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Understanding the use of ’301 Redirects’

Tanya Goodin
Tanya Goodin
CEO
18 July 2007

What is a 301 redirect?

A 301 redirect, as described by W3C, in a shortened version is: ‘The requested resource has been assigned a new permanent URI and any future references to this resource SHOULD use one of the returned URIs’.

What this means in real life is that an old URL, such as example.com/page1, has been permanently moved to a new URL such as example.com/page2 or sitea.com now redirects to siteb.com

Why redirect?

There are a number of reasons why you may want to redirect an old page. A product may have run out of stock on your site, file names may need to be changed, content may be out of date,  or you may have a site with a domain that is still known and used, but you want those users to visit another domain, perhaps you have just been able to buy your dream domain!

Why a 301 and not a 302?

A 301 is a permanent redirect and a 302 is a temporary redirect. Typically a user will not notice any differance between the two types of redirect but Search Engines in particular are averse to ’302s’ as these have been used to try and trick them by serving differant pages than those seen by the user.

It is worth noting that webservers default to 302 temporary redirects so it is essential to specify the 301 redirect.

How to implement a 301 redirect

Typically this is done via the .htaccess file (for apache users) or Administrator’s section of the server software (for IIS server). In theory it should not be too difficult to execute but our experience is that sites may suffer from legacy issues which can make correct implementation tricky.

You can write redirects in the following languages: PHP, ASP, JSP and CGI PERL and will look something like this for Apache:

Options +FollowSymlinks
RewriteEngine on
rewritecond %{http_host} ^domain.com [nc]
rewriterule ^(.*)$ http://www.domain.com/$1 [r=301,nc]

There is a standard syntax in Apache, regardless of the language your site is written in, and it will look something like this:

Options +FollowSymlinks
RewriteEngine on
RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} ^domain.com [NC]
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ http://www.domain.com/$1 [R=301,NC]

How to check it has been successfully implemented

Apart from just clicking on the old URL and hopefully having a seamless transition to the new URL there are a number of free programmes that are simple to use such as Internet Officer

Benefits of 301 Redirects in SEO – the juicy bits!

The real benefit of a 301 redirect is that any search engine rankings or power in any page can be maintained or passed on to another page. So if you have redesigned your site and the URLs have changed it is possible to maintain your rankings and even improve them!

The downsides, boo! 

Well, there are a few downsides. One is that sometimes the search engines get things wrong and will not respond accurately or quickly to the new instruction. This can mean missing rankings for long periods of times. There are work arounds and the longest we have seen an entire site drop (moving from one URL to another new one) is six weeks. And even that had many pages coming back after only a few days. Typically you should expect a downtime of between two and four weeks, but be prepared for longer.

Some short term pain may be inevitable but long term the benefits can be great, we know this from experience!

Test the water

There are a couple of things you can do to test the water. Try redirecting small sections one at a time and see what the response is from the search engines. You can either then proceed with larger sections or figure out what may have gone wrong!

You also get more benefit if you redirect to similar pages. So for example if you have a page that featured a style of ‘bedroom lamp’ but you no longer feature that style then you can redirect to another bedroom lamp style. Or if you have stopped stocking bedroom lamps you could redirect to the bedroom category page.

Summary

Redirecting correctly can enable you to maintain and improve rankings. They can also be used to harness the power of old domains be it for a Top Level Domain or a single page.

There are potential downsides but in the longer term most sites will benefit from the correct usage of a 301 redirect.

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