By Nick Rojas
Few webmasters or online marketers possess a deep understanding of the redirects can affect web traffic. It's not a sexy topic, and people often view it as too basic for meaningful discussion. As a result, people spend an incredible amount of time and effort chasing links, writing content, or conducting expensive, in-depth technical audits.
[Read more about web traffic: 4 Types of Web Traffic Every Small Business Needs]
Sometimes a simple fix yields an increase in traffic, and understanding redirects is worth the time. You may find that your site doesn't have an issue with redirects, and you can cross that item off the to-do list. But you may find that incorrect redirects are hurting your web traffic. The good news is that a simple fix could result in an immediate traffic increase.
What are Redirects?
A redirect essentially forwards one URL to another URL. While you always want to create permanent URLs, there are times when you need to move a page or a document to a new URL. But the old URL still exists—along with links leading to that old URL. If you move the page, those links break and generate 404 errors. That's a bad thing for site ranking. That's when you use a redirect to guide visitors to the new URL—where they can find the information they seek.
There are three main types of redirects:
- 301—moved permanently
- 302—moved temporarily
- Meta refresh—an outdated page-level redirect with the familiar "if you are not redirected in 5 seconds click here message
It’s worth noting that you might encounter newer and less-common redirects: 303 (redirect to a new URL after HTTP Post), 307 (a new version of moved temporarily), and 308 (an experimental moved permanently). However, in this article we will focus on the three classic redirects.
Redirect Mistakes You Need to Avoid
If you’ve noticed a drop in your search engine ranking, improper redirects may be the cause. The issue could be as small as one incorrect character, making it hard to spot, or as big as choosing the wrong kind of redirect. Fixing these issues is essential if you want to restore or improve your organic traffic. Check and see if you are making any of these five redirect mistakes.
The Wrong Type of Redirect
If you need to permanently redirect an old URL to a new URL, use a 301 redirect. When you make the redirect permanent, you also transfer the original URL's SEO qualities like PageRank, traffic value, and page authority. The new page will eventually replace the old one on Google’s index, which means less confusion for your site visitors.
A 302 redirection could make sense in very limited situations. If, for example, you're testing a new design and temporarily want to send users to a new URL. Or perhaps you offer a seasonal product that's available only for a short time. In both scenarios, the redirect is in place for a finite time and then removed. This is the only time you should use a 302 redirect.
A meta refresh is a quick fix that causes the redirect to happen on the client side, not the server. However, SEO best practices discourage the use of meta refreshes. They're an outdated and slow technique that creates a bad user experience. You can learn more about specific meta refresh drawbacks here.
Canonical Tag Issues
Search engines penalize you for duplicate content on your website, and canonical tags help you avoid duplicate content problems. They do so by identifying the preferred version of a webpage. This improves SEO because the search engine can count all the webpage's similar or out-of-date links as "credit" towards the chosen canonical link. It serves almost as a "link redirect."
However, using the canonical tag incorrectly voids the benefits it provides. Let’s take a look at two different URLs:
Adding "index" at the end of the link may not seem important, but they are essentially two different URLs. If you make the URL ending in "home" the canonical tag, but use the URL ending in "index" as a redirect on one of your pages, it could cause search engine confusion and produce a 404-page-not-found error. Make sure to check that your website navigation—and your social media links—have been updated to the canonical version.
Also, be aware that a canonical URL only works within the same domain. If your company has multiple domains, you will have to use another tactic. Use the canonical tag instead of a 301 redirect to avoid duplicate content issues
An infinite redirect is also known as a "redirect loop". This produces an Error 310 ("too many redirects") in popular browsers such as Chrome and Firefox. Here is an example of how this might work:
- User clicks on Website A. Instead of correctly redirecting the user to B, the link redirects to C, which has a redirect in place for A, because it’s now a non-existing page.
Instead of accessing the new desired page, the user sits through the loop and then simply ends up back on the page she started before seeing the error message. If this happens on the homepage it’s easy to spot, but if it happens on a less-trafficked page you may not notice it immediately.
In fact, you may not even notice at all because they occur at the server level. The only way to spot redirect loops or multiple redirects is to use a browser-extension tool like Link Redirect Trace to test your site as you browse.
If you've made several versions of a webpage over time, you may end up with a redirect chain. An example:
- You create version A. Information becomes outdated, so you redirect to version B. Page becomes outdated again. Now B redirects to C, but A is not deleted. So the chain is A-B-C.
That page loses 10 percent of its authority for every new redirect chain. The longer the chain, the more damage you do to your SEO; load time increases and you leak domain authority. In order to fix this issue, ideally you simplify the process to one redirect. But if that's not possible, follow this general rule of thumb: don't exceed three redirects.
Just as chain redirects tend to build-up over time, so can unnecessary 301 redirects. If you don’t remove all the 301 redirects you no longer need, you will lose valuable domain authority. Furthermore, every time someone clicks a link on your website, all redirects in the htaccess file get checked. This slows page-load time considerably, resulting in a bad user experience that can drive people away from your site.
You can check which redirects you still by need by adding a UTM tag. UTM tags help track the success of a given page. Add a UTM tag to a redirect URL you want to check; every time the redirect is hit, it will send the information back to your Google Analytics. Once you have gathered enough information in Google Analytics, you can create a report and compare it to your list of redirects. If a redirect isn't used anymore, remove it and speed up the load time of the page.
[Don't miss this article: Understanding Small Business Web Analytics]
Nick Rojas, a Chicago-based business consultant and journalist, writes about social media and marketing for small businesses.
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