Debunking the 301 Redirect: Best Practice or SEO Hype?

Sunday, March 09, 2008

There's been a lot of chatter, over the past few years, about 301-redirecting your home page from domain.com to www.domain.com, or vice-versa, for SEO purposes. And where there's a lot of chatter, there's almost always a lot of bad advice.  In the words of Sebastian X:

We find redirects on every Web site out there. They’re often performed unnoticed in the background, unintentionally messed up, implemented with a great deal of ignorance, but seldom perfect from a SEO perspective. Unfortunately, the Webmaster boards are flooded with contradictorily, misleading and plain false advice on redirects. If you for example read “for SEO purposes you must make use of 301 redirects only” then better close the browser window/tab to prevent you from crappy advice. A 302 or 307 redirect can be search engine friendly too.

And while I think Sebastian is a little defensive about the 302 and the 307 redirects vs. the 301 specifically, what he says is true.  The subject of 301 redirecting (and URL redirecting in general) seems to have been usurped, in the blogosphere, by two kinds of people:

  • Wannabe SEO experts.
  • Wannabe web development experts.

Over time, these two groups have created a sort of URL Redirect Mythology, in which the redirect becomes a primary tool of the web development arsenal, a sort of Excalibur by which to strike down the competition.  We've all heard the urban legends, around the Internet campfire, about what happens when you don't use 301 Redirects, or when you use them foolishly.  Your PageRank will evaporate, traffic will disappear, and you'll end up homeless and divorced, as the sun is blotted out from the sky and the world ends not with a bang or even a whimper, but with the banishing of all your hopes and dreams to the 347th page of the SERPs.

Just as the flow of Homeric Greek has a certain sound to the ear, a certain cadence, so too does the language of sensationalized URL Redirection.  It usually sounds like this:

Canonical URLs and issues with URL redirection have been a major concern for most webmasters. While many webmasters have been badly bitten by the canonical URL issue, some others who tried to implement a redirection ( to avoid canonical issues) but couldn't implement it properly are often bitten as hard, or even worse.

Or like this:

Many hundreds and thousands of websites are potentially damaging their ranking abilities by failing to avoid canonicalisation of their websites url.

Canonicalisation occurs when a website is able to be accessed via both www.website.com and website.com, in severe cases this can cause the search engines to effectively index 2 identical copies of your site, and then whilst its unlikely your website will attract any duplicate content penalties, its simply not good practice, effectively you are forcing the search engines to choose which page is most relevant, and often they may choose the wrong URL.

It's a common theme throughout the arts and sciences, and particularly in computing.  Novices tend to think a particular technique is more important, and has greater weight in proportion to other techniques, than the grizzled expert, who's usually more pragmatic.  When The Karate Kid was released in 1984, millions of third graders signed up for karate class wanting to learn the Crane Technique.  They didn't want to learn footwork, or conditioning, or discipline;  they wanted to learn how to do this:

Well, as the Crane Technique was to huge numbers of rambunctious, Reagan-era second-graders, so is URL Redirection to the novice web developer or SEO theorist.  Of course, sound search engine optimization has as little to do with tricky URL redirection shenanigans, as real karate has to do with the Crane Technique (which is a ficticious technique anyway).  In fact, experts will tell you that URL redirects are a necessary evil, and not always even necessary.

In Best Practices for Speeding Up Your Website, Chief Performance Yahoo! Steve Souders doesn't state it quite as strongly; but he dedicates an entire rule to avoiding redirects:

The main thing to remember is that redirects slow down the user experience. Inserting a redirect between the user and the HTML document delays everything in the page since nothing in the page can be rendered and no components can start being downloaded until the HTML document has arrived.

And contrary to popular opinion, if you don't redirect your site's home page to enforce a canonical version of your URL, the sky's not going to fall.  For the vast majority of sites, it's simply not going to be an problem.  It won't even be on the agenda.  In fact, if you're not having specific issues with PageRank due to fractured results in the SERPs, suddenly implementing 301 Redirects for this reason is probably a mistake - at least, if your site depends on a lot of search-derived traffic.  The time to install this kind of redirect was before the site went live, not after catapulting into popularity.

That's not to say URL redirecting doesn't have valid uses:

  • As a way to direct users and search engines to the new location of a page, when the page has moved or been renamed.
  • As a way to consolidate traffic from multiple domains to a primary domain or landing page.
  • As a way to enforce a canonical "www" or "non-www" version of the domain name.

But it is not, never has been, and never will be, the silver bullet of search engine optimization.  URL redirection has a lot more to do with basic web development 101 than it does with cutting-edge SEO.  So we should take advice on the subject of URL redirection with a grain of salt, when it comes labelled as SEO advice.  Keep it simple.  Solid content, in combination with sound web development practices, will usually trump artificial SEO solutions in the long run.

Good luck, and remember, the devil's in the details.

Tags: 301 Redirect, SEO, PageRank, search

4 comment(s)

This was most enlightening, I been though allot of web searching to find the best practices to redirect as I a several domains, computer-facilities.net.info and of course .com and got completely confused what I was supposed to do and not do.

After reading your article it seemed most prudent to keep it simple so I used just a meta tag in the index.html page <meta HTTP-EQUIV="REFRESH" content="0; url=http://www.computer-facilities.com/index.html"> and am quit happy about it.

Hope I did not miss the point of your article.

100% agreee. See http://www.webconfs.com/redirect-check.php and try to check their site ;)

I had a feeling about this for a long time, thanks

"Crane Technique (which is a ficticious technique anyway)" incorrect there is a crane style in kung fu - here from a simple google search: Shaolin 5 Animal Kung Fu System www.shaolin.com.au/animal.html

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