We’ve all been there: You click on a link, excited to explore the page you were promised, and instead you find an empty page. It might say something standard like “404 Page” or “Page Not Found,” or sometimes you’ll find a silly message like “Oops! Nothing to see here,” or “Uh-oh! You appear to be lost.” However the website chooses to communicate the unfortunate turn of event, it’s clear that you can’t reach the page you were seeking. Not only is this frustrating for you, the visitor, but it may reflect badly on the website and prompt you to search for the information elsewhere. As a webmaster, one of the best ways to prevent 404 pages is to spend time creating redirects. Below we explore what these pages are, how they are used, and the best practices for using redirects.
What Is a 301 Redirect?
A 301 redirect automatically sends visitors from one URL to another. So when a site visitor types in or clicks on URL A, the website immediately takes them to a different page, URL B. This is a permanent redirect, though it can be edited or deleted. A 301 redirect indicates to search engine bots that the page has permanently moved as well, passing 90-99 percent of ranking power to the redirected page. So if you follow the best practices for using redirects, you can protect the hard work you’ve built up over time.
301 redirects are efficient, SEO-friendly, and easy to use. There are several reasons why webmasters elect to use 301 redirects:
- To Direct Traffic and Guide Viewers: A 301 redirect is like announcing a change of address to your postal service so that they will forward all mail sent to your previous address to your new address. Similarly, a 301 redirect helps visitors reach content that has changed address.
- To Decrease Your Bounce Rate: Your website’s bounce rate represents the percentage of visitors who visit your site and then “bounce” (i.e., leave) instead of continuing to peruse your website’s pages. When a webmaster moves, renames, or deletes a webpage, it’s common for visitors to see “404: Page Not Found” and abandon ship. With a 301 redirect, you can guide them to the page’s new location or send them to a different, relevant page on your website. This will help keep them engaged with your website and hopefully prevent them from leaving.
- To Improve Search Rankings: 301 redirects connect various URLs under one umbrella to ensure that search engines like Google rank all of the web addresses based on the domain authority of the inbound links. This can be essential in maintaining or improving search rankings. In addition, some webmasters use 301 redirects to move traffic from one website to another owned by the same organization.
Best Practices for Using Redirects
Always Check Your 301 Redirects
How will you know your 301 redirect is working correctly if you don’t check it? Simply type in the previous URL and check that you’re sent to the new URL.
Set Up 301 Redirects Before Deleting Pages
To reduce your bounce rate and keep visitors around, use a 301 redirect every time you decide to delete a page. This will help you avoid a 404 page, which typically isn’t helpful to you or your readers. Before you delete the page, redirect the URL to the most relevant live page on your site so that visitors aren’t completely thrown off when they don’t arrive at the page they requested.
If you don’t have an equivalent page on your website and you don’t want to simply edit the content, you may want to use the dreaded 404 or 410 status code to clarify that the content has been deleted. A 404 should be used if the page may come back, and a 410 should be used if the page has been permanently deleted (source). While not ideal, these pages are appropriate if you have permanently deleted content and cannot help the viewer find similar content on your website.
Link Similar Versions of Your Domains
If you have different iterations of your domain, they should all be connected via 301 redirects to boost your search engine rankings. For example, if you rebranded and created a new website with your new company name, you would likely wish to retain the old website’s domain and use a 301 redirect to guide users to the newly branded website. Or as another example, if you have a hugely popular product, you may wish to buy a domain with that product’s name (if it’s available) and then redirect traffic to the page on your website about the product. For instance, Apple bought “iPhone.com” and then set up a 301 redirect to “Apple.com/iPhone.”
Use a Canonical URL When Appropriate
One of the best practices of using redirects is actually to avoid them when a better system is available. Case in point, the following URLs are very similar:
If you click on them, you’ll find that all four lead to the same website (our website). To achieve this, instead of using a 301 redirect, you can use a canonical URL (also known as a preferred URL) to ensure that visitors who type in these different (but similar) URLs are able to find the same site. A canonical is very similar to a 301 redirect, though it doesn’t actually redirect.*
How does this work? Google views these as separate websites that are duplicate versions of the same page. It chooses one URL (the canonical version) to crawl, and the other URLs (duplicate URLs) are crawled less often. If you select a canonical URL yourself, you can tell search engines that these similar URLs are actually the same. If you don’t choose a canonical URL, the search engine will either do it for you or consider the URLs to be of equal weight. To designate canonical URLs, simply use HTML link tags with the attribute rel=canonical. Typically it’s pretty obvious which URL should be canonicalized.
What if you aren’t sure whether a 301 redirect or a canonical is appropriate? As Yoast explains, “The answer is simple: you should always do a redirect, unless there are technical reasons not to.” For example, if a redirect would damage the user experience, set a canonical URL instead.
*A Note for WordPress Users: In the example used here, WordPress actually wrote an .htaccess file to automatically redirect site visitors to the version we provided under Settings → General. The plugin Really Simple SSL plays a role as well, ensuring that visitors to our site are always directed to the secure HTTPS version of each page.
Set Up a 301 Redirect Before Moving to a New Domain
If you don’t establish a 301 redirect before you make your move, you could see your SEO results plummet. To ensure you don’t lose any traffic, add this to your to-do list before switching domains. Toys “R” Us made this mistake back in 2010 when they bought the domain www.toys.com and suffered the consequences (though, to be clear, this was not the cause of their recent downfall).
Stick with 301 Redirects (Most of the Time)
While best practices for redirects typically advise the use of a 301 redirect, it is not your only option. There are other redirects available, including the 302 and 307.
A 302 is a somewhat ambiguous redirect that you should only use for temporary URL changes (that is to say, not very often). While it was originally defined as a “Moved Temporarily” redirect, it is now technically known as a “Found” redirect – hence the ambiguity. It doesn’t pass link value and isn’t appropriate for large-scale reorganizations of websites. It can, however, keep your previous URL’s value intact until you return to it after a temporary hiatus.
A 307 is a more modern, precise redirect for temporary redirection. Unlike a 302, a 307 is very clear on its purpose and intention. Like a 302, it can be used if you’re certain that this is a temporary move and you will need to return to the original URL.
So which redirect should you use? Typically, you’ll only need to work with 301 redirects, as they maintain your link equity and search rankings. If you’re making some temporary changes, updates, or repairs to your website and moving the content around while you do so, however, 302 and 307 redirects are needed.
While you aren’t required to follow these best practices for using redirects, we highly recommend that you do. Not only will this improve your SEO and keep visitors from bouncing away from your website, but also your visitors will appreciate having a guiding hand redirect them to another helpful page so that they aren’t left staring at a 404.
If you would like some more advice regarding best practices for using redirects, contact 417 Marketing for help. Our team of knowledgeable, creative, and passionate professionals specializes in SEO, web design and maintenance, and Google Ads, and we have successfully completed over 700 websites since our inception in 2010. Click here to contact us and learn more about what we can do for your company.