If you want to manage your website effectively and provide a smooth, hassle-free experience for both users and search engines, the 301 redirect is one of the most important items in your toolkit.
A 301 redirect is a piece of code used to indicate that the requested piece of content has permanently moved to a different location. You should use a 301 if one of your old URLs is no longer in use, as this will automatically redirect the user (or search engine bot) to the new version of that page.
Example of a 301 redirect
Let's say you're the owner of www.my-bikes.com, an ecommerce website that sells bicycles. You have a page dedicated to folding bicycles located at the following URL:
Lots of people link to this page, but for whatever reason, you've decided to change its URL to something slightly different:
Once you've changed the page's URL, anyone who tries to visit the old web address (http://www.my-bikes.com/folding) will see a 404 error message, because that page technically no longer exists.
However, you can use a 301 redirect to ensure that anyone who visits http://www.my-bikes.com/folding is automatically sent to http://www.my-bikes.com/folding-bikes instead. Here's how that works:
- A user attempts to visit http://www.my-bikes.com/folding (perhaps they clicked an old link, or maybe they had it bookmarked)
- Your 301 redirect tells their web browser to go to http://www.my-bikes.com/folding-bikes instead of the defunct URL that was initially requested
- The user is taken straight to http://www.my-bikes.com/folding-bikes and, with any luck, they buy a new bike from you!
This is the correct way to handle a page that has permanently moved from one URL to another, so be sure to use a 301 redirect every time you change a page's URL. You should also use a 301 redirect if you're deleting a page and you think its URL should take visitors another to relevant page instead of an error notification.
Why use a 301 redirect?
301 redirects are handy for a number of different reasons:
- Smoother user experience. If a page no longer exists but lots of users are still trying to access it, it's a good idea to redirect the old URL to a new, still-active page. Otherwise, all of those visitors will run into 404 errors - not particularly conducive to a satisfying user experience!
- Prevents broken links. When you delete a page from your website, any links to that page will cease to work. Anyone who clicks those links will be greeted with a 404 error message...unless you use a 301 redirect to point the old links at a new page.
- SEO juice isn't lost. When somebody links to your website, it's kind of like a vote of confidence; they're saying, 'yes, this is a good site that is worth visiting'. Those 'votes' can have a big impact on your Google rankings, especially if the linking website has a good reputation, because a link passes some of their authority on to you. However, if that high-authority website is linking to a URL that no longer exists, you won't feel the full benefit of the link unless you redirect the old URL to an active URL, thus passing the other site's authority (or 'juice') to a different part of your website.
- Helps search engines to index your website properly. 301 redirects make it crystal-clear to Google and other search engines which of your URLs you want indexed and which are no longer in use. Also, if you change the URL of a page that already ranks highly in the SERPs, you should put a 301 redirect on the old URL so that you don't have to wait for your site to be re-crawled (failing to put in a 301 redirect will mean that anyone who clicks on your high-ranking page in the search results will be shown an error message, at least until your website is crawled again).
How to Add a 301 Redirect
The method for implementing a 301 redirect varies depending on a number of different factors. In some cases, it's possible to do it yourself, but it's generally a good idea to speak to your web developer or hosting company and ask them to put in any necessary redirect(s) for you.