301 Redirects: What are They (and Why You Need to Know ‘Em)

301 Redirect Map

301 redirects are like referees in any sport – you don’t really notice them until something goes wrong.  But when something goes wrong, the fans start booing, your visitors get frustrated and they ultimately leave your website unable to find what they’re looking for.

So what exactly are 301 redirects?

They’re a signal to both search engines and users that a webpage is permanently moving to a new URL (the address you type into the bar at the top of your browser).  They help to ensure no one is landing on a page of your website that no longer exists.

Think of 301 redirects as a sort of roadmap.  You’re basically saying that the content a user is looking for no longer exists in that location.  But instead of throwing up a “That page doesn’t exist” message, you automatically take them to a related page with similar content.  (As a quick aside, you’ll sometimes hear this error message called a “404 error,” which happens when the server can’t find the page someone is looking for.)

Here’s an example.  Let’s say you’re an animal shelter and have a page dedicated to puppies.  You decide you’re going to remove this page from your website and replace it with a broader page about dogs and cats.  If you put in a 301 redirect from the Puppies page to the Dogs and Cats page, users looking for that Puppies page will automatically be sent to the Dogs and Cats page.  The result is less frustration and more reading about your animals.

Why do you need 301 redirects?

301 redirects are good for both your users and for search engines.

For users, they’re a way to avoid frustration.  It’s jarring to click a link expecting to see some valuable content only to get a “Sorry, that page doesn’t exist” message.  Most visitors won’t scour your site when they’re greeted with an error message.  They’ll move on to another website that isn’t throwing error messages at them.

Visitors can end up landing on dead pages (ones that don’t exist) in a variety of ways, including:

  • Clicking a link on another website that points to a dead page on your site
  • Using a bookmark they saved to a page on your website that no longer exists
  • Typing in an old URL they wrote down or received in a direct mailing you sent out
  • Clicking an outdated search result that links them to a page that no longer exists

And with search engines, it helps you maintain most of the value that page has accumulated from a search engine optimization (SEO) perspective.  While we aren’t going to dive into the depths of SEO here, search engines care about the number and quality of links coming into both a particular page and your website as a whole.  If you remove a page without putting in a 301 redirect, you can lose any value it has added to your website.  And that’s definitely not a good thing.

When do you need 301 redirects?

Most simply, you need a 301 redirect whenever the URL for a page changes.

But here are a few specific instances to help flesh that vagueness out:

You move to a new domain.  Let’s say your organization, The Association of Concerned Citizens Against Animal Mistreatment, is moving to a new domain.  You’ve decided to do away with www.associationofconcernedcitizensagainstanimalmistreatment.org in favor of www.accaam.org.  You’ll need 301 redirects for all of your pages so anyone that’s looking for you can find you easily at your new, simpler domain.

You delete a page on your website.  Whenever you remove a page from your website, it’s important you put up a 301 redirect to a page with similar content.  That way, any visitor looking for the deleted page will find interesting info instead of a “Page doesn’t exist” message.

You rename a page on your website (and change the URL).  Even if you do something as simple as change “About” to “About Us,” if the URL changes from “www.accaam.org/about” to “www.accaam.org/about-us” you’ll need a 301 redirect.

It’s also worth noting, if you change a page name slightly, it’s probably best not to mess with the URL unless you can come up with a compelling reason to do so.

You move a page to a new location on your website.  When you move a page to a new location on your website, there’s a good chance the URL will change.  Let’s say you have a Kittens page, but you’ve decided to make it a subpage of your more general Animals page.  So “www.accaam.org/kittens” is moving to “www. accaam.org/animals/kittens” since it’s becoming a subpage.  You’ll need a redirect to help those looking for the old page to find it in its new location (and to retain all of that SEO value).

You launch a new website.  Most organizations use launching a new website as a time to add, cut and move pages around.  Whenever you do this, make sure you’re using 301 redirects extensively.  If any pages slip through the cracks, you’ll lose much of the SEO value for those pages when you launch the new website.

How do you implement 301 redirects?

This is where things get a little more technical.

Since 301 redirects are so important and require a basic familiarity with coding and website files, we recommend leaning on someone with a background in this stuff.  Maybe you have an in-house programmer who can do it.  Or a volunteer with knowledge in this area.

301 redirects are a very important piece of your website.  It’s worth making sure they’re done right.

If you just need some resources on the topic, here are a few:

301 Redirects – Google Webmaster Tools

How to Create a 301 Redirect – Webconfs

301 Redirects – CSS-Tricks

Redirection – Moz

Have questions about 301 redirects?  Or have you run into any issues with setting up redirects in the past?  Use that comment section below to let us know.

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Image courtesy of Tristan Martin, Flickr