301 redirects, very powerful, ultimately useful.
You want to change the URL of some of your web content. Why? Countless reasons. Maybe you misspelled a word in the URL. You used underscores and now you want to use hyphens or dashes for improved readability and usability. Your old page was /product=7&ver=1.php and you just think something-semantic.php would be a better file name for SEO and other reasons. Etc.
Throw a simple 301 redirect into a .htaccess file or directly within a deprecated content page and you can immediately send visitors and search bots to the new URL. Redirecting visitors is handy and polite but doing it for bots is critical. If you use any other forward, redirect or refresh method, you’re missing out on an easy opportunity to communicate with Google and other search engines. The syntax for a .htaccess 301 redirect is simple:
redirect 301 oldpage.html http://www.yourdomain.com/newpage.htm
Doing a 301 in IIS is a little more complicated, but still worth it.
not using 301 redirects, more powerful, more painful
Your company finally decides to pay for that dream web site redesign. Good idea. (Your old site was so two weeks ago!) Be sure to ask about your chosen web designer’s SEO production credentials. Not all web designers are created equally. There are numerous web shops capable of delivering beautiful bleeding edge aesthetics and “totally two point oh” functionality, but if they’re not hip to SEO and usability, all the polish in the world wide web won’t save you.
Inevitably site file structures and page names will change during a redesign. Some pages will move to new URLs. Some old pages will be deemed unworthy of migration, and you’ll surely create fresh new content that didn’t exist on the old site. Sit back and enjoy it when you publish your new site and get over the sticker shock. If they didn’t use 301 redirects, your fleeting euphoria will melt to tears when you check on your search rankings in Google.
If you check soon enough, you’ll still see your listings. Dig deeper with a click and you’ll get the dreaded 404 not found error page. (Did you bother to create a custom 404 page to at least brand your shame?) If you wait long enough (time depends on Google’s crawl frequency of your site,) you’ll cringe when you don’t see that first page Google listing. Then you’ll click to the second and third pages and that cringe will turn into a certifiable twitch. Google crawled your page and it wasn’t there. You moved it. Remember? As far as Google is concerned, it doesn’t exist.
retroactive 301 redirect, worth it?
At this point. you can still implement 301 redirects, but their efficacy will be diminished if not totally muted. If you waited too long and Google delisted your newly 404′d legacy URLs, retroactively 301ing them might still help. I don’t know. (Does the Google index have a “memory” of sorts? I doubt it.) Hence the unbeatable power of not using a 301 redirect. It’s still a good idea to retroactively 301, if for no other reason than to collect and reroute traffic from incoming links to legacy URLs.
When your SEO consultant gives you production advice about how to best do a site rebuild (and what not to do!) you should listen. Let your SEO consultant earn those bucks you pay every month. Save money. Make money. Use 301 redirects effectively.
Dan Dreifort is a SEO/Usability spaz and blogging novice.