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301 redirects are a common SEO technique that can bring substantial website and marketing benefits. A 301 redirect permanently redirects website visitors and search engines from one URL to another. Much like a mail forwarding service, the redirect sends visitors to the new page whether they typed the URL into their browser or selected it from search results.

“On the surface, a 301 redirect seems boring and technical. But you can actually leverage 301 redirects to get more traffic,” says digital marketing consultant Neil Patel.

Websites around for any length of time inevitably accumulate links to nonexistent pages that produce 404 errors from site redesigns, spelling errors when entering web page addresses, or other reasons.

A Superb SEO Tool

By fixing broken links, redirects improve website user experience and boost search engine results. Backlinks that point to nonexistent pages fail to confer SEO power, and Google will penalize sites with too many 404 errors. Visitors also hate the error messages.

“If users search for your pages, if they click on your links and these links return a 404, you’ve just lost a client,” says Adrian Cojocariu, an SEO analyst at Cognitive SEO. But 301 redirects can damage a site’s SEO if done improperly and should be used with caution and only in specific cases, Cojocariu cautions.

Main reasons for marketers to create a 301 redirect are:

To send web users from different variations of a site address, such www.yourwebsite.com or http://yourwebsite.com, to https//yourwebsite.com, the secure site that Google prefers.

To rebrand or rename a website with a different URL.

To direct traffic to a website from other URLs owned by the same organization.

“In the third scenario, brands sometimes purchase domains that are similar in name or subject matter to their brand to generate more search traffic to their website,” explains Sophia Bernazzani, a marketer at HubSpot. “A 301 redirect is necessary to make certain that the brand’s original domain maintains its search authority in the process.”

SEO and digital marketing experts recommend these practices when considering or setting up 301 redirects.

Dos and Don’ts of 301 Redirects

If possible, fix broken internal broken links (links that are broken within your site) rather than redirecting them, Cojocariu recommends. The redirects pass link equity, but still lose some, so a direct link is preferable.

When outside websites mistakenly point to nonexistent pages on your site by mistake, you could ask the site owners to fix the links. That task can be time consuming, and the website owners might not comply. An easier solution is to redirect the links to the most relevant page on your site.

If there is no relevant page, you could redirect the link to the homepage.  But visitors may be surprised and confused. By redirecting to the homepage, you simply send the users somewhere they didn’t expect to land, Cojocariu says.

A possibly better option: create a custom 404 page with a search bar, links to related articles, a design that injects humor into the situation. Explain the mistake in plain language and attempt to re-engage the visitor. Nobody wants to see technical error messages.

Traffic from 404 Pages

“If your 404 pages can provide value to your users, you can actually get traffic from them. But 404ing your pages should be an absolute last resort,” Patel states.

Create a 301 redirect before moving content to a new domain. In 2010, Toys ‘R Us purchased the toys.com domain without setting up a 301 redirect first, Bernazzani explains. The new site’s SEO results plummeted because it was re-crawled by Google as a brand-new domain without inbound links from the original Toys ‘R Us domain pointing to it.

Create a permanent direct, not a temporary one, known as a 302 redirect – usually. Beware that a 302 temporary redirect may be the default setting of your website management software. A temporary redirect is suitable only in a few situations, such as during site maintenance when a page might be down.

Marketers can set up redirects with CMS plugins or via .htaccess, but should work with an SEO specialist to set up a large number of redirects, Cojocariu cautions.

Redirects allow marketers and website managers the ability change an error into a benefit, Patel says. “Something like a 301 redirect can be transformed from a technical snooze fest to a highly useful weapon,” he says. “This is actually true when it comes to many different things about marketing.”

Bottom Line: Savvy marketers and website managers often turn to the redirects to improve SEO and increase website traffic. The redirects aren’t suitable for all situations. It’s still important to create a well-designed 404 page.