Website Redirects: When and Why to Use Them

Having been involved in websites and web technologies for the bulk of my career, I get a lot of questions about website redirects. The reasons for the questions vary widely.

Some folks are unsure what the proper purpose of a redirect is. Others simply can’t understand the technical jargon used in most blog posts and on websites that cover the topic. Still others understand the concept of a website redirect, but remain confused about when to use a 301 vs. a 302 vs. other types.

Let’s take a moment to cover off the reasons one might want to use a redirect in the first place, and then we can look at the various types available.

But First, What Exactly Are Website Redirects?

The term itself means that, when someone tries to access a specific URL on your website, they will be literally “redirected” to another page or URL. A redirect can route the user to a location on the same domain or on a completely separate domain.

Think of this as the webmaster’s version of call forwarding. If there is a reason you need visitors to see content in a different location than where they start out, you simply forward them along to that location proactively.

Reasons to Deploy Website Redirects

Website redirects are both useful and necessary, for several reasons.

Preserve Link Equity When Pages Move

Well managed websites are living, evolving structures. Pages will be added, blog posts deployed, and content will be eliminated or relocated.

When a page of content is moved from one section of a site to another location, it is important to redirect traffic from the old URL to the new location. If the original location was a useful, high quality page of content, it will typically earn at least a handful of links. Those links will, in most cases, pass SEO authority to the website, which will be lost if you abandon the old URL completely.  By redirecting to the new location properly, you can preserve that SEO value for the website.

Recapture Traffic from 404’s

Sometimes a page will be eliminated or will expire without a redirect being deployed. These pages show up in Google Webmaster Tools as 404 errors (Not Found).

When you find 404 errors on your website, those are opportunities to recapture potentially lost traffic. Aside from backlinks that you salvage as described above, you will still be able to put your content in front of anyone whom has bookmarked the old URL which is no longer functioning.

Eliminate Duplicate Addresses For The Same Content

We do a ton of SEO Audits here at Return On Now. Something that we observe on an alarming number of websites is that multiple versions are live on the web.

How can this happen? There are several ways. The most common error we see is that sites can be viewed both with and without the “www” prefix. See below for examples of what I mean:

  • http://www.domain.com
  • http://domain.com

In this case, it would be better to redirect all traffic to one or the other. Google came down hard on duplicate content with the Panda update, so this is no laughing matter. Aside from potential risk of a Google penalty, this also prevents you from earning links on two different instances of your domain, thereby watering down your SEO authority across two subdomains of the same website.

We also often find websites where the home page can be accessed via multiple URLs. Here are examples of that error:

  • http://www.domain.com
  • http://www.domain.com/index.html
  • http://www.domain.com/home

Now imagine that your website allows all three of the above, on both subdomains. That would look like six copies of your home page to a crawler! As you might guess, this would be a very bad thing for SEO purposes as well as user experience, as the customer may get confused by seeing a different URL every time they access the home page.

Optimize Usability and SEO Value For Major Site Changes

When making major changes to your website, redirects will be needed more often than not. Some examples of major website changes include:

  • Website redesign and relaunch
  • A move to an entirely new domain
  • Merging of multiple domains into a single website

In all three of these cases, the very structure of the website may be undergoing an overhaul. Fortunately, we can send visitors to the most relevant page on whatever the new destination domain may be by way of website redirects.

Types of Website Redirects

Although many web professionals might argue that there are only 2 true types of redirects, one might also argue that there are truly four. Let’s run through all four. Keep in mind that the numbers indicated below are the Http Status Codes that are associated with specific types of redirects.

301 Redirects

A 301 redirect indicates to search engines that a page has “Moved Permanently”. For situations where you are looking to pass nearly all of the SEO value (i.e. “link juice”) to the replacement page, this is the type of redirect that is most highly recommended. In fact, the 301 redirect will serve you well in nearly any situation where you need a redirect, so it pays to become familiar with how it works.

302 Redirects

The 302 redirect has historically been used to indicate “Moved Temporarily”. Because it indicates that the move is not permanent, it does not pass any link authority to the new destination page. 302’s are only needed in fringe cases, so most users and webmasters need not concern themselves with how or why to employ them. If you think you need a 302, consult an experienced webmaster to be sure you get it done properly.

307 Redirects

The 307 redirect is another way of saying a page has “Moved Temporarily”, and is most commonly used when a site is undergoing maintenance or a similar activity. For all practical purposes, it works like a 302. Again, 301’s are nearly always a better option when redirecting traffic to a new URL.

Meta Refresh

Most webmasters no longer employ the meta refresh as a method of redirecting traffic. This was a very common way to do a redirect in the web’s early days, where a page would actually load first before you were sent to the new URL. The Meta Refresh is no longer favored due to the negative impact on the user’s experience, as it can take several seconds to send you along to the right destination. It is much better to simply configure a 301 and send the visitor to the right page from the start.

Summary

Website redirects are important tools in the webmaster’s arsenal. It is also important for marketers to understand the basics of how redirects work and when they are needed. Hopefully this post is useful to users of all technical skill levels, in boiling down the reasons and definitions to plain English.

What did I miss? Are there any other good reasons to use the different types of redirects that you would add?


IMAGE SOURCE: Jacob Botter on Flickr