Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series on creating a 301 redirect strategy as part of the website redesign process. Part two, “SEO: How to Create a 301 Redirect Map, for Site Redesigns,” we published subsequently.
In most website redesigns, search engine optimization relies on an accurate, complete, and flawlessly executed 301 redirect strategy.
An ironclad 301 redirect strategy preserves as much as 85 percent of the link authority that the current site has earned over its lifetime and funnels it into the new site to give it a strong start. These 301 redirects command search engines to transfer link authority and trust from the old URL to the new one. Without 301 redirects, the new URLs have to start over from zero to earn the ability to rank in natural search and drive customers and sales.
I’ve seen redirect strategies save redesign launches, and I’ve seen the lack of them destroy a site’s natural search performance. To see some examples, see “SEO Traffic Changes When URLs Change,” my previous article on that topic.
Why are redirect strategies so important to SEO? Think of a site’s link authority like a huge, cold glass of the most amazing juice ever. The old site has all of that glorious juice, but the newly redesigned site is wasting away in a parched, windblown desert. The redesigned site has no juice to sustain it because its URLs are brand new: no links to create authority, no history to create trust, no indexation to create relevance. The redesigned site desperately needs that glass of juice to give it life. The 301 redirect strategy maps out which of the old URLs need to pour their juice into each of the new URLs, giving the redesigned site a boost of much needed and hard earned link authority.
What Is a 301 Redirect?
A 301 permanent redirect is an HTTP server response status code. When a browser (or a search bot) requests a page from the web server and the page loads in the browser, the first thing the server sends back to the browser is a 200 OK response status code. The 200 OK status tells the browser, “Yes, there’s a page at this URL, everything is fine and I’m sending you the page to display now.”
By contrast, when the server sends the browser a 301 permanent redirect it’s saying, “Oh, wait, this page moved and it’s never coming back to this URL. Here’s the new URL to request, I’m sending you there now.”
For SEO, the 301 redirect is critically important in the redesign process because only the 301 permanent redirect accomplishes all three of these goals:
- Redirect the requestor (customers and bots);
- Pass 85 percent of the link authority and trust to the new URL;
- Prompt the search engines to de-index the old URL.
Developers typically create the actual redirects, because the redirects usually need to either be written manually as regular expressions or managed within the admin interface for the site’s platform. There are many other ways to redirect or end-of-life a page, but none of them accomplish all three of the goals above. Developers may suggest another method, but you should insist on 301 redirects for redirect strategies.
- 302 temporary redirects only redirect the customer; they do not pass link authority or prompt de-indexation.
- 404 file not found errors only prompt de-indexation; they waste the page’s link authority.
- Canonical tags request that the search engines pass link authority to an exact copy of that page at a different URL. Search engine may ignore that request, and in a redesign the old and new pages will certainly not be exact copies of each other.
Unfortunately, redirects tend to be among developers’ least favorite tasks because they are time consuming and require extensive testing. Creating a detailed 301-redirect strategy can help ease the burden.
How to Create a 301 Redirect Strategy
The main piece of the strategy is simply a redirect map – a spreadsheet that contains old URLs paired up with the new URLs to which they’re most relevant. In total, a redirect strategy contains the following pieces:
- List of stakeholders;
- Timeline as part of the larger redesign timeline;
- 301 redirect map;
- Testing plan;
- Measurement plan.
At the beginning of the redesign project, make certain that the 301-redirect strategy is part of the overall project timeline. Work with the project driver to determine which milestones the redirect strategy needs to intersect and who the stakeholders should be at each point.
As a general guideline, the redirect map can only be completed after the redesign URLs are finalized. Finalizing URLs at the end means a rush to complete the map and a large unwanted burden on the developers as they’re trying to hammer out the final bugs before launch. Set the deadline for finalizing URLs as early as possible – right after the sitemap or architecture of the site has been finalized. When the list of pages and how they all connect via the navigation is complete, the URLs can be assigned.
Finalizing URLs early also forces conversations around edge cases for landing page URLs for email programs, affiliates, paid search, analytics tracking, and other exceptions that didn’t make it into the sitemap planning. Getting these things out of the way early in the development process makes for a much smoother process as the timeline gets tight toward the end of the development cycle.
Listing URLs for the 301 Redirect Map
When the new URLs are finalized, create a spreadsheet with the new URLs and their page names and numeric identifiers from the wireframe or sitemap. These are the URLs you will 301 redirect to — i.e., the destination URLs.
Create another list of the old URLs, the URLs that exist today on the site. The list of old URLs should contain the URL and the page name or title tag, whichever is easiest to include. Combine data from multiple sources and remove the duplicates at the end.
- Crawl the site. Discover every file on the site and export a list of all files complete with title tags, meta descriptions, and many other handy pieces of data. If the site is large and the tool runs out of memory before finishing, limit the crawler to crawl only HTML files or run multiple crawls restricted to specific subdomains or directories. Try Link Sleuth or Screaming Frog SEO Spider. Link Sleuth is free, but SEO Spider has more features that will be very useful if you plan to use it frequently.
- Analytics. Export natural search landing page reports from web analytics to get a list of the URLs that search engines send visits to. This report will almost certainly contain unexpected URLs. If the analytics package tracks page name rather than URL, a custom report will be needed to get to the actual URL.
- Webmaster Tools. Export reports of the natural search landing page URLs and the pages that have received links. These are the most important pages for a site’s SEO because the search engine knows about them and has already assigned some value to them.
- Scrape the index. The best way to discover a site’s dust bunnies hiding in Google’s index is to use a “site: query” search on Google. For example, if the site lives at www.fakesite.com, just Google “site: www.fakesite.com” and Google will return a list of the pages it has indexed. Limit the query to specific parts of the site to get a more complete list. For example, Googling “site: fakesite.com” without the www will return a list of pages indexed without the www subdomain. If the main site is hosted on the www subdomain, then everything without www is something extra or unintended or forgotten. Maybe there’s an “info” subdomain in the listings, so changing the query to “site: info.fakesite.com” would give a list of all the pages Google has indexed on the “info” subdomain. Often remnants of past designs and forgotten marketing campaigns are still indexed. Adding these old pages to the 301 redirect map will simultaneously get them out of the index so no one accidentally stumbles on them and also harvest whatever link authority they may still have to benefit the redesigned site.
- Ask other stakeholders. Other marketing channels use landing pages at dedicated URLs or tracking parameters to measure the success of their programs. In some cases, the program will cease to function if the URLs change without notice. Ask for a list of URLs from the owners of the affiliate program, email marketing, paid search, samples and coupons, analytics tracking, and any other initiative that relies on specialized URLs. They’ll be able to tell you if a URL should or should not change based on the redesign. Together, work out how to handle it in the redirect map so that all URLs that need to change or stay the same are captured in one place for the developers to action.
At this point there are two lists: old URLs and new URLs. The next step in the process is to merge the two lists and create a spreadsheet that matches every old URL with the most relevant new URL possible. The next installment will detail how to create the 301 redirect map, as well as identify the elements needed in a testing plan and measurement plan to round out the 301 redirect strategy.
See part two, “SEO: How to Create a 301 Redirect Map, for Site Redesigns.”