301 Redirects: Why They Matter

Our redesign clients frequently ask me how we’re going to help ensure that their new website doesn’t lose traction in the search engines, and my answer always contains the following: 301 redirects. If you’re redesigning your website and you’re changing the URL structure, you’ve probably heard about these little guys. The truth is, there’s always a chance that a site might lose some organic traffic when undergoing a redesign—it’s just the nature of the beast. However, 301 redirects are one of the best weapons we have to minimize any potential damage.

If you haven’t heard of these before, you’re probably wondering what on earth they are. Well, please allow me to explain.

What Is a 301 Redirect?

A 301 redirect is used when you’re permanently moving content from one URL to another. The key here is permanent. You shouldn’t use a 301 if you’re going to move content to a new URL for a month and then move it back. There’s a whole other type of redirect for that. To implement 301s, your developer will add them into your website’s htaccess file. When a visitor (or a search engine crawler) hits one of your old URLs, they will automatically get forwarded to the new URL and the content they were looking for. You can think of it sort of like a digital version of the post office’s mail forwarding service.

Why They’re Important for SEO

301 redirects are the preferred method of moving content for SEO because they pass almost all of the link juice to the new page. Links are crucial for SEO, and they’re especially important when you’ve got a brand new page. Links are how search engine crawlers get from one page on the Web to another, and they’re also a big part of how search engines determine the value and authority of a site and where it should rank.

When you’re redesigning a website, 301 redirects are how you pass the authority of your old site to your new one, ensuring that traffic and ranking authority to your old URLs gets moved to your new ones. This means they’re also important in making sure your content stays indexed in the search engines and continues to appear in the search results pages. If you don’t implement 301s during a redesign and you’ve changed the URL structure of your site, you’ll wind up with a massive amount of 404 errors, which will cause your traffic to plummet and your site’s pages to eventually be dropped by the search engines.

Tips for 301 Redirects

Now that you understand a little bit about why these redirects matter, here are a few tips and best practices regarding 301s:

  • Allow time for planning – I can’t emphasize this enough. If you’re redesigning your site, allow time for planning and mapping your 301 redirects. You (or your web/SEO company) will need to crawl your current site to get a list of your old URLs, then map them to the new URLs. There are several programs that can pull the URLs on your old site for you, including Xenu Link Sleuth (an old standby in the SEO world) and Screaming Frog.
  • Map them on a one-to-one basis – Sometimes, people think it’s okay to take all of their old URLs and 301 redirect them to the homepage. This isn’t the case, and if you do it, there’s a good chance the search engines will devalue your site. 301 redirects should be implemented on a page-by-page basis. The goal here is to get your old pages moved to the equivalent page on your new site or, at the very least, the most equivalent page possible. I usually put the URLs in a spreadsheet with one column of old and one column of new. If there isn’t an equivalent page on the new site, consider whether or not you need to add the page in or let it 404. It’s okay for a few things to 404—sometimes you have to clean house when you’re building a new site.
  • Avoid stringing too many 301s together – Search engines, Google in particular, can follow more than one redirect if needed, but you should keep the number reasonable, no more than 4 or 5 at the absolute most. You want to use the lowest number of moves possible.
  • Think about links and traffic – Make sure that you set up redirects for the pages on your old site that have the most links and the most traffic. You should be able to get a sense of the traffic from your analytics and if you’re working with an SEO company, they probably have some kind of software or program that detects the number of inbound links to a page.
  • Test – 301 redirects aren’t going to do you any good if they don’t work. Your developer should test them when they’re implemented, but if they don’t, make sure they do.
  • Watch for 404s – After your new site is up and running, watch your Google Webmaster Tools account for 404 errors. This can help you pick up any important redirects that you may have missed.

Don’t Forget About Them!

My biggest piece of advice about 301 redirects is this—don’t forget about them! Even if you can’t get to every single URL on your site, a few redirects are definitely better than none. They’ll go a long way in helping you avoid disaster when redesigning your site!