Make sure your traffic heads in the right direction.
One of the most common mistakes made by website owners is the incorrect use of redirects. Redirects are simply directive your website sends to bots/visitors/crawlers on what to do if they are requesting a specific page, media item or domain. Sounds simple, but redirects can have a huge impact on the performance of your website and cost you money as well as wasting valuable SEO authority. It’s important that you are sending the right directive, otherwise you can see a massive impact, first to your rankings, then traffic, conversions and finally revenue.
Why use a redirect?
If you move/delete a page, update your website CMS platform, structure of your website or move to another domain, the visitor will only see the new destination if you use a redirect. With a properly done redirect, the visitor doesn’t notice the change and you limit the amount of Google organic and referral traffic you might have lost. Your business keeps ticking along without a hitch!
The other big benefit is that if you use the correct redirect status code you can salvage valuable SEO authority signals and reduce any drop in rankings if you have to make a change.
Why you might need to do a redirect:
Buying a new domain and redirect your old site to the new domain
Buying an old domain with links/authority and you redirect to an existing website
You merge two existing websites into one website
You delete old pages for products/services you no longer offer
You switch CMS platforms and have a new URL structure
You enable permalinks in WordPress i.e. “pretty SEO URLs”
The main HTTP Status Codes (Directives)
These primary different codes are served to the browser, which results in displaying an alternative page to the original request. All of the redirects listed below have slightly different uses but also can impact your SEO if you don’t get them right. If a redirect is done correctly, it will have limited impact to SEO authority, no impact on visitor experience, and no major effect on conversions or revenue. The best redirects are performed instantly by your server in the backend and there should be no noticeable impact to load times.
301 Redirects – Permanent
The best reason to use permanent 301 redirects is ensuring you don’t lose valuable SEO authority if you need to change URLs or move a website. This directive advises the page has moved permanently, but the directive can be changed at any point if you need to update the redirection. This redirect is the best practice to retain any SEO authority from an old page to a new page. This is the default redirect used when you enable permalinks in WordPress.
302 Redirects – Temporary
There is no real reason why you use this as a redirect as it does not provide much SEO benefit and can create duplicate content issues (since Google will retain the old page in its index). A number of CMS platforms such as Umbraco use this as the default redirect status code, and it can often be used for secure content if the visitor is not logged in. You may find that web developers will use 302 redirects unless you specify a 301 redirect as to them there is no difference and the 302 is usually easier for them as it’s the default option, but stand your ground! Unless there is a technical reason to do otherwise, you want to push for a 301 redirect.
This technique is browser based and not server based. It was the original way to redirect visitors, and if you are using a very old hosting platform it might be the only way you can redirect visitors. It offers less SEO benefits and can easily be abused so is mistrusted by search engines as a directive on where to find content. Back in 2007, it was rumoured that search engines accepted these as redirects, but best practice would say you should be using 301 redirects where possible and not Meta Refresh tags unless there is a technical requirement.
You can pick these up with Google Webmaster Tools or Bing Webmaster Tools. Some CMS platforms will also alert you of 404s. The solution to deal with 404 errors is to map them to a new relevant/similar page via a 301 redirect. You want to keep an eye out for 404 errors and address them, as you are losing valuable traffic to a dead page. Best practice for 404 error pages are to ensure you serve a custom 404 error page so that your visitors can still navigate to main sections of your website or include a search box so they can find the correct page.
If you don’t use a redirect, use a meta refresh or a 302 redirect you may find that Google will keep the old page in the index for a significant amount of time. If you use a 301 redirect Google’s index will update eventually and show the new correct URL.
Typically if you have had content indexed that should not be the index, and you don’t want Google to ever show that page again, you should use a 410. They are becoming more common if you engaged in very aggressive/blackhat SEO link building to a page and have accepted that it’s never coming back due to a manual or algorithmic penalty. You won’t often use these pages in place of a 404 page and not all hosting platforms can serve them easily.
WordPress Plugins for Redirects
I have tested several ways to managed and track 404 errors without having to check Google Webmaster Tools or server logs and find that Redirection is one of the best plugins I’ve used for migration of websites. Unlike several other plugins, it also offers error monitoring and redirect logs so you can understand how it’s performing. You can do some fairly complex redirects with Redirection, but I’ve usually used the simple 301 redirection method.
Tools for Checking Redirects
The awesome folks at UK search agency Ayima have built a nifty little Chrome plugin, Redirect Path, that allows you to quickly catch any potential issues and fix them. If you click the Chrome icon, you can also expand the detail to quickly show HTTP Headers and technical details which you can supply to your web developer if there are issues with redirects.
Don’t miss out on valuable traffic: use the correct redirects!
There are plenty of guides on how to create redirects online, but you should check with your web hosting company to see what platform your website is built on so you create the right script for server-side redirects. If in doubt, hire a developer who understands the issue and get them to do it for you correctly the first time. This is one time when a job well done will pay off.
Photo credit: ShannonK