301 Redirects Best Practices

Written by: Jason Bayless | July 15, 2016

When a person moves to a new address, they typically file an application with the postal service to “permanently redirect” their mail to their new home or neighborhood. It’s an easy way to make sure that bank statements, credit card bills, and the occasional junk mail, all goes to the right place, even if they haven’t been updated with the new address just yet. This is also something that is routinely done in the online environment, typically in the form of a “301 redirect.” The 301 redirect is known as a “permanent redirect,” and it’s best used when doing something like removing the “www” from a website’s address, relocating an entire subfolder of content, or changing the format of permalinks on blog articles and discussions.

1. Best Practices: When, Why, and How to Use 301 Redirects

The 301 redirect is as old and as storied as the legendary “404” error for pages that aren’t found or simply never existed. Its use dates back to the early days of the Internet and SEO practices, though it’s still exceedingly useful in the modern world of highly technical SEO and multi-page websites. The best practices for implementing a 301 redirect include:

2. Only Use 301 for Permanent Relocation

A 301 redirect should only be used for a permanent relocation of a certain URL structure; it is not intended to be used during a temporary relocation or redirection. It’s important to keep in mind that a 301 redirect will, over time, tell search engine crawlers and algorithms to delete the previous URL from memory. Only the new site’s URL will be maintained, crawled, and ranked, and it will be very hard to go backwards and use an older URL after implementing a 301.

3. Make a Test Move First

Before implementing a site-wide 301 redirect, a discerning SEO professional should perform a “test move” on one of the site’s existing directories that has been crawled and ranked by search engines in the past. Preferably, such a test would involve a very small subsection of the website that isn’t crucial to rankings as a “just-in-case” contingency. Upon implementing the 301 redirect, perform keyword-targeted searches and note two things: First, how long does it take the URL to change? Second, did the redirect affect search performance?

4. Treat Internal and External Links with Equal Importance

A 301 redirect is not the lazy man’s way out of changing URLs or requesting that they be changed by others. Instead, it’s a last resort, a catch-all, and a way to direct unsuspecting users and search engines to the new, appropriate URL within the website’s shifting structure. SEO professionals and site administrators should make sure that all internal links are updated to reflect the new URL, directory, or “www-free” domain name. At the same time, they should contact external sites that will need to update their links. This is a key way to maintain the website’s rankings and to erase the old URL from memory

5. Keep the Old Domain

If the 301 redirect is going to an entirely new domain, don’t drop the old one immediately. Instead, keep the old domain name for a minimum of six months. Predatory domain name purchasers could otherwise pick up that old domain name upon expiration and exploit unsuspecting users to bad content, spam, and scams.

6. Review in Webmaster Tools for Crawl Errors

After everything is moved and redirected, the work is not over. Keep an eye on Webmaster Tools and look out for any crawl errors that might prevent the 301 redirect from “sticking.” Resolve these errors quickly to keep the website performing well organically. With these best practices implemented, it will be easy to move content without moving the wrong direction in Google search results.