A dive into 301 redirects for the less “tech savvy”
First and foremost, following best practice when it comes to a redirect, whether that’s one URL or hundreds, is going to save a lot of headaches and hard work spent optimising your website. It’s very easy to lose site integrity, SERPs ranking, even customers through bad user experience, by simply having URLs that don’t connect the dots or lead to that quarrelsome 404.
Don’t leave users questioning the stability and candor of your website and services because of a missed URL hindering a campaign or a link shared some time ago, but still active on the web.
Redirects have several monikers but the most frustrating stance of all is to find user experience laborious because of a broken link. Does a user have time to read between the lines and tie up loose ends? Probably, but are they going to bother? No. People inherently want information right now and it shouldn’t be such a big ask to be directed to the right content in the first instance.
Let’s start with the different types of redirects to avoid those treacherous broken links.
The most common redirect is 301, which is a permanent redirect that passes between 90-99% of the ranking power across search engines to the redirected page. Generally speaking, a 301 redirect is the best approach for implementing redirects on a website, whether that’s a single URL change or multiple (such as a site migration).
302 and 307 redirect
In most use cases a 301 redirect (to permanently move a URL) is going to be best, but occasionally a 302 or 307 might take precedence. This type of redirect is based upon a temporary move. Why might you do this? During website maintenance, marketing campaign turnovers or if your website is “under fire” (fingers crossed it’s not).
This type of redirect isn’t at a server level and relies on execution through a webpage. A meta refresh occurs with a countdown and call to action referring to a redirect in X amount of time. Not best practice, certainly not recommended for the purposes of good, strong SEO and generally a bad experience for your users. In my opinion, don’t do it if you have the resources to avoid it.
301 redirects and their importance
Now we’ve established the difference between the core redirects, we’re going to focus on the best approach with 301 redirects and their importance. When making significant adjustments to a website, whether that’s content, site structure, URL/slug changes or even changes to the domain, never underestimate the power even the slightest modification can have to your website and its optimisation.
Page deletion & 404
If a 301 redirect hasn’t been put in place when a page is deleted, when a user attempts to access that page, they’ll be met with a 404 error message. An annoying and often frustrating break in user experience that affects the overall integrity of a website (and brand) when a user cannot complete their journey easily. This is especially bad when it comes to marketing campaigns around lead generation. A big no-no for best practice.
A 301 redirect should be put in place to combat the permanent deletion of a page with a permanent redirect to an alternative page instead. Maybe that marketing campaign is no longer available, but always consider the users, and drive them toward content equally as relevant to them, with a 301.
301 redirect activation
A 301 redirect isn’t an instant fix and won’t have your website up and running as it was instantaneously. A 301 redirect is effective immediately in terms of link, however it does take time for a search engine to discover a 301, observe, and eventually give credit to the new page for it to attain the benefits of any rank and link juice it had previously. This could take days or weeks, so it’s definitely one to consider when updating a URL or launching a new website with a different site structure.
Initially, traffic might drop with large scale redirect strategies, and it is advisable to monitor in the meantime (and prepare key stakeholders looking for instant metrics on an upward trajectory). To keep things moving, it’s worth dropping into Search Console to request a recrawl too.
There are always concerns around 301 redirects and what damage that could do to ranking, however, Google’s Matt Cutts stated that “The amount of PageRank that dissipates through a 301 is currently identical to the amount of PageRank that dissipates through a link” which John Mueller reiterated in 2016, so really, we shouldn’t have anything to fear from a 301 though many SEO specialists disagree. In my experience, with a strong 301 strategy and patience, a website evens out within 1-2 weeks and previous authority is resumed.
Site migrations can be the most arduous of all, especially for a digital marketer, and combing through URLs manually to ensure each match their subsequent URL, whilst avoiding future 404s, drops in search ranking and a convoluted experience for site users. It’s fair to say, for those of us that have suffered through redirect mapping, it’s more than a chore to effectively merge URLs.
Whilst you may not want a page or URL structure live on your website, that’s not to say it’s not shared elsewhere on the web or being backlinked by another page (and one with great authority). That’s why it’s important to ensure that any (good) backlinks are catered to, to maintain the domain authority of your own website too. It’s safe to say, never move a domain or adjust site structures without a solid 301 strategy. Flippant changes such as page deletion, domain changes or slug adjustment can have significant effects.
We only need to look back at Ryanair’s botched relaunch of their website and the substantial loss of custom. Why? They dropped out of the top spot for flight search results (imagine how many millions are made per month) because they ignored the influence and authority of their previous domain Ryanair.com and failed to establish any redirects, just before the busiest time of year for bookings.
A tool worth looking at when it comes to redirects, especially for an entire domain change, is Redirectly, which gives developers, marketers and SEO specialists the ability manage URL redirects in minutes, not hours (sometimes days!) by automating the process. Not quite in BETA yet, but confirmed to launch in early 2020, it’s possible to demo a playground version of the tool and is expected to shift the process from a clunky, manual job to saving a lot of sanity along the way, time and resources.
All in all, it’s fair to summarise that 301 redirects play a key role in ensuring the longevity of a website when it comes to site ranking (in search engines), strong user experience and manageable websites. If a 301 redirect strategy isn’t put in place, no matter how few URLs there are, the fallout and consequence can be dire to the experience of the website and maintaining (and increasing) traffic to the website.