What is a 301 redirect?

If you’ve done any type of SEO training or read anything about SEO, it’s likely that you’ve come across references to 301 redirecting. It’s easily misunderstood so I’m hoping to clear it up in this series of articles. In our next article, we’ll explain how to use .htaccess files and web.config files to set up your 301 redirects properly, but for now, we’ll just cover what they are and why they’re important.

In the most basic sense, a 301 redirect is just telling the browser to go to a different web address (uniform resource locator or “URL”). In other words, if someone clicks a link to a page that no longer exists, you as the web owner can do one of two things:

  • Let them go to an error 404 page (“Page Not Found”), which will likely cause the person to leave
  • Nicely change their browser address to go to the correct or new page URL

In the latter case, the person coming to your site may not even realize that the address has changed, and instead, just got to the place they wanted to go in the first place.

The “301” part is an error code that you’re telling the browser and more importantly, the search engines, and it’s useful to us. There are many browser error codes, and the “301” means that you’re telling the search engine or browser that it’s a link that’s been permanently redirected to a new place.

This is helpful to the search engines. Because the redirect is permanent, they will eventually drop the old address and replace it with the new address in their index.

301 Redirect SEO Uses

There are many ways that you can use a 301 redirect in your own website. The most common is to redirect a web page from an old address to a new address.

Let’s say that you’ve set up a new website and switched from static html pages to a PHP platform. If the old pages have been indexed by Google, and someone clicks a link to the old page, you don’t want people to go to a dead link.

Instead, by setting up a 301 redirect from the old page to the new, the links in Google’s index will still work. So a link going to www.example.com/page1.html gets automatically redirected to www.example.com/page1.php. Your readers will appreciate that you put the work into setting this up.

It’s absolutely essential to take the time to redirect all the old URLs to a new page addresses. The reason being is that if other websites have linked to your pages, by using a 301 redirect, you’ll still maintain the link quality even though the physical URL has changed.

Domain Redirects

Another very common URL redirect is to redirect whole domains. As I wrote in Multiple Domain Names: Do They Help Search Engine Position, you really don’t want to have multiple domain names all resolve into a working website. Instead, you want to redirect all website domains to one single primary domain, or you risk having a problem with duplicate content.

To do that, you can set up www.example.net to redirect to www.example.com. This way you can own multiple domains. They will all work, but you don’t get penalized for duplicate content.

Web Address Shorteners

Have you ever used a URL shortener like tinyurl.com, bit.ly or goo.gl? Guess what? They’re a special kind of 301 redirect. The address shorteners create a unique URL that then 301 redirects to a longer web address. Yes, they maintain your link juice too. Unfortunately, most social media links (like Twitter and Facebook) do not carry any link value because by and large, they have the “rel=nofollow” tag on them, which blocks the link value.

Unusual Uses for 301 Redirects

You can get creative with the uses for your 301 redirects. A couple examples we’ve run into include:

  • An e-mail newsletter went out with a critical link to a web page, but the URL was incorrect. We set up a 301 redirect from the incorrect URL to the correct URL so the e-mail newsletter still worked.
  • A client who had an unusual spelling for their company said that they always got complaints from customers who said their website was down. Their website wasn’t really down, but the customers were typing in the wrong URL. Instead, we purchased the misspelled version of the domain and redirected it to the correct domain. That way, customers never experienced the “down” web address.
  • Creating vanity URLs for customers, like www.example.com/payonline can go to a much longer URL for customers to pay their online bill.

You might come up with your own, but these were some that worked well for us and solved a customer’s problem.

Free SEO Webinar on 301 Redirects

Follow-up (July 31): We have the free SEO webinar recording but have had some trouble converting it over to get it posted on the website. We are working to get this fixed (and if we can’t we’ll re-record it) so we can post the webinar recording online.