Why is my SEO guy obsessed with 301 redirects?


301 redirects and other types of URL webpage redirection.
301 redirects and other types of URL webpage redirection.

Why SEO Professionals Seems Obsessed with 301 Redirects?

Minimizing Duplicate Content

It is common in many web design and development projects to have some cases of duplicate content. Although many people say this is a negative search engine ranking factor and some view it like a penalty, Google claims there is no penalty as explained by Google Engineer on Search Quality, Greg Grothaus.

Although a penalty or not, Google is aware of the duplicate pages and attempts to choose the best page and this is where it can make mistakes. Google tries to add diversity to the SERPs so they do not appear to be posting the same page over and over which makes a better search user experience. And in this process, the page you may be attempting to optimize and rank well might be filtered out and replaced with another page with duplicate or highly similar content. Come to think of it, this is ideal for the searcher since this filters out many spammy type of blogs also called splogs for spam blogs. But this problem can also exist internally. And this is where the 301 redirect is used. A 301 redirect means a permanent redirect which helps guide search engines consolidate cases of duplicate content.

Consolidating Link Popularity and PageRank

Links as you have probably heard over and over, help in SEO. Links are like votes of authority, votes of trust, votes of credibility. And the more links you have, the better it helps in ranking in search engines, although it is not only about quantity, but quality where links should be relevant and not spammy.

If a link goes to a page that redirects, a 301 redirect is the only type of redirect that will pass on the link metrics to the destination page. If not the proper redirect was in place, you can be passing precious link juice to another page that would have been beneficial to the destination page loosing this ranking boost benefit.

Some URLs change, but the content still generally remains the same

On old websites, even new ones, URLs may change. It could be due to a website redesign, or a discontinues product or service, a abolished department, a change in product description or whatever case that makes some old URL disappear. Using a 301 redirect will fix problems of missing pages that used to exist. There are mainly two benefits here:

  1. Link Popularity metrics are transfered over to the destination page.
    If ever the old URL may have gained some links you may or may not be aware of that helps in the ranking of a missing page will be passed over to the new equivalent page if a 301 redirect is in place.
  2. The user experience of not getting lost on your website.
    Visiting a page that no longer exist, either because you clicked on a link on another website, or from a search engine or was saved in your bookmarks can sometimes cause frustrations and this may make or break a  possible sale or lead online. Redirecting users to the right place helps avoid possible lost traffic.

Now just because you have to do a redirect and telling this to your web designer, web developer, network administrator, company IT guy may not be sufficient enough if they are not that familiar of the types of redirects and why it would be ideal to do a 301 redirect. Read more on the different types of redirects below.

The Types of URL Redirects for Web Pages

Meta Refresh Redirect

The Meta refresh redirect uses an HTML tag that refreshes or reloads a page. This generally works when placed in any part of the HTML source code, but ideally this should be in the <head> section. And the syntax looks like this:

<meta http-equiv="refresh" content="1;URL=http://www.example.com/path/file.html">

You can basically place any URL above. And the number “1” signifies the number of seconds before the redirect will occur. With the controllable number of seconds, this type of redirect is ideal to use for functions that need a pause before redirecting. But is not ideal for SEO since search engines normally disregard this tag.

JavaScript Redirect

This does not have a similar implementation and code syntax to the Meta Refresh tag, but they behave similarly where the Meta refresh tag and the JavaScript redirect happens on the client side, meaning at the web browser level.

<script type="text/javascript">
window.location = "http://www.example.com/path/file.html"
</script>

This can also be placed anywhere within the HTML source code and is probably used more than the Meta Refresh tag for programming function delays since in JavaScript you can use a lot more other scripting functions incorporating the window.location function. Although again, this is not ideal for SEO since search engines normally disregard JavaScript code. It was only in the recent years that Google has considered reading JavaScript and has talked about it’s Headless Browser technology incorporated in Googlebot’s web crawling but is still in its early stages.

Google Headless Browser Content Crawling Diagram
Google Headless Browser Content Crawling Diagram

302 Redirect

The 302 Redirect is also called a temporary redirect. This was meant to be used by network administrators to divert traffic to another URL possibly on another server when something was wrong with the main server. Down due to maintenance, file corruption, high traffic and server load, etc. So to avoid loosing traffic from your potential target audience, a 302 redirect can be used to handle the problem but once the problem is fixed, the 302 should be removed and brought back to the original URL.

Since this was meant to be temporary, search engines considered it temporary. Meaning if URLa 302 redirects to URLb, then search engines will look at URLb for the current content on the page to be indexed and crawled. But will take note that the final URL is still URLa. This cause a split also of the link juice passed to two URLs instead of one diminishing it’s power.

Depending on your server setup, 302 redirects can be done on the webserver (IIS, or Apache, etc.), on web server directives (Apache’s .htaccess file), on 3rd party redirect configuration tools, or on server side scripting languages (PHP, ASP, .Net, JSP, Cold Fusion, Perl, etc.)

301 Redirect

The 301 Redirect is also called the permanent redirect. It is configured and also behaves in the exact same way as a 302 redirect except this was meant to be permanent. Thus in the eyes of search engines, if URLa 301 redirects to URLb, then search engines will look at URLb for the current content on the page to be indexed and crawled. But will take note that the final URL is also URLb. This consolidates link juice passed to two URLs all into URLb increasing it’s link juice power.

Are You Observing Something Else?

Some of you may have observed something else that is in conflict with what was discussed above. And many people have reported cases where URLa redirects to URLb and URLa is blank but the content of URLb is seen by Google but the results page shows URLa even if a 301 redirect was NOT used. And either a 302 redirect or JavaScript redirect or Meta Refresh tag was used. Even I personally has experienced this and this usually happens when these redirects are really old. I have experienced this on some sites with 2 year old meta refresh redirects. So if Google seems to see a very old redirect, no matter how it redirects, they seem to be treated like a 301. But of course we would not want to wait for months or years for Google to see a redirect properly, might as well 301 redirect it.

Other Alternatives to 301 Redirection

There are other things that can be done to solve duplicate content issues without doing redirects like:

  • Using consistent link URLs:
    You can control your links only, but not links of other people linking to you.
  • Deleting other URL versions causing duplicate content:
    But sometimes this is not possible like in the non-www and www URLs, or the “/index.html” file and “/”
  • Using the Link Rel Canonical tag:
    This should work fine. The search engines Google, Yahoo and Bing as expressed support for the tag, but I find quality control more difficult to do unless you have a tool that crawls reads the code for you. If not you have to manually check each file’s source code to make sure this was implemented properly. A 301 redirect is easier to check if they are done properly.
  • Signing up on Google Webmaster Tools to fix the non-www and www URL duplicate content.
    This works also, but Google is not the only search engine in the world. Might as well come up with a solution for all engines.

If you are not sure if you need 301 redirects or has some redirects and is not sure what type of redirects are going on, tell us about it, so we can guide you further.

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