301 redirects: Search engine optimisation’s hidden treasure?

30.8.2016 -

If you’ve been overhauling your website, or even giving it a small facelift, you’ve probably run into a situation where you are urged to ‘take care of all your redirects at once and ensure that they’re done according to the 301 redirect rule’. And after the upgrade, you should also ensure that they have in fact been done – and ‘in the right way’.

Redirects are essentially the same as notifying your local registry office or post office of a change of address. They simply say where content from your old site has been relocated and to which location visitors interested in the old content should now be directed. A 301 redirect is a final change of address; whereas, a 302 redirect is temporary.

However, this simple basic element is often forgotten during website upgrades. That’s why I’ve outlined two examples – good and bad – of what can happen with redirects.

Case: Corrected redirects a good basis for SEO

One year ago, our customer redesigned the company website. After an initial drop in visitor traffic, activity returned to about the same level. The goal was to achieve at least a 15% growth in traffic in 2015. We began our cooperation with the customer at the end of 2014 by conducting an in-depth analysis of the state of the website at the time. In addition to traditional keyword and content analysis, the review included a detailed technical review of the site.

The analysis revealed more than 1,000 pages that returned a 404 error: the pages no longer existed but users could end up on these pages which could also be found in a search engine index. A considerable number of external links were also pointing to these missing pages and their power was lost because, in the eyes of the search bots, the pages were not relevant from the perspective of our customer’s website content.

By correcting the redirects, we and the customer were able to create an excellent basis for long-term search engine optimisation. The benefits didn’t only involve remediating poor customer experience by redirecting error pages, but by redirecting the link power of the old pages to new pages that had already been ‘live’ for a year.

One year later, organic traffic looked like this:

Naturally, this was not all due exclusively to redirects. Our customer also conducted a very expert content overhaul and wrote a great deal of new text that was interesting to its target audience. But we should not downplay the importance of redirects. However, good search engine optimisation lies in content as well as technical considerations, so it is always a good idea to check your own site to see if the redirects have been correctly implemented. Even after one year, you can give yourself a head start by fixing the errors of the past!


An airline loses its search engine ranking

Big businesses don’t always get things right either. In 2014, the budget airline, RyanAir, revamped its website. Before the project, RyanAir could be found organically in search engines using country-specific search terms such as ‘Romania flights’, ‘Belgium flights’ and so on. The travel industry is one of the most competitive sectors online, so being found via search terms is vital to RyanAir’s business.

As part of the upgrade, RyanAir significantly shortened its reservation sequence. This was a major change from the old site; customers could make reservations with just a few clicks. This sounds excellent from a customer experience perspective: fewer clicks, desired result achieved faster, no unnecessary intermediate steps. Customers gave great feedback on that change.

But at the same time, RyanAir forgot to maintain its old website’s great history and neglected to create several redirects. Many individual pages from the old site returned an error page in Google’s search index. This caused the airline to lose the search rankings for many of its pages, in some cases, even top rankings.

Of course, RyanAir worked to remedy the situation as soon its mistake became apparent, but this is a good example of how even large and well-known firms can make a classic mistake.

What should be done?

Some loss of search results ranking always results when a website is renewed. It may feel painfully laborious to redirect hundreds of thousands of pages especially when working with large sites. One common reason for not taking care of redirects is, ‘We won’t have corresponding content on our new website’. In these cases, the content can point to the (new) home page, for example. A home page is not the ideal final location for a redirect, but it is better than not doing it at all.

A good process to follow when approaching a website upgrade includes the following five steps:

  1. Check which pages on your site visitors land on from search engines and referral traffic. You will find this information in the following section of Google Analytics: Acquisition -> All Traffic -> Organic/Referral -> Landing Page
  2. Carefully record the URLs for these pages
  3. Think about what could be relevant new content on the new website
  4. For example, use Excel to create a list of old URLs and URLs with corresponding content on the new site
  5. Do the same for landing pages with less traffic

As a bonus, you can also perform the same procedure afterwards, but it requires a bit more effort. However the basic logic remains the same: redirect content from the old site as much as possible to the corresponding content on your new website.

I don’t do search engine optimisation, should this matter?

Even if you’re not involved in planning or implementing search engine optimisation, it’s worthwhile to pay attention to 301 redirects! Very often it may be that you make changes to your site’s URL addresses and forget the redirects. For example, if you are also running AdWords advertising campaigns, your ads might momentarily direct traffic to a 404 error page. This costs you the price of a normal click.

If your website is also often accessed by bookmarks, you should pay attention to redirects in the event that you make changes to the structure of your site or the URL address. For example, this is a very relevant situation for blogs.

Do endless redirects work?

In principle, each and every redirect weakens the impact of the original redirected page. For example, Google bots won’t necessarily follow redirects whose history can be counted on more than five fingers. The more often an old site is redirected, the less benefit you gain from external links (in other words, links to your pages from other sites) on the old site as well as the ‘strength’ of the original content in the eyes of Google’s search bots:

301 picture

That’s why constant tinkering with your site’s URL structure is not an ideal situation. On the other hand, if you want to make a temporary change to your site’s URL structure, then I would recommend the previously mentioned 302 redirect, which tells the Google bot that this is a temporary change and that the old content will return as a primary source later on.

Ilkka Suomaa

Ilkka Suomaa

My days are filled with solving my clients problems and helping them understand the possibilities that digital marketing provides. While data and bytes fly by, I focus on keeping things as simple and feasible as possible. I spend my free time enjoying music and sports.

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