301 Redirects Are Not Always the Correct Answer

A 301 redirect is simply a way to tell both humans and search engines that a web page they are looking for has moved to another location. These redirects play a vital role in preserving SEO and making sure visitors find what they are looking for.

However, using a 301 redirect for everything is not a good strategy…

301 redirects are good for…

A 301 redirect is a great idea when you need to redirect the same or similar unique content from an old location to a new location. This is a one-to-one type redirect, where the content is the same or very similar from old to new.

This helps people get to the new location easily. It helps search engines know to update their database to index the new location, while preserving the page rank and current ranking for the old page.

**NOTE** This does not mean you can change the content willy-nilly and keep your ranking. It simply means if the content is the same but is at a new location, Google and Bing will keep the ranking the same on the new page (at least initially).

If you don’t put a 301 redirect in place when content moves, search engines will drop the indexing of the old page. If you have a new page, the search engines will have to find it first, then index it, starting from scratch. It may take days, weeks, or even months for this new page to index like the old one did. If people are still linking to the old page, then you lose that “link juice” from those other sites.

301 redirects are NOT good for…

Don’t use a 301 redirect if you’re simply redirecting an old page to your home page (unless your homepage has specific content related to the old page).

Don’t use a 301 redirect to redirect tons of old pages to one generic page / search/ sitemap type of page. This achieves nothing, as the “generic” page will be indexed on its own merit regardless of redirects.

I’ve seen some websites have hundreds of 301 redirects to their home page. This does nothing for SEO, and actually slows down a website as the webserver software has to process *every* redirect for *every* image, file, and webpage a user requests.

So what do you use instead of a 301 redirect?

If the old page is no longer located at a unique URL, or that content is obsolete, instead of 301 redirecting all these pages to your homepage or placeholder page, let them go to a “404 not found” page. What? You don’t have a custom 404 page? Create one now!

Your 404 page should inform the user that what they are looking for is not found, offer them a sitemap / navigation of your site, and optionally include a search feature. The 404 page is created for humans, to help them know they did not find what they wanted, and offer them other choices to help them find other material on your website.

But what about the search engines you ask? Won’t they penalize me for having all these 404 errors on my site?

It’s a common misconception that 404 errors will hurt your SEO ranking. In reality, they do not harm your ranking, especially if the old content is truly obsolete and no longer valid.

If you don’t believe me (it won’t hurt my feelings), read what Google has to say about 404s. In a nutshell, Google states 404s are a normal part of the web, and having them does not hurt your site’s ranking. Read the Google blog post in its entirety. It’s full of great information about 404s, 301s, and how to deal with 404s in your webmaster tools account.

So if you’re 301 redirecting everything under the sun to your homepage or some generic page on your site, don’t. Customize your 404 page (by default our hosting clients use missing.html as a 404 not found page), and remove all these 301 redirects. It will make your site a bit faster (or way faster if you have thousands of redirects), and will tell search engines the old content is no longer viable.

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  1. Best guide of 301 redirect i’ve ever seen. You can focus more on redirecting only when you if the webpage you are planning to redirect is not deserving top ranking on Google etc. You may lose ranking if you are not familiar or do not have proper guidance to do it.

  2. Laura says:

    Rob — thank you for your thoughtful and intelligent post on 301 redirects. I’ve been online for a long time and am always looking for ways to improve. I’ve never used 301 redirects and they seem nebulous to me. Many references make them sound like the keys to some underground club, of which I am not a member. I’ll close my file on them now, doll up my 404 and get back to writing and helping people stay healthy with the traffic I’ve worked hard for. I’ve discovered that sometimes, and especially online, it’s okay to not know everything there is to know about SEO, as long as you provide heart and soul the right people eventually find you anyway. Happy New Year… thank you again — *Laura*

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