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What are 301 redirects and how do I use them properly?

It is not uncommon for most people to ask, “What are 301 redirects?” when it comes time for them to make changes to their website. Even in the white label marketing industry, not all performing white label web development or white label SEO services teams may know how to use redirects properly, so we’re here to help you understand 301 redirects and how you should use them to get the most benefit. We’ll also discuss things you should avoid and provide you with some information from Google regarding redirects and what you can expect from them. As with all things, what Google wants now and what it wants later may change, though generally, these changes have the best interest of your visitors in mind.

What are 301 redirects?

man thinking about a 301 redirect because he has no ideaFirst, we need to define what a redirect is. A redirect is when a link is used, but instead of being taken to the page the link would ‘direct’ people to, it is instead ‘redirected’ to a different page. Redirects should be thought of as detours, though it may be a permanent detour or a temporary one. The temporary detours are called 302 redirects, which means that the link has temporarily changed and will be back at some point in the near future.  Sometimes, these 302 links never revert, so Google will treat them as 301 redirects.

John Mueller from Google states, “When we see a 302, we’ll assume it’s a temporary redirect at first.  However, if we feel it’s more of a permanent redirect, then we do treat it as a 301.”

301 redirects are the permanent detours, or I suppose a more accurate term would be a complete road redesign. These redirects aren’t meant to go back to what they used to be; the links are permanently moved to a new location. These are extremely important redirects and can really help you out if you are removing pages on your website and still want to keep the benefits of those pages such as the ranking benefits. However, and this is extremely important, 301 redirects shouldn’t be misused, and Google has improved how they view 301 redirects. What do I mean by this? An improper 301 redirect will be treated as a soft 404 page, which Google treats as a normal 404 page. 404 pages are pages that aren’t found anymore; they are permanently removed, not redirected, but removed.

          How do I avoid soft 404 errors?

To avoid soft, 404 errors, you’ll want to make sure that you redirect to relevant pages.  For example, you don’t want to set up 301 redirects to your home page, because your home page doesn’t, or shouldn’t, have equivalent content to the pages that are being redirected. Google has this to say about these types of redirects:

John Mueller says, “So the 301 redirects from all pages to the home page, that would be something that we see as a soft 404s.”  Google says, “A soft 404 is a URL that returns a page telling the user that the page does not exist and also a 200-level (success) code. In some cases, it might be a page with little or no content–for example, a sparsely populated or empty page. Returning a success code, rather than 404/410 (not found) or 301 (moved), is a bad practice. A success code tells search engines that there’s a real page at that URL. As a result, the page may be listed in search results, and search engines will continue trying to crawl that non-existent URL instead of spending time crawling your real pages.”


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          How long should I keep my 301 redirects in place?

clock with question mark for how long to keep a redirect Google’s answer is at least a year, though the real answer is to keep them in place forever if you can. The reason for this is that these redirects are the only way for Google to remember that you used to gain the benefits those pages used to have.  People may still be visiting those old links as well, either from bookmarks or from old links out on the web.

John Mueller chimes in on this as well, “And if you have access, you can look at the server logs and see how many people are actually being redirected there.  And if you notice after a year there’s still a lot of normal people being redirected, maybe you can figure out how they are reaching the old domain, is it like an important link you forgot to get updated on the web, is it just lots of people with bookmarks and you can’t really fix their own bookmarks, that’s kind of what I would aim for there, at least a year.”

          How many redirects will Google follow in a redirect chain?

sign for redirect loop The answer here is that they will follow up to five redirects in a row. Though Google follows up to five, you want to clean up your redirects so that they must follow less than that.  Page speeds are reduced the more times someone is redirected, which is a terrible user experience. Furthermore, Google only has so much time to crawl your site each time it arrives, so having it spend time following through a redirect chain is a waste of time that could be spent on crawling new pages for indexing.

Here’s John Mueller’s statement, “We follow up to five redirect steps in a redirect chain if it’s a server-side redirect.”

How do I use 301 redirects properly?

First and foremost, you want to make sure that whatever pages you redirect to are relevant to the content being redirected. By this we mean that you want to make sure the main keywords and synonyms match the content being redirected. The content itself is likely all unique and different, but the context should be similar. You can even redirect multiple pages to a single page, though the content should still be relevant. If you have existing 301 redirects, you want to make sure that you update them to point to better quality, relevant content.

Make sure that you update your internal links so that they go to the page you would redirect to instead of setting up a redirect, thus keeping your internal links clean. Your redirects should be for links that are out of your control or as a result of consolidating pages. If you don’t have a relevant page to redirect old pages to and you don’t have any signals you want to keep from that old URL, then you should make sure the page serves a 404 to indicate that the URL is gone.

In short:

  • Use 301 redirects when permanently moving a page.
  • If you are using a 301 redirect to remove a page yet you want to keep that page’s benefits, make sure the new page is relevant or don’t use a redirect.
  • Don’t use redirects with internal links if possible.
  • Don’t have soft 404 pages that aren’t relevant instead of using 301 redirects.
  • DO NOT redirect pages to your home page.
  • Reduce the number of redirects a link goes through for improved site speed and bot scanning.
  • Keep your redirects in place for as long as you are able and adjust old redirects when necessary.

Written by Doyle Clemence
SEO Consultant

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