301 redirects are an important part of managing a website—especially if you have a lot of internal pages to manage. They can also make or break your search engine optimization (SEO) strategy.
But despite their commonness and utility for web management, 301 redirects are frequently misunderstood. What exactly are these redirects, and how should you be using them as part of your SEO strategy?
Let’s start with the basics. What is a 301 redirect?
A 301 redirect is a specific type of redirect; redirects always function by rerouting web traffic from one page to another page. Specifically, 301 redirects are designed to imply a permanent move of content from one page to another.
Why the “301?” What does this number mean? It’s a simple reference to the HTTP status code of the page being redirected. You can review all the HTTP status codes here.
After receiving a client request, the server’s response would look something like this:
HTTP/1.1 301 Moved Permanently
If you’re not familiar with the technical aspects here, it’s best to think of it with an analogy. Let’s say you owned a store in a mall, but you decided to move to a new location in the same mall. A shopper visits your old location, since they don’t know you moved. The 301 redirect is like a sign outside the store that says, “We’re not here anymore. We’ve moved to a new location.” For this analogy to work, the sign also automatically sends the visitor to the new location—so imagine there’s some kind of automatic conveyer belt that leads them there.
In practice, it works something like this: You have a page titled “bee communication” that’s all about how bees communicate. Eventually, you decide to work that into a bigger piece about bee colonies called “bee colonies.” You don’t intend to move the page back, ever. You can set up a 301 redirect so that all would-be visitors to the “communication” page are sent to the “colonies” page instead.
So how do 301 redirects affect SEO?
You’ll find some conflicting theories on this topic within the SEO community, mostly because the SEO influence of 301 redirects has changed slightly.
To understand the relationship between 301 redirects and SEO, you first need to understand how SEO works. SEO is a complex series of strategies that are all designed to help your website rank higher in Google search results. There are many “ranking factors” to consider, but one of the most important is PageRank.
PageRank is an objective evaluation of a website’s trustworthiness, evaluated based on the quantity and quality of links pointing to that site. The more links you have, and the better those links are, the higher your PageRank will be. The higher your PageRank is, the higher you’ll rank in search results.
Prior to 2016, setting up a 301 redirect would cause you to “lose” PageRank from an inbound link that would otherwise generated. In other words, your inbound links would lose ranking power if they were redirected by a 301 redirect. Google was never super clear on this point, but SEO professionals estimated the loss to be around 15 percent.
However, in 2016, Gary Illyes revealed in a tweet that “30x redirects don’t lose PageRank anymore.”
That’s good news. It means that 301 redirects are perfectly fine as far as PageRank is concerned; if you have an inbound link that goes to a nonexistent page of your site, but that page has a 301 redirect that leads to the new page, that page will receive 100 percent of that PageRank.
Because of this, 301s are a powerful SEO tool. If a page of your site is obsolete, broken, or otherwise “gone,” ordinarily it would simply no longer receive PageRank (and no longer appear in search engine results pages, or SERPs). But with a 301 redirect you can give the page a kind of new life, especially if the page throws off a 404 error.
301 redirects are also useful for resolving canonical issues and improving your SEO potential in other ways.
If you want to use 301 redirects for SEO effectively, these are some of the best strategies to follow:
There are a few different techniques you can use to implement a 301 redirect. However, the easiest and most straightforward way is to edit your website’s .htaccess file.
In the root folder, you should find the .htaccess file. If you don’t, it could mean that your site isn’t running on an Apache web server. Otherwise, it could mean that you don’t have an .htaccess file yet; if this is the case, you can simply create one using a program like Notepad or TextEdit. Just save it as .htaccess instead of .txt.
In the .htaccess, file you’ll add code like this:
Redirect 301 /previous-page.html /new-page.html
Note that if your site is running on Windows/IIS or Nginx, you’ll need to follow a different set of instructions.
If you’re using WordPress or a similar website builder, you may be able to implement 301 redirects even easier with the help of a redirect plugin. With the right plugin, you may be able to simply enter your old page and new page, then set up the redirect automatically.
It’s also possible to set up even bigger, more impactful 301 redirects:
If you’re going to work with 301s to improve your website’s position for SEO, you’ll need to follow some important strategies.
Whether you’re managing an old website on an old domain with existing pages, or you’re constantly creating web pages on a new domain, it’s critical to stay on top of your redirects and prevent them whenever possible. This includes applying a sitewide https redirect once you have your SSL certificate installed. Don’t try to redirect a single page over and over – redirect your domain through your .htaccess file.
Search engines don’t mind redirects, but users might. The trick is to limit the number of redirects you have on your root domain and make sure all redirects go to the correct pages. You can actually lower your bounce rate when you redirect users to the correct page.
If you’re creating the same page content, but with a different URL, search engines will still re-index the page when the new URL is discovered.
Although redirects are a good solution to renamed and deleted web pages, it’s always best to avoid having to create a permanent redirect in the first place. Users don’t always mind being redirected, but it does get annoying when it happens often and can negatively impact your site’s user experience. It’s not hard to avoid having to create redirects, but to do this you need a strategy for creating each web page.
The best way to avoid a broken link is to choose your URLs carefully and intentionally so that you don’t need to change them later. Short URLs are usually best for an easy site structure, so limit your page URLs to one or two words if possible. A good tip for a new URL is to use the same keywords you’re trying to rank for, but only when it makes sense.
Even though search engines don’t de-rank sites for having redirects, it’s still going to annoy some users. Even when a page gets redirected, seeing a page that no longer exists can sometimes frustrate users even if they never see an error message. Whether it’s an internal link or an external link, nobody likes a broken URL.
If you have a WP site, use a plugin that will automatically redirect pages that return 404 errors. Redirection is a good free WordPress plugin that will get the job done well. To install this or any other redirect plugin, log into the administrator section of your WordPress panel and navigate to the plugins section. From there, you can either find a plugin inside of the WordPress.org directory or upload one you’ve downloaded from a developer.
The good thing about using a free plugin is that you aren’t limited to one domain like you sometimes are with paid plugins. However, you might like a paid plugin better than a free one. It’s your WordPress site, so use a plugin that works best for your needs.
You can manually set up redirects on a WordPress site, but this only works for web servers running on Apache. Thankfully, Apache servers are common, and whether you have a shared hosting account or dedicated server you probably have Apache. If you’re not sure, contact your hosting provider for help.
It might seem easiest to just let your web editor make changes to your site freely, but it’s important to have rules around changing a URL structure.
Create a system for editing an existing page that all content editors follow. For instance, don’t allow anyone to change the old URL without a good reason. Even so, this should be discouraged. If a new URL is necessary, require your web editor to document the original URL along with the new URL in a special spreadsheet and notify the appropriate person of the change. This way, the right person can choose to create permanent or temporary redirects to avoid broken links and 404 errors.
For a new site on a new domain, keep a spreadsheet that lists all the URLs that currently exist along with pre-defined URLs for future content. Don’t let any web page get published without a pre-determined URL. You’re in a good position to start this habit with a brand new domain because the process you define will be new to everyone. If followed, your system will be applied to all the pages on your entire site from day one.
It’s never too late to implement a system on an old domain, though. With an existing site, you’ll probably have more URL redirects to set up, but it won’t be difficult.
Your strategy should also account for your site’s platform. For instance, WordPress sites will have a different domain redirect method when using a redirection plugin.
A redirected page needs a target URL that makes sense. Redirecting users to the home page sometimes makes sense, but not always. When possible, make the destination URL related to the original source URL. In other words, say you run a website that explains how to care for kittens and you need to delete a page about an adoption event you hosted. The event is over and you no longer need that page. Instead of redirecting this old URL to your home page, create a new page that talks about your involvement in adoption events and perhaps even information on how to adopt a kitten or a schedule of your upcoming adoption events.
Make it a permanent page that relates to the original page you had to redirect because your old page is probably linked on multiple websites and people will keep clicking that link for possibly years. If those users are interested in adopting a cat, but they’re led back to your home page, they might bounce. However, if you lead them to a page that tells them when your next adoption event is, you might end up with more customers.
While you’re redirecting old URLs, go the extra mile to change your internal site links to the new URL. Don’t just leave your internal links to redirect. You don’t have control over your inbound links, but you have complete control over your internal links and it’s best to go through your site to change these destination URLs.
If your site runs on WordPress, use a search and replace plugin to find your old page URLs and change them to the new ones. This is where having a spreadsheet that lists all of your URL structures will come in handy.
There are three main types of redirects: permanent, temporary, and special. Which redirect type is right for your pages will depend on your needs and goals. Permanent is better for SEO purposes, but it isn’t always the best choice.
Permanent redirects (301s and 308s) are designed to last forever. Once you set these, they will stay in place until or unless you delete them. RSS readers, search engines, and other types of crawlers will index the new target URL and replace the original URL in the search results database. If you want to keep your redirects active, they need to be 301s. This type of redirect has the highest SEO value. This is the type of redirect that makes search engines, search engine bots, and users happy.
Temporary redirects (302s, 303s, and 307s) are used to make a resource available from its canonical location. Sometimes, resources are only accessible from other sources and a temporary redirect solves this issue. When you implement this type of redirect, search engines won’t remember the new URL. This type is perfect for when you update and/or delete resources and for temporary web pages.
Special redirects (300s and 304s) don’t necessarily have SEO value, but they are useful. The 300 redirect will redirect users to the locally cached version of a page, while the 300 redirect allows the user to choose where they would like to be directed from a list of possible target URLs.
If you’re using a redirect plugin to redirect single pages or redirect entire domain content, the settings should give you URL redirect options to choose from. This should be true of any paid or free version of a plugin.
Also, make sure you avoid redirect loops at all costs. A redirect loop will kill your SEO results when left for long periods of time. It can kill your domain authority, SERP rankings, and it’s just not best practice to let something like this go for long. You could generate all the link juice you want and with a redirect loop, search engines will start to de-rank your site.
Although most redirects will be for web pages, don’t forget to include media files in your redirect rules. Old links may still exist for your long-deleted images, video, and other files. If you don’t have a new version of each file available, start implementing redirects for your files. It’s appropriate to send users to your homepage in this case.
While redirecting media files, remember to forward people to the https version of your site rather than the http version. If you haven’t implemented an SSL certificate to move from http to https, do that first before creating any redirects.
HTTP redirects are accomplished by editing your .htaccess file and adding special .htaccess code telling search engines what pages to redirect. More often than not, a redirection plugin will edit your .htaccess file when creating your redirects.
HTML redirects can be implemented with the <meta> element inside the <head> element of a page. The redirect code specifies the meta element with: http-equiv=”Refresh” and defining a URL. You can learn more about this and the other redirect methods here. Although this works, it should be a last resort.
There are several reasons to redirect a domain.
Domain aliasing. One is for domain aliasing. If you have any links pointing to your non www domain (example.com as opposed to www.example.com), you should set up a redirect for that.
Moving to a new domain. If you’re building a new site on a new domain, you’ll want to set up redirects from the old site to the new. Make sure you set up redirects to the www version of your new website. This is why it’s important to hang onto your old domain even when you buy a new main domain. If you let your old domain expire, you’ll lose all your redirects.
Forcing HTTPS. When you start using SSL and switch to HTTPS, you might need to force it. This is done through your .htaccess file, which is taken care of when you use a redirection plugin. Plugins automatically add the code required to redirect an old link to a new URL. If you’re not using a plugin, you’ll need to find your .htaccess file through your file manager and edit it manually.
Keep links alive. It’s common to rename URLs, especially when moving from one platform to another, or moving from pure HTML/PHP to a website platform like WordPress. However, every broken link you have will diminish your traffic. In this case, you’ll want to set up redirects to make sure you don’t lose any visitors.
Do you need to set up 301 redirects for your SEO campaign? Or are you need of a more complete overhaul to your existing SEO strategy?
We can help. Contact SEO.co today for a free consultation!