What is URL Redirects?
Whenever the URL structure of a site changes in a way that a URL would no longer be accessible, you need a redirect. Otherwise, you would lose your organic rankings and ultimately your organic traffic. URL Redirects also make sense when a visitor/crawler would receive a 4XX answer, or the domain could no longer be reached. This also happens when:
- old products or pieces of content are deleted.
- categories are renamed (and the name is used in the URL).
- subcategories get moved into a different (or parent) category.
- technical changes are made (HTTP to HTTPS migration, file extension changes, etc.).
Where should the URL redirects lead to?
As a basic rule, it should be to a URL with the greatest possible thematic proximity (this ensures higher chances of equal rankings, etc.). For hierarchical category trees, for example, URL redirects can lead from a subcategory to a parent category.
For consumer products, solutions are often much more complex as specific lines might be “temporarily not available” and a redirect target is not immediately clear. Newer products (in a series of products), the same products (but with different colors, sizes, materials, etc.) or similar products (e.g. via internal search) can be feasible redirect targets. If it isn’t quite clear what the best redirect target should be, think about thematic proximity – and you will find the best answer.
Different types of URL Redirects
We have different types of status codes available. On the server side we have:
- 301 – which is moved permanently,
- 302 – that is found and which is the web server standard.
- 303 – see other.
- 307 – temporary redirect that works with HTTP/1.1.
- 308 – that is a permanent redirect but according to another RFC.
In the real world, the most common URL redirects you would see are 301 and 302.
For a user it is all the same – a person always gets transferred from a URL A to a URL B. From an SEO perspective though, there is a big difference. It is strongly advised to use HTTP 301 redirects because only this way are rankings of an old URL fully transferred to the relevant new URL.
If you do not use 301s, it can lead to the loss of important positions without any replacement. Which could cause a significant loss in organic search visibility and traffic? Without a 301, incoming external links and their value are not transferred to a new URL. A new URL would have first to assert itself against competition, putting it at an extreme disadvantage. Important metrics, such as the link popularity per URL and the historical information of this URL will be lost, and you don’t want that. Whatever you do, if you care about rankings, a 301 redirect is the best solution to maintain the status quo whilst changing a URL.
It takes a while before all the signals are fully transferred from one URL to another, even if most of them are passed right after the redirect. This is especially important if you change a lot of things at once – say for example within a migration scenario. Then, it can take a couple of weeks or even months before Google has everything sorted out again and you’ll fully benefit from your 301 redirects. So be patient – it might take some time until you rank as strongly as before.
Also, watch out for redirect chains. They often happen for historical reasons, so one URL redirects to another and this one continues to the next. This is not the best idea from a performance standpoint or a crawl budget perspective. Multiple requests are always slower and in some cases, Google will stop following them altogether. Ultimately don’t just rely on URL redirects being correctly implemented, but have a routine in place to take care of code hygiene – so update old to new URLs directly within your HTML markup.
There has been loads of discussion around URL redirects in the search community including various statements from Google suggesting that eventually PageRank and link equity will be passed, whether it’s 301 or 302, especially if the 302 remains there for a very long time. However, from a practical standpoint, it is still strongly recommended to do 301 redirects whenever you can.