What are 301 redirects?
A 301 redirect is a when you forward an old web address to a new one.
For instance, let’s say you have a page on your site with a URL of http://example.com/contact-us, but you want to change it to a more SEO friendly URL http://example.com/contact.
You would use a 301 redirect to tell search engine crawlers and browsers that the old web address should forward to the new web address.
If you change the URLs on your site, change domains (during re-branding), or change platforms without a plan for 301 redirects, it can have devastating effects on your SEO.
In this post, we’ll talk about the different types of redirects, why 301 redirects are the preferred choice, and what you need to know about URLs when it comes to SEO.
The Three Different Types of Redirects
There are three types of redirects you need to know about.
- 301 Moved Permanently
- 302 Found or Moved Temporarily
- Meta Refresh
A 301 redirect tells the browser to go to specific URL if another URL is typed in. 301s are permanent redirects that are executed at the server level. This can be done through rewrite rules in the
.htaccess file at the server root. The 301 tells the search engines that the old version of the URL can be disregarded — the new URL is the new version of that page.
301s are important, because they channel the power from back links you have collected for a certain page into the new page.
Back links are like “votes” for the authority of a web page for a certain search phrase. Back links remain one of the foundations of SEO.
By preserving the back links you have already gathered for a page, and redirecting them towards the new page, you preserve the link structure you have worked hard to build.
If you change a URL without adding a 301 redirect, all the external links that point to the old web page are basically wiped out. All the voting power those back links once had are eradicated.
You can see how this can be harmful to your SEO without a well-thought out plan for 301 redirects in place. This is also why we advocate for doing a content audit on your website before doing any sort of redesign or SEO project.
A 302 redirect means that the page has been moved temporarily, but not permanently. The only time it is advisable to use these is during site maintenance.
It is not recommended to use 302 redirects when making permanent changes to URLs on your site. Google and other search engines do not treat 301 redirects and 302 redirects with the same weight.
307 redirects are the successor to 302 redirects, and they both indicate a page is temporarily moved. 302 redirects applied in HTTP version 1.0, and 307s apply in HTTP 1.1.
For most website owners or marketing managers, the important thing to know is 301s are what you want to use as opposed to 302s or 307s.
It is important to make sure that if you are redirecting a URL, or changing a URL to use 301s, and not 302s for reasons we will cover in detail shortly.
Unlike 301s or 302s, a meta refresh is executed at the page level, not the server level.
Meta refreshes are what you see when you complete an action like using PayPal, and the browser says “You will be redirected back to the site. If you are not redirected in five seconds, click here“.
A meta refresh can also be seen in interstitial ads, where you have to look at a page full of ads for five seconds before being taken to a content page.
Meta refreshes are not recommended for SEO because they are not user-friendly, encourage users to leave the site, and do not pass the full link value that 301 redirects do.
Most Sites Already Use 301 Redirects
Most sites have a redirect in place for dealing with www and non-www versions of their website.
For instance, consider http://www.example.com and http://example.com.
These may look like they are the same URL, but to Google and other search engines, they are two distinct URLs.
Most hosts have a redirect in place that either takes you to the www or non-www version of a web address. But if you do not have this in place, then Google sees those two URLs as duplicate content.
Duplicate content is bad for SEO, and it makes linking to your site a pain.
When you are moving your site from HTTP to HTTPS, it is also important to understand how your hosting provider handles 301 redirects, and make sure you have a plan in place.
The HTTPS and HTTP versions of your site are also considered two different URLs. This is why Google Search Console will tell you to register both the HTTP version and HTTPS version of your site.
This leads into a huge subject that needs to be talked about more.
Planning for 301 Redirects in a Site Redesign
301 redirects are one of the biggest things that people fail to plan for in site redesigns.
If your URL structure changes during a site redesign, or if your site moves from one platform to another, you must have a plan for 301 redirects.
Imagine you are moving your site from flat HTML files to a content management system like WordPress. If your local web agency has no plan around site architecture and 301 redirects, when you launch the new site, you may lose all the benefit from your existing back links.
Without a list of URLs to redirect upon site launch, your back link profile can fall apart.
Remember that back links are what make Google respect your website. You do not want to lose those.
But here’s where a lot of web agencies get it wrong.
They designed the new site, they get it all set up, but they have not paid attention to the site architecture, and forgot to make sure that the old URLs point the new ones. Oops.
So while the website might look better, it could be losing some of it’s search rank. Google is still trying to crawl those old back links, but it can’t find them.
Something You May Not Know About Google
Here’s a little known fact about Googlebot, their search crawler. Googlebot remembers any links that it finds for a very long time.
If Googlebot finds a link to your site it may try and crawl it years later, just to see if it still works.
So please, if you are doing a redesign of a site, take an inventory of all your existing URLs, and figure out what URLs they will map to once your site relaunches. Then have a plan for setting up all the necessary 301 redirects.
Changing Your Domain Name and Rebranding
Rebranding is a tricky thing to do if you have an existing site with lots of content and back links.
What happens if you want to change your domain name?
Let’s look at a case study of a well-known brand.
In 2010, Toys ’R Us purchased the domain, toys.com. They changed their domain name, but neglected to set up any 301 redirects.
What happened next? Their SEO dropped like a rock.
Because they set up a new domain name, Google looked at it like a brand-new website. The new Toys ’R Us lost all the benefit from their old back links, because there were no 301 redirects in place. Those sites that linked to toyrus.com were now pointing at empty space.
Don’t be that website. Have a plan for 301 redirects if you are changing your domain name, and get those redirect mapped out before moving your content to your new domain name.
Other Use Cases for 301 Redirects
301 redirects are great because they prevent people from encountering broken links.
If someone has already shared your page on social media, and you’ve changed the URL, a 301 will prevent people from hitting a 404 (Page Not Found error).
301 redirects can also be useful for any legacy links for previous incarnations of your site.
Many sites that have been around for more than a dozen years have moved platforms a few times. Keeping a record of URLs from old versions of your site, and redirecting those will preserve your back link profile and keep your site from getting link rot (when links no longer go to a working page).
Redirects are one of the overlooked aspects of both SEO and content strategy.
Make sure that your web agency does not neglect 301s, and has a plan in place for redirecting old URLs and link.