Hey, Look Over Here! Redirection for SEO in 2016

Not long ago, the phrase “domain name change” would set off alarm bells for the shrewd SEO expert. Domain name changes traditionally come with a host of risks to search visibility. However, recent announcements from Google insiders (as well as projects undertaken here at seoWorks) signal that the game has changed for both redirection and domain name changes.

Google’s Gary Illyes made a rather frank announcement on Twitter, stating that redirects no longer lose their link authority as they once did (which will be discussed in greater detail below).

Redirection: A Blunt Tool for a Big Problem

First, a quick primer on redirection. Websites serve pages at specific URLs; for example, a page about cats may live at a URL like “example.com/examples/cats.” But what happens if the page is removed, the site structure changes to something like “example.com/animals/cats,” or the whole domain is changed to something else, like “animalexamples.com/examples/cats?”

If a user tries to access the page which is no longer live at this URL, they are served with a type of server error called a 404 “file not found” error – meaning the server has no file to deliver to the browser at this address. This creates a problem for webmasters who need to move pages or change domains, as their users cannot access a page if they’ve bookmarked it, clicked on an old link, or typed it into their browser bar after viewing the URL somewhere. This, of course, is a bad user experience.

Redirects Are Handled Server-Side

Redirects Are Handled Server-Side

The solution is a redirect, which comes in two varieties: 301 redirects, or permanent redirects, and 302 or 307 redirects, or temporary redirects. (In his tweet, Illyes refers to redirects as “30x” redirects, with the “x” representing a variable for other numbers). These redirects are server directives which literally direct the person to another page or file at a different location, whether that may be at the same site or at another domain.

Using our example of the page about cats from earlier, the webmaster would set up a 301 redirect from “example.com/examples/cats” to “animalexamples.com/examples/cats” – the end user would experience a seamless transition to the new page instead of a 404 error, solving the usability problem.

How Redirection Affected SEO

In the past, redirection was a sore subject for SEO experts. Because of the way Google’s search engine works, redirection presented a number of problems, including:

  • Pages which were redirected would ultimately need to be re-indexed by Google
  • Google reduced PageRank (also referred to as link authority, link juice, page authority, etc.) when a page was redirected, meaning that the final page would be less likely to rank than the original
  • Poorly implemented redirects can sometimes create their own usability problems, including:
    • Redirecting to an unrelated page, resulting in a high bounce rate
    • Long load times for redirects
    • Infinite redirect loops due to mistakes in the redirection process

From Google’s perspective, a constantly changing web is both a boon and a bane – Google is in a unique position to crawl and track all of the changes on the web, allowing it to be an authority in the search world, but it also must be on the cutting edge of developing new ways to track these frequent changes. One way to deal with this was to encourage the use of 301 redirects by passing some PageRank to the new page from the redirected one – however, Google also tried to discourage shady methods of gaming search results, as well as overzealous redirectors, by not passing the complete PageRank through.

All of this meant that SEOs would often err on the side of not changing site structure or domain whenever possible for fear of losing established PageRank, and with it, search engine visibility. This cautiousness came at the expense of website usability, though, as SEOs would recommend keeping old domains and URL structures that no longer made sense (for example, a domain purchased in 2006 to try to take advantage of keywords like best-domain-name-example.com, or a poor URL structure like example.com/cats/uploads/page.aspx?page=73597).

What’s Changed with 301 Redirects

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With Illyes’ announcement, SEOs can breathe a collective sigh of relief. Now, complete PageRank is passed through redirects, which means there’s little risk of losing search visibility with a domain name change or a site restructuring. Interestingly, his tweet confirms this to be true for 301, 302, and 307 redirects – 302 & 307 redirects had been previously discouraged, as they were originally meant to be signal a temporary change to a URL.

seoWorks has seen this reflected in its own projects. Over the past year, two clients underwent domain name changes with full domain redirects to help combat spam issues that were damaging rankings. Expectations were that the redirect would come with a corresponding dip in rankings which would take several months to recover.

However, the opposite was observed – rankings didn’t just not tank, but they soared. seoWorks’ analysts also tried a unique strategy of selectively not redirecting pages that had link spam pointed at them, and concluded that the exclusion of these pages from the redirection likely helped with the immediate boost in search engine rankings.

How Should SEOs React?

The allowance of 301 redirects to pass PageRank unties SEOs’ hands, allowing them to make recommendations to improve usability and site structures, and ultimately improve on-site interaction and search rankings. Silo structures can be rebuilt without fear of damage to established SERPs, URLs can be shortened and cleaned up for easier re-typing and remembrance, domains can be changed to more sensible, modern options, and sites can introduce security certificates without fear of HTTPS harming their visibility.

Note that this does not mean to redirect pages and domains without careful consideration. Some pitfalls remain for the haphazard redirector, notably:

  • It still doesn’t pay to buy unrelated, defunct domains and redirect them to your site or your clients’ sites. If the parked domain wasn’t in the same subject matter area, skip it – you’re toying with black hat SEO and running the risk of a penalty, manually or otherwise.
  • Redirection should be done 1-to-1 wherever possible; that is to say, each defunct page should be redirected to a page with identical or very similar subject matter. A good litmus test goes like this: if the redirect would seem strange to a user because they’re getting served content that doesn’t match with their intent, then the redirect is not a good idea – for example, if you have an extremely popular blog post that ranks well and attempt to redirect it to a highly commercial product page, chances are you’re not going to keep that shiny SERP you once had.
  • You’ll still need to wait for Google to index your redirects. Pay close attention after setting up redirects and make sure that they’re functioning as expected.

Additional Reading

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