301 redirects: what they are and how to use them

When you move or delete pages on your website, 301 redirects help keep traffic flowing. Learn how 301s work — and the best practices for SEO.

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301s help your website visitors — and search engines — find their way when your website changes.

As your website grows and evolves, changes are unavoidable. You’ll likely need to move, archive, combine, or delete certain pages — or possibly your entire site. 

That’s where 301 redirects come in. They’re a helpful tactic to make sure traffic keeps flowing to the right pages on your site, but you’ll want to use them correctly. 

In this post, we’ll cover:

What is a 301 redirect?

A 301 redirect is a type of HTTP status code. Web browsers and site servers use these three-digit codes to communicate information about the status of a website or page. For example, when you go to visit a website, your browser requests access from the site’s server, and the server responds with a HTTP status code. 

The 301 status code is for permanent redirects, meaning that a page has been permanently redirected to another URL, and all visitors and bots will be automatically sent on to the new location. As a visitor, this usually happens almost instantaneously, though you may notice the target URL in your browser changing to the new page. 

You can manually set or remove 301 redirects for your website to ensure traffic flows to the right pages, which creates a more fluid and positive experience for site visitors. When you skip the step of setting a 301 redirect, you can end up with “dead ends” on your site — leaving your visitors stranded. 

Why are 301 redirects important for SEO?

301 redirects don’t just send website visitors to the right location — they also send bots to the right location, including the web crawlers that index content for search engines like Google. 301 redirects are crucial for search engine optimization (SEO) because they help ensure your website is crawled and cataloged accurately. 

Additionally, when you move a page for any reason, you want to make sure that any backlinks to your page remain intact. 301 redirects help make sure external links take visitors (and Google crawlers) to a relevant page on your site, continuing to drive traffic and retain the SEO value of your hard-earned backlinks. 

And when you need to move a page that ranks for certain keywords, a 301 redirect will maintain the page’s link equity (or “SEO juice”) by passing it onto the new URL. This means content teams can use 301 redirects strategically to optimize search rankings. For example, you could choose to combine similar pages that may rank for the same keyword into one consolidated page — and ideally combine the ranking potential of each individual page at the same time. (We’ll get into more examples of how to use 301 redirects for SEO in the next few sections.)

When to use a 301 redirect

301 redirects can be used across several scenarios, including:

Moving a page to a new URL

This is the simplest use case for a 301 redirect: moving an existing page from one URL to another. This happens for all kinds of reasons, such as renaming a product or recategorizing a blog post. Using a 301 redirect will deliver a seamless user experience and ensures Google and other search engines index your new page accurately and pass on any ranking power from the previous page.

Migrating a website from an existing domain to a new domain

Situations such as a rebrand, moving from a .net to a .com, or moving away from a subdomain might require you to move from your existing domain name to a new one. You can use 301 redirects to make sure all your old URLs are sent to new URLs — just be sure to plan ahead. Migrating from an old domain to a new domain requires careful mapping in advance as you may want to flag outdated content for removal or consolidate similar pages. 

Deleting pages

If you delete a page from your site and take no other action, your site will send traffic to a 404 error page, which indicates that the content they were looking for can’t be found. This is frustrating for users, and not ideal for SEO. 

Before deleting a page, consider which other pages on your site might be good substitutes. If you have one that makes sense, set up a 301 redirect so visitors can still find what they’re looking for. 

If there isn’t a relevant page on your site, you can choose to let traffic dead-end on a 404 (not found) or 410 (gone), which indicates a page has been permanently and intentionally removed. This may be a better experience for your visitors than sending them to your homepage, which could be confusing or annoying for visitors. 

Redirecting an entire domain from HTTP to HTTPS

Modern best practices call for websites to use the more secure HTTPS protocol over HTTP. HTTPS delivers an extra layer of security by using SSL (“secure sockets layer”) to encrypt data that passes between a web server and a browser. 

Switching your URLs from HTTP to HTTPS is usually straightforward, but you will want to use 301 redirects to make sure Google indexes the right content and traffic is sent to the right pages. 

Resolving duplication issues

Having search engines index different variations of your site isn’t ideal for SEO. But certain technical scenarios may result in having more than one version of your pages — or even your entire website — published by mistake. It’s important for Google to always understand which content to crawl and catalog. Using 301 redirects can help resolve duplication issues in the following situations: 

Moving from non-WWW to WWW URLs

To avoid duplication, you want to make sure your site is consistently using either non-WWW URLs (https://yoursite.com) or WWW URLs (https://www.yoursite.com). It doesn’t matter which, but if you need to remove duplicate pages from either structure, use 301 redirects to send traffic to the correct version. 

Eliminate trailing slashes in URLs

Similarly to WWWs, pages with trailing slashes (https://www.yoursite.com/) and without them (https://www.yoursite.com) are viewed as different URLs by Google. Use 301 redirects to make sure your page URLs use trailing slashes — or not — consistently. 

Resolving uppercase vs lowercase discrepancies in URLs

The same principle applies to URLs that use uppercase (https://www.yoursite.com/About) and lowercase letters (https://www.yoursite.com/about). Different versions of the same page will be seen as duplicative, so use 301 redirects if you find this is happening on your site. Most web pages use lowercase for URLs. 

Consolidating content to improve search rankings

As we mentioned earlier, 301 redirects can play a key role in strategic changes to your content that can optimize your SEO rankings on search engine results pages (SERPs). 

For example, if you have two pages both ranking fairly well for the same keyword, you can choose to thoughtfully combine those pages and redirect the lower-ranking URL to the higher-ranking page. This helps you avoid keyword cannibalization on your site, and consolidates each page’s authority with Google into a single, more powerful page. Or, you could redirect both existing pages to a brand new URL.

You can also use 301s during SEO pruning: identifying thin or underperforming pages and merging them into one, or simply removing the content and redirecting those URLs to higher-performing pages. 

Changing your site structure

If you want to change your subfolder structure on your site, you can use 301 redirects to move traffic from the old URL to the new. For example, you may choose to reorganize your blog or ecommerce categories, and move pages like https://www.mysite.com/outdated/post/ to https://www.mysite.com/updated/post/. Or, you may decide to make a change like removing publishing dates from blog URLs. In that case, you’d want to use 301 redirects to ensure no traffic gets dropped along the way. 

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301 vs 302 redirects 

One quick note: there are multiple HTTP status codes in the 300 category, each of which indicate some type of redirection. 301 redirects indicate a permanent change, while 302 redirects indicate a temporary change. 

302 redirects are used when you need to move a page temporarily, but intend to move it back to the original URL. This can happen during A/B testing, phased website launches, or when using a temporary holding page. 

While Google representatives have said that 302 redirects receive the same page ranking benefits as 301s, some SEOs believe a 301 passes on stronger signals to Google. So unless you know for certain you’re moving the page back to the original URL, use a 301 redirect instead of a 302.

There are a few other types of redirects to be aware of:

301 redirect best practices for SEO

Match the intent of your redirected pages

Always have your user in mind when you set up a 301 redirect. If the link they click on or the URL they type into their browser ends up taking them to a new page that doesn’t match up with what they were expecting to see, that creates a negative experience and may lead them to leave your site altogether. Only redirect to similar pages with a similar intent. 

Update your sitemap when you implement 301 redirects

Your sitemap helps search engines know how to navigate and index your pages. And while Google may seem all-powerful, even their search engine crawlers have limited resources, so you don’t want to waste their time attempting to crawl pages that don’t actually exist anymore. 

So when you implement 301 redirects, update your sitemap accordingly. Or, if that’s impractical for your team, create a recurring task for the right specialist to audit your site for 301s and update your sitemap on a regular basis.

Don’t create redirect chains or loops

If you have multiple pages redirecting from one URL to another to another, known as a redirect chain,  it adds unnecessary complexity for search engine crawlers and could slow down your site. Whenever you redirect a URL, make sure to update any previous 301s to the new destination page. 

Also be mindful of creating redirect loops, where multiple 301s send users or bots on an infinite cycle of redirects that eventually ends in an ugly error page.

Redirect 404 pages whenever possible

If you audit your site and find 404 pages, take the time to look at the original URL and figure out the next best page for those links to point to. Then set up the 301 redirects to reduce the chances of traffic dead-ending on your site. 

But remember, make sure that page has matching intent. If there really is no better place for visitors to go, a creative 404 page may deliver a better experience than a page that doesn’t match their expectations.

Check organic traffic for redirected 301 pages

If your analytics tools are telling you that Google is sending traffic to a page with a 301 code, that means the redirect hasn’t been indexed by Google. While it should update automatically the next time Google crawls your site, you can speed things up by removing the page from your sitemap as described above and submitting the change to Google Search Console.

Update broken links—don’t rely on redirects alone

Finally, while 301s are incredibly handy to avoid broken links pointing to your old pages from external sites, you don’t want to over-rely on them. Take the time to update your own internal links to new URLs to provide the best possible experience for visitors and search engine crawlers.

Want to learn more about optimizing your website for organic search? Check out our essential guide to SEO

Published

April 21, 2022

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