For the average user, a 301 redirect is invisible.
Try explaining it to them, and proceed to watch their eyes glaze over in a zombified state.
John or Jane Doe Internet user couldn’t care less about what it is or how it works. They just want to get to where they’re going.
But if you’re on our side of the industry, a 301 redirect isn’t something to take lightly.
In fact, mishandling it can ruin years of hard work and send your website plummeting to the bottom of the search engine ranks.
Doesn’t sound too pleasant, does it? Well, let’s explain, so we can keep that from happening, shall we?
HTTP Status Codes
We learned early when explaining the 301 redirect concept to one of our website development clients it’s important to start at the beginning with HTTP status codes.
An HTTP status code is a response from the server to a browser’s request.
In practical application, you (user) enter the web address (URL) or click on a search result via whatever browser you’re using (Firefox, Chrome, Safari, etc).
The action sends a message to the server saying, “Hey, I’d like to access this page please!”
The server has several ways it can respond. While dozens of individual HTTP status codes exist, here are the main categories users are likely to encounter.
- 1xx: For informational responses. (“We’ve received your request. So far, so good!”)
- 2xx: “Request successful!” (Ah, the web at its most perfect!)
- 3xx: Redirection. (The gist of this article and what we’ll be getting into in a moment.)
- 4xx: Client errors. (“Uh-oh. You screwed up, Mr. Web Surfer!” 403 Forbidden and 404 Not Found messages fall into this category.)
- 5xx: Server errors. (“My bad!” These are the 502 Bad Gateway and 503 Service Unavailable responses.)
Types of Redirection
The HTTP 3xx status code deals exclusively with redirecting a user query to what we hope will be the appropriate response.
However, it’s important to understand there are several types of redirects, and all are not created equal.
The 301 redirect means “moved permanently.” A 302, or “temporary redirect,” only relocates the requested page for a brief period of time.
Close to 100 percent of the time, a site requiring a redirect will want to use the 301. Now let’s walk through why that is.
A 301 Redirect Saves Years of Hard Work
The best way to show the importance of a 301 redirect is through the illustration of a site move.
A local news site runs into financial difficulties and decides to merge with another more financially stable outlet.
The two owners finalize a deal in which they will merge their sites and move into a new brand with a new domain.
While the merger breeds excitement, it also spotlights a huge problem.
Losing Search Engine Rank
These two companies have spent years building up their search engine rankings. They’ve published thousands of articles, many of which continue to bring in traffic days, weeks, months, and even years later.
They’re viewed as local authorities and authoritative sites on top-dog search engines like Google and Bing.
But when they move to the new domain, how do they take all that ranking power with them?
A 302 redirect will work temporarily, and Google has gone on record claiming they will treat 302s as 301s whenever possible. However, Google getting it right isn’t a given.
The site owner doesn’t want to take chances.
He (wisely) chooses to implement a 301 redirect. As a result, all the old pages transfer to the new site, and they bring at least 90 percent of their original ranking power along for the ride.
Once the search engines catch up to the changes, the newly merged website will continue to draw traffic from the old pages.
While rebranding may still present challenges, as far as the search engine is concerned, the new site is a pretty cool place to be.
The site may even rank better as it has two authoritative wells from which to draw in addition to its new content.
With Redirection, Would You Ever Not Use a 301?
It’s rare, but yes, it can happen.
Consider the plight of the SEO specialist, always testing and trying new things to move his client’s page even higher up the ranks.
Part of doing so means tooling with existing pages and seeking his client’s feedback. He doesn’t wish to harm the page’s current rankings, so he places in a 302.
The 302, unlike the 301 redirect, says, “This is temporary. No need to change how you view or rank us. Things will be back to normal in a moment.”
Additional Reasons to Use Redirection
While transferring to an old site to a new domain is one of the most significant reasons for redirection, it’s not the only reason. In our experience, we’ve used for the following:
- Inactive pages: The less activity a webpage has, the lower its ranking will go with time.
- Broken URLs: Search engines hate it when sites clutter up the web with pages that go nowhere. While a broken link here and there won’t sink your site, it’s guaranteed to never help. Too many going unchecked can start to weigh down your rankings.
- Testing new designs and functions: Never remove a ranked page to play around with aesthetics. It can affect authority and, without a redirect, annoy your visitors who click the link only to be greeted with a 503.
- Making a page correction without stripping user access during maintenance: When we need extra time to correct critical issues, but don’t want to mess with page rank.
Getting a 301 Redirect Right
Implementing a 301 redirect properly requires some technical knowledge. We’ve found some site owners are intimidated by it.
Do you choose the IIS, ColdFusion, PHP, ASP, Java, CGI PERL, ASP .NET, or Ruby on Rails?
It can be confusing, but here’s a helpful tutorial breaking down the various methods.
If you have a site move in your future and don’t consider yourself a DIYer, we invite you to contact us today through email, online submission, or phone.
Also, if you’re in the Golden, Colorado, area, drop by our office location. We’re happy to help in any way we can.