301 Redirects – Powerful, Boring, Useful SEO Tools

301 redirect
301 ain’t just a highway in Minnesota.

After 14 years, it’s time to refresh this 301 redirect article a bit. Welcome to 2023.

If you change a URL and don’t redirect, people and Google will encounter a 404 error when they try to access the old URL. Use a 301 redirect to send visitors and search bots to the new URL instead. Redirecting visitors is handy and polite but doing it for Googlebot is critical to maintaining SEO success.

Why change the URL of a page?!

  • Maybe there’s a typo in the URL
  • We decided to move blog content into its own directory
  • Some old fart used underscores and now you want to use hyphens for improved readability
  • The company is switching domain names.
  • 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.
  • We’re switching to a different CMS
  • Etc.

301 Redirects on Popular Web Servers

In 2009 I led this section by instructing you to toss a 301 redirect into a .htaccess file or directly within the deprecated URL’s code, but that was back when fewer than 25% of sites used a CMS and Apache was by far the most popular web server. Now, about 25% of sites do NOT use a CMS, and nginx is used by more sites than any other webserver.

If you’re still using Apache and a dot-HT-access file (they’re seemingly going the way of the dodo,) the syntax for a 301 redirect is simple:

redirect 301 oldpage.html http://www.yourdomain.com/newpage.htm

Doing a 301 in IIS or creating a 301 redirect in nginx is almost as easy.

301 Redirects in Common CMS

WordPress is by far the most common CMS in 2023. You probably want to use one of the hundreds of available WordPress 301 redirect plugins. Which one? Pick one with great ratings that’s been updated recently.

Shopify rules the popularity roost when it comes to selling on your site. I don’t love it for SEO, but it’s clearly good enough for most people. Here’s how to do a 301 redirect in Shopify.

Wix is often easy, which is surely part of why it’s growing, but it’s another walled-garden CMS I don’t like through the SEO lens. Here’s the lowdown on Wix 301 redirects.

Squarespace. Sigh. Do I even need to say I don’t love it? Squarespace 301 redirects.

There are other near-popular CMS like Joomla and Drupal. I haven’t worked in the former in a while and only have one client using the latter. Type [CMS] 301 redirect into Google and you’ll find what you need.

Redirecting several pages simultaneously

Some web servers and CMS plugins provide time-saving 301 flexibility.

  • Are you moving all of the pages in a single directory? You can add a single dynamic 301 redirect to cover all pages in a dir.
  • Ditching .php pages for the .html extension or vice versa? A single 301 redirect with the appropriate variables will take care of all of them for you.

What should I do AFTER I 301 redirect?

Remember to update site links to the old URL after you do the 301. Leaving old links on your site is bad for a few reasons:

  • More HTTP requests = slower site performance
  • Speed is a Google ranking factor
  • When you inevitably have cause to redirect yet again (e.g. during the next site redesign) you’ll end up with a redirect chain – which is even worse.
  • etc.

What happens when we forget 301 redirects while redesigning?

First, I’ll note that I’ve written about rebranding SEO concerns including some redesign-specific 301 redirect issues. Check that out for a fresh companion piece.

Site file structures and page names usually change during a redesign. Some pages will move to new URLs. Some old pages will be deemed unworthy of migration. After you get over the sticker shock, sit back and bask in your fresh newly published site. If your devs didn’t use 301 redirects, your fleeting euphoria will dissolve in your 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 create a custom 404 page to at least brand your shame and funnel those confused visitors?) If you wait long enough (time depends on Google’s crawl frequency,) 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 something worse. Google crawled your page and it wasn’t there. You moved it. Remember? As far as Google is concerned, it doesn’t exist.

If you want to rescue old content, check the wayback machine on Archive.org. I regularly donate to archive.org. They’ve made my life easier countless times.

Retroactive 301 redirect, worth it?

At this point. you should still implement 301 redirects, though their efficacy will be diminished. If you waited too long and Google delisted your newly 404’d legacy URLs, retroactively 301ing them will still help if there are links to them from your own or third-party sites.

Closing notes on 301 Redirection

Please react appropriately when your SEO consultant offers advice about how to best do a site rebuild (and what not to do!) You worked hard for your digital messaging equity, do a little to preserve it.

I’d love to end by exclaiming something poignant about the wonderful world of 301 redirects, but I got nuthin’! Let me know if you have any 301 redirect questions. Thanks for reading.

Dan Dreifort is an SEO/Usability spaz and blogging novice.

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