I have posted about the importance of redirects when doing site updates or redesigns in the past, but I am seeing more and more complication with the problem in recent months than ever before. Having your redirects done incorrectly or not at all can be one of the most devastating things you can do to your organic or SEO presence. From my experience being brought into new companies and new projects regularly, it is shocking how few web designers/developers even pay attention to this, even though it is a crucial issue. At my recent visit to a technical SEO session at SMX Advanced in Seattle, it was stated by many to be the number 1 mistake they see made when sites do upgrades or overhauls. You would think more web developers would learn about this, if just for the negative experience of companies complaining to them that they disappear after a site update is done.
Why are 301 Redirects Important?
The 301 redirect is the code that tells your search engine and your browser that a page that once existed at one URL, is now sitting at a different URL. For example, if I do a site redesign and have a popular page mysite.com/services that has good search engine prominence and has generated good link strength, but then I decide to create more pages for my service and the broader service page becomes mysite.com/service1. This is a pure example where the general content topic stays about the same, but in some cases, your page may go away completely, but you still don’t want users or search engines to get the dreaded 404 error when the page goes away. To both provide a better user experience for those that may find and follow a link to that missing page, as well as for the search engines to send that link strength of that page over to a new page, you should place 301 redirects to account for all of the pages on the old site that have gone away.
Growing Issues with Redirects: Chains
Now even some developers have caught up to the need for 301 redirects, though I have to say I still see the problem of not implementing them all quite regularly, there are a few growing issues that have come from sites that have been around for a while and start creating 301 redirect chains, which though better than not redirecting at all, should be avoided if you can. There are a few situations where I see this regularly and you should be aware and be careful if this is in your history. These days, at least one of these is probably in most sites history. This free tool can help do batch checks of redirects and find redirect chains for you.
- Multiple Redesigns: Sites that have been around for several years and have adjusted to the times, may have created several different major site structure changes that result in the same page concept being in multiple places over the year. Maybe your original site had it at mysite.com/category/URL1 and then five years ago, you changed the setup a bit, and it became mysite.com/URL2, and you did the 301. Then you updated the site again last year, and the topic changed a little bit or you decided to make the URL more keyword specific and you ended up with a different mysite.com/URL3. You may have done a redirect each time, but that sets you up with multiple steps. URL1 redirects to URL2, which then again redirects to URL3. When you do an update, you should go back to that original redirect and send it directly to the current version as well. You should have a 301 from URL1 to URL3 as well as URL2 to URL3. These will all be one step redirects and avoid the chain. The chain reduces the strength passed on to the new page from the old page.
- HTTP to HTTPS: Typically these days a site will automatically get redirected from http to https as a one to one 301 redirect, though I have to say I have seen situations where they didn’t even do this basic 301, costing all of the strength and causing all sorts of problems. Anyway, the host will usually help you set up the one to one 301 of all of the current http pages to the exact same URL but on the https version. With Google pushing everyone to secure sites, this has happened a lot in the past year or two. The problem is that any page that had been redirected to another page back on the old http version of your site now has a redirect chain in place to the https version because there are now two steps. Ideally, you will want to go back and find any of those old http to http redirects and send them directly to the new https version so you only have one step.
- Domain Change: Another time these may accidentally pop up is when you have had a domain change. A domain change is the most obvious use of the 301 redirect. You used to be at domainA.com and switched to domainB.com and did the 301 redirects accordingly. Whether it was just a one to one mapping or something more substantial, you had some value at those old URL’s on the last domain and have moved it to new URL’s on the new domain. If you then go on to make a second change through site structure or moving to https, or for whatever reason, you will often just 301 the new pages, but is worth going back and doing the old domain URL’s as well to the new version to again have only one redirect step to take care of.
Any time you do major site structure changes, ask yourself if not only the URL is changing, but if the content on that URL is drastically different. Ideally, you will 301 an old page to a new page that has a close representation to what the old page had. Links that have been generated to that old page were there based on what existed there, so for the user, you would want a close comparison or upgrade to the old page. In general, make sure that you look into the redirect mapping through time before you go live so you can have everything accounted for as efficiently as possible.