a 301 redirect.
A 301 redirect – with the 301 being techie-speak for the HTTP status code of the redirected page – is a permanent, and automatic, redirect from one URL, or web page, to another one in a new location.
By setting up a 301 redirect, you are able to tell the browser:
- that your page has moved permanently,
- that you’re never going back there,
- that they should change the address to the new one. Now. And,
- that they should keep those visitors coming, just send them to this shiny new URL.
In this way, 301 redirects can still send site visitors and search engines to your website, even if it is at a different URL than the one they originally typed into their browser or selected from a search engine results page.
In short, 301 redirects are the mail forwarding of the tech world.
Why Should You Care About 301 Redirects?
A 301 redirect is key to maintaining your website’s domain authority and search rankings when the site’s URL is changed for any reason. As already mentioned, if you don’t use a 301 redirect whenever you remove, or move, a page from your web server, search engines will be served a 404 Not Found error response code. In time, faster than you think, this will result in the page being dropped from the search engine’s index. Completely. Not just dropped to page 2. Dropped. Altogether.
It doesn’t matter how much Google, or other search engines, have loved you in the past. Loyalty means little on the Internet. If they can’t find you, or you keep standing them up with Dear John letters (another little nickname we like to call 404 errors), they’re going to stop looking.
When to Use a 301 Redirect
There are a few reasons why you might find yourself in a position where you need to set up 301 redirects:
- To associate all the various web conventions – or beginning pieces of URLs – like www. / http:// / https:// with just the one URL. For example, if you type any of the following URLs into your browser, they’re all going to go to the same place: https://www.1stonthelist.ca/
Try it, see what we mean.
What we’ve done is ‘merge’ multiple domains by setting up 301 redirects which take all the various iterations of our URL to just the one URL, our preferred, or canonical, destination: https://www.1stonthelist.ca/. It’s called: Just pick a name already. And never miss out on traffic, or ranking, again.
- To completely rebrand your company, and in the process rename your website to match with a different URL.
- To make major edits or fix webpages.
- To merge two websites. Here’s an interesting story on this one: back in 2009 Toys ‘R Us purchased the toys.com domain as they entered into battle in the e-commerce world of toys. Once they had Toys.com in hand, they proceeded to redirect the site to their own domain in the hopes that it would bring all their traffic, and paying customers, with it. What did they forget to do though? That’s right: they never set up 301 redirects for the old URLs which had built up the domain authority and ranking of Toys.com. Google re-indexed the site without any of that lovely link juice and the whole point of the purchase went straight into a great big black hole. (Now Toys ‘R Us has gone bankrupt. While we can’t say this 301 situation had anything to do with that, it certainly didn’t help.)
How to Set Up 301 Redirects
Hoo boy. This could get technical. The short version? Get help.
The longer version involves words like .htaccess file, site audit, root folders, snippet codes… You get the gist.
We do have a couple of tips though:
- Start by running an audit on your site, using a tool like Screaming Frog SEO Spider, to do some redirect checking. This allows you to find any 404 error codes your site might be spitting out, find other URL issues, to check for any existing redirects, and to check for any redirect chains or loops which may be negatively impacting on your site’s SEO success. Yes, we know the word ‘audit’ sounds scary, but Screaming Frog does make the process a fairly simple one and can give a great overview of what is going on with your site. There are, of course, plenty of other redirect checkers out there, but Screaming Frog continues to amaze SEO pros with both its ease of use and its sheer speed. Clearly they have few to zero redirect chains slowing down their page load speed.
- If you’re running your website on WordPress, make life easy on yourself and install the Yoast SEO plugin, and spring for the paid Premium version. They make it really, really easy for you to set up 301 redirects. (Amongst other awesome SEO type wins.)
- There are also a number of other, very useful, plugins which can help ease the pain of grappling with coding and creating 301 redirect files yourself. Also within WordPress, the Redirection plugin is a free tool which can really simplify the process for you. If you have access to that .htaccess file we mentioned, you could also use 301 redirect generators such as this one.
- Otherwise, we’re going to take Google’s lead here and just say this: “To implement a 301 redirect for websites that are hosted on servers running Apache, you’ll need access to your server’s .htaccess file. (If you’re not sure about your access or your server software, check with your webhoster.) For more information, consult the Apache .htaccess Tutorial and the Apache URL Rewriting Guide. If your site is hosted on a server running other software, check with your hoster for more details.” (Google Search Console Help)
How 301 Redirects Affect SEO
301 redirects form a crucial chapter of your SEO best practice handbook. We’ve already established that serving a 301 indicates to both browsers (of the human kind) and search engine bots (of the well, robot, kind) that the page has moved permanently. Not only does this allow search engines to still send visitors to the place you want them to go, it means that they will still recognize any link weighting and ranking you already had on the old page and carry it over to the new one.
But now you’re probably asking a few questions like:
- Are redirects bad for SEO?
- What happens to my search ranking when I use a 301 redirect?
- Will Google hate me, and my 301 redirects?
- Do 301 redirects affect my Google rankings?
Like all things Google, and SEO, the answer to all these questions is: it depends. Exasperating, we know, but it is what it is.
301 redirects can affect your SEO performance. From multiple perspectives: technical, content, and link building. Whether that effect is positive or negative depends entirely on you and your implementation.
Used properly, redirects will not send all your SEO efforts spinning into the big black hole (also known as page 2 of Google). Used properly, they can help you maintain your PageRank and your reputation as an authoritative voice, a reputation won through hard-earned backlinks and carefully crafted content resulting in highly-engaged traffic to your site.
Google itself, via Gary Illyes, Webmaster Trends Analyst, has reassured us that, used properly, 301 (or any other 30x redirects) “don’t lose PageRank anymore.”
But note our overuse of the term “used properly”. Not all 301 redirects were created equal. And not all 301 redirects will pass 100% PageRank. Here’s why:
Relevance – or lack thereof
Remember how Google loves relevance when it comes to content and SEO? The same principle applies to 301 redirects. As John Mueller, Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, has gone on to explain: “301-redirecting for 404s makes sense if you have 1:1 replacement URLs, otherwise we’ll probably see it as soft-404s and treat like a 404.”
In other words, the 301 redirect will only pass 100% PageRank if it goes to a new page that is relevant, and closely matches, the content found on old page. If you’re just trying to do a quick-fix for a 404 error and are sending your redirect to an entirely different page, expect to be punished for it.
No place like home
Yes, there’s no place like home, but not everybody’s home is the same place. Another big issue with 301 redirects, an issue which is really just an extension of the relevance we just spoke of, is the (lazy) practice of redirecting all old pages to the homepage. Yes, it’s quicker, but no, it’s not useful.
If you’re getting rid of pages, take the time to make sure that each old page is being redirected to the most relevant page on your newly refurbished website – whether that’s a new page or a keeper.
Being sent home isn’t always the answer, especially if, as a user, you find yourself in the dog house and you really want to be in the birdcage.
Tied up in chains
Redirects on top of redirects on top of redirects equal a hot mess.
Called redirect chains, these can get your sitemap all tied up in knots, slow your page speed down, and confuse search engines to the point of abandoning you altogether. Redirect chains can also stop links, and any resultant page authority, from being passed on to the correct page.
You do not want your users, or search engines, going the scenic route. Passing through unnecessary stages from page A (your old page) to page D (your fourth iteration new page), via page B (your first redirect) and page C (your third redirect) is just far too confusing. For everyone involved. In fact, we got confused just laying it out like that. If page D is your final page, make A, B and C go there. Again: just pick one already.
Practice SEO Patience
You’ve put your 301 redirects in place. You’ve checked them and double-checked them. You’ve run them through every tool imaginable. They’re pointing to relevant new pages, they go straight there, they’re good. You know they’re good. So why are you still seeing some dropoff in search results?
Patience. Good things come to those who wait. Even if you do everything right, good SEO takes time, and patience, to show its results. This is true of 301 redirects as well. You may well, at first, see some slight changes, but eventually your redirect will maintain your search rankings and inbound links.
If you still have questions about 301 redirect, please call our SEO experts here at 1st on the List at 1-877-562-1750.