Redirects are an essential part of website management and very much a part of day-to-day life here at Browser Media.
Rarely a day goes by when the subject of redirects doesn’t come up in discussion – both internally and with clients – so I thought it might be useful to address some of the more common queries in a quick introductory blog post.
So firstly, what is a redirect?
Simply put, a redirect is a way of forwarding one URL to another.
There are many scenarios which may require the use of a redirect, which we will look at in more detail below, but fundamentally redirects give you, the website owner, the control to send users and search engines to a different URL than the one they requested.
Simple as it may sound in theory, the user journey is just the start of it. Redirects are an essential part of the SEO puzzle, and a well managed redirect plan can potentially mean the difference between success and failure online.
Firstly, let’s look at the three common types of redirects:
A 301 redirect tells search engines that a page has moved permanently, i.e. page A is now page B.
The most common scenarios that might require the use of a 301 redirect include:
- Change of url structure – if you move a page to a different location
- Change of domain name – moving from www.olddomain.com to www.newdomian.com
- Expired content and 404 errors
The ‘permanent’ aspect of a 301 redirect means that eventually search engines will de-index the redirected URL (page A), and therefore stop displaying it in SERPs (search engine results pages).
A 302 redirect tells search engines that a page has moved temporarily, i.e. page A still exists, but for the time being we’re sending users to page B.
Some common scenarios that might require the use of a 302 redirect include:
- Testing new pages – for user feedback, for example
- When a page is temporarily down for maintenance and you want to send users elsewhere
- If a product is temporarily out of stock and you want to send them to an alternative page
This type of redirect can be useful but should be used with caution, as incorrect implementation could have negative SEO implications. More about that below.
The meta refresh tag exists to allow users to set their web pages to automatically refresh after a defined period of time, like you might see on a live news feed, for example.
You can however, use a meta refresh rule to load a new page. From a user point of view, this serves a similar purpose as a redirect. However, because the redirection takes place at page level, rather than server level, search engines can not gather the information required to prioritise the URLs as they would with a proper, server level redirect.
A meta refresh is typically used when server access is unavailable. They are relatively simple to implement using a short snippet of code.
Do redirects dilute my link juice?
Yes and no, depending which type of redirect you use.
According to Matt Cutts (see video below), a 301 redirect will pass the same amount of link juice as a direct link. Therefore, it’s safe to assume that a 301 redirect is as good as a direct link, and shouldn’t therefore harm your search visibility.
However, it can take some time for search engines to discover 301s, so some short-term loss in visibility is not impossible.
In contrast, a 302 redirect does not pass link juice from the redirected URL to the target URL. If you accidentally implement a 302 for a permanent move, it could seriously harm your search visibility.
Likewise, a meta refresh will not pass link juice from one URL to another. Meta refreshes are also inherently slow to load – you may have seen the dreaded “If you are not redirected in five seconds, click here” message before. This makes the meta refresh technique far from ideal from an SEO point of view.
Using redirects to manage duplicate content
It is best practice to ensure that every resource on your site is only accessible via a single URL, but this is often easier said than done.
For example, it is not uncommon for the pages of a website to be accessible via multiple url variations:
This type of scenario can be of detriment to SEO, not least because of the potential dilution of links pointing to the different pages. It is therefore advised to permanently (301) redirect all ‘child’ URLs to the ‘master’ URL. This will ensure the correct version is served to users, and that the value of any links pointing to these URLs is consolidated.
Another common scenario is when a resource can be reached via multiple channels. For example, when a product on an ecommerce site sits in multiple categories – the URL and breadcrumb trail may differ, but the content is the same.
The canonical rule
The rel=”canonical” tag was introduced to allow website owners to tell search engines (historically Google) the correct URL for any page.
The canonical tag is not a substitute for a redirect, as it does not physically send users anywhere. It is simply a signal to search engines.
Like a redirect though, the canonical tag is an important SEO tool as it avoids the incorrect version of a page being indexed and served by search engines, and ensures that any shared link juice is consolidated.
A canonical tag should be used when you still want users to be able to access both versions of a page (like the ecommerce example above). A redirect would not be appropriate for such scenarios.
Redirects and canonical rules are an essential part of website management and play an important role in SEO, however they should be approached with caution. As with any tool, you have to know what you’re doing in order to make it work. Get it wrong, and you could end up doing more harm than good.