301 Redirects: what they are, why they are important and when to use them
I hate the technical jargon so let’s bring 301 Redirects down to basics.
What is a 301 Redirect?
A 301 Redirect tells the search engine (and all visitors without them even realising) that a page as moved from one location to another, permanently. Effectively you are letting the search engines know that one page URL has been replaced by another URL.
The best analogy I can think of for this is when you move house, and having done this four times in three years I know one thing I always did. I set up a postal Redirection with Royal Mail. Effectively the 301 Redirect does the same thing, although you don’t put any time limit on it like you do with Royal Mail. A 301 Redirect is a permanent redirection.
Why are 301 Redirects important?
If you effectively move a page from one URL to another, and you don’t let the search engines, visitors and links into that page know, there are a number of things that can happen including:
- Your visitors including the search engines will receive a ‘Page not found’ or a ‘404 error’ indicating that the page cannot be found. Not a good visitor experience even if you have a customised 404 error pages. Search engines will also detect an increase in errors which again will not be viewed positively.
- Any ‘Page Rank or power’ the original page had will not be transferred to the new page. The 301 Redirect ensures as much PageRank/power for old pages is passed onto the new pages as possible. Matt Cutts from Google has spoken recently regarding this. Check out his short video – What percentage of PageRank is lost through a 301 Redirect?
- If your old page had links into it, the link will be broken unless you use the 301 Redirect. If someone clicks on a link from another website to yours, the 301 Redirect effectively takes them to the new page and you don’t have to ask for the website linking to you to change their link.
Implementing 301 Redirects resolves the above issues. Furthermore, when search engines come across a 301 Redirect, they remove the old page from its listings, they include the new page in the listing and any ‘link equity’ or web page power is transferred from the old page to the new one. This helps the search engines by keeping duplicate listings to a minimum.
What sorts of activities trigger the use of 301 Redirects?
Basically any time you change the URL of a web page you need to set up a 301 Redirect. The types of situations where 301 Redirects are likely to be required include:
- When you are looking at an overhaul of your website – a website redesign often leads to a new website structure so when you make changes to the structure, your page names will change. You’ll need to note the old and new URLs and set up the 301 Redirects for all the pages that have moved. The best way to do this is to complete a mapping exercise.
TIP: Once the new website is live, it is also recommended that a site map is submitted on Google Webmaster Tools to make Google aware of the new site and URLs.
- Moving from one technology to another – if your URLs include .htm or .html and you decide to move to .php (particularly relevant for ecommerce websites), you will need to redirect all your .htm or .html to the new .php web page across all your website pages.
- General site maintenance – as part of your website maintenance when moving pages.
- When using a vanity URL – perhaps you have registered an easy-to-remember web address that isn’t your main web address. Make sure you put a 301 Redirect on your vanity address/URL so when visitors use it, they go to the main web address.
- When reconciling your www. and non-www URLs – search engines treat your www. and non-www website addresses as two websites so if you’re not careful you will be competing with yourself. It is therefore advisable to make the search engines aware of your preferred website address – you can do this in Google Webmaster Tools for example. Generally we recommend that you also set up a 301 Redirect on your non-www version of any URL to the www version. By doing this you stop the search engines from indexing duplicate content and stop your link equity from being diluted. It doesn’t really matter which way you do it although it is more usual for the main site to be the www. version.
There are other types of Redirects, including the 302 Redirect, but the 301 Redirect is the most SEO-friendly and the preferred choice generally.
How do I implement 301 Redirects?
Generally we recommend that you ask your web developer to implement the 301 Redirects for you, especially if they are undertaking web maintenance activity for you.
If you have a WordPress website you may have the option of implementing them yourself as you make changes to your website. In Settings, there may be listed 301 Redirects, if so you can use this to add the old and new URLs yourself. I’ve taken a screen shot of my admin area which shows that at one time my website included .php but doesn’t now, so 302 Redirects were set up.
Happy SEO’ing everyone.
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