A search engine professional’s lucky number is 301. That’s the server header status code for a type of redirect that performs many critical functions for natural search performance.
What Is a 301 Redirect?
Imagine you’re lost. You don’t know where you are, but you need to get to your destination. And it would be good if other people didn’t get lost like this in the future.
Then you meet the kindest stranger in the world. He’s standing at just the right point when you’re feeling the most lost. He shows you where to go and makes sure no one gets lost again coming this way.
That stranger is the 301 redirect. Translated to the tech world, the 301 redirect captures requests that a server receives for a page that has been moved to a new URL and instantly forwards that request — whether it’s a human or a bot — to the new location.
A 301 redirect sends a special message to search engine bots, which interpret the 301 status code as a “permanent redirect.” In response, bots associate the backlink authority that that redirected page has collected over its lifetime with the new URL, which gives the new page the power to assume the old page’s rankings performance, more or less.
… the 301 redirect captures requests that a server receives for a page that has been moved to a new URL and instantly forwards that request — whether it’s a human or a bot — to the new location.
Lastly, the 301 redirect prompts the search engines to deindex the old URL, leaving only the new page in the index to rank and drive natural search traffic.
But 301 redirects do more than benefit SEO. They also help your customers get to the content they’re looking for on your site, instead of ending up staring at a 404 error page. Redirects give you a better chance of making a sale.
When to Use 301 Redirects
You need a 301 redirect every time a URL changes, content is moved or deleted, or you change the architectural or navigational structure of your site. All of these have an impact on whether a page exists on your domain, and what its URL is.
301s are required for SEO far more frequently than you would think, which is why it’s important to train yourself to think, “Do we need to redirect that?” anytime you move or delete pages on your site.
All of this is important because your URLs are the collecting point for all of the value that search engines associate with your site.
Imagine that each page is a cup. The value of that page of content — how many links point to it, the quality of those backlinks, and the relevance of that content over time — can only be found inside of that cup. When the URL disappears, the cup is spilled, and its value is lost from the site. If the URL changes — even if it’s only a single character that’s different — it’s an entirely different URL to search engines. That means it’s a new, empty cup that has to start over collecting new value, unless you can fill it by 301 redirecting the contents of the old URL’s cup to the new one.
How to Create 301 Redirects
Typically, your developer team will need to create 301 redirects. Certainly it can be daunting to work with developers because they sometimes speak a technical language that many marketers don’t understand. Luckily, 301 redirects are one of the simplest technical SEO changes to document, request, and execute — for everybody involved.
Your task will be to identify the pages that need to be redirected and to pair each one with the new URL. Then, create a simple 2-column spreadsheet with one row for each URL, like the one below.
It’s important to note that some servers default to 302 redirects, which are temporary, when a new redirect is created. So make sure you specify that you need a 301 redirect, which is permanent. It sounds like an insignificant difference, but 302 redirects do not pass link authority, and they don’t prompt deindexation. They only redirect the user agent. Essentially, 302 redirects offer none of the SEO advantages of 301s.
The execution step comes from your developer team. It is a simple task, not a complex project. That said, 301s are somewhat tedious and finicky to write and test.
When to Remove 301 Redirects
The last step in the lifecycle if a 301 redirect is knowing when to remove them. They do use extra server resources, because the server has to respond twice for each page that’s redirected – once to deliver the redirect to the new page, and once to load the new page. That double hit takes microseconds. But it can slow down response times and burden your resources if there are enough of them in place.
The most optimal answer to the question of when to remove 301 redirects is, “When the old page has been deindexed.” When there are just a handful of 301 redirects to test, checking indexation is a simple matter of doing a site query in Google. But if you’ve got thousands to deal with, checking indexation for every one of them is not feasible.
A somewhat safe rule of thumb is to give the redirects six months to be crawled and acted on by search engine bots. After six months, if the page that delivers the 301 redirect hasn’t been crawled, it’s a safe bet that it wasn’t very important in the eyes of the search engines anyway, and didn’t have much link authority to pass on.
To be doubly safe, create an XML sitemap of the URLs that will be redirected, and upload it to your Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools. That will prompt the search engine bots to crawl your old URLs, where they’ll find the 301 redirects, and start the process of transferring link authority and deindexing the old URL.