SEO: Building a 301 Redirect Strategy
When a site’s URLs change, 301 redirects are crucial to preserve and grow natural search performance.
Organic search rankings depend in large part on link authority: the quantity and quality of links from other sites to your own. That link authority boosts individual pages on your site. When the URLs for those pages change, the link authority is severed and your ability to rank and drive traffic decreases.
A 301 redirect strategy enables you to gather the valuable link authority from discontinued URLs and shift it to live, relevant ones, giving your customers the next best option when the page they requested no longer exists.
It sounds daunting. But 301 redirect strategies can be simple spreadsheets with a collection of performance data and a mapping of old URLs to the most relevant new ones.
What to 301 Redirect
How large is your ecommerce site? Thousands of pages? That’s a lot of 301 redirects for developers to write and test.
Every one of the redirects you request requires development time. In my experience, developers usually agree to implement redirects if you explain the purpose and the importance. It could be less than 100 redirects to several hundred in cases where the entire site is migrating to new URLs.
The trick is deciding which URLs have value to redirect and which do not. Placing value is easy for ecommerce sites: revenue. Which URLs drive the most revenue? Also, which URLs contain the most link authority?
Collect data associated with URLs from every source you can think of.
- Web analytics (e.g., Google Analytics, Adobe Analytics).
- Google Search Console (Two reports: Search Traffic > Search Analytics > Pages and Search Traffic > Links to Your Site.)
- Bing Webmaster Tools (Two reports: Reports & Data > Page Traffic and Reports & Data > Inbound Links).
- Backlink checker (e.g., Majestic, Moz, Link Detox, Ahrefs).
- Rank checker (e.g., Moz, Ahrefs).
- SEO platform (e.g., BrightEdge, Searchmetrics).
Compile one long list of URLs based on these sources. For each URL, first try to identify the amount of revenue. Determine which URLs have the most value by sorting the revenue data from largest to smallest. Those are the pages that pay the bills. (This data also helps your development team understand why the 301 redirects are necessary. It’s hard to argue with revenue.)
Next, sort by link authority, which, again, is a measure of quantity and quality. Each SEO tool has its own system. Majestic, for example, has two scores: Trust and Citation — higher numbers are better. But Link Detox only has one, and lower is better.
The URLs that collectively drive 80 to 90 percent of revenue should be mapped to relevant new URLs. Lesser pages, those that drive, say, one session or one dollar are unmanageable to both map and to write the redirects.
301 Redirect Map
At its most basic, a redirect map is an Excel or equivalent spreadsheet with three columns.
The URL that will be removed from the site is placed at left. A reminder that the redirect is a 301 and not a 302 is in the center. The column on the right contains the new URL being redirected to.
A redirect map is as basic as a spreadsheet with three columns.
Patterns and Wildcards
Look for patterns that might make your developers’ list of redirects shorter. In the example above, the pattern is easy: Convert every ? character to a / character. Thus the ? in https://samplesitecom/abc?123 becomes the / in https://samplesitecom/abc/123.
Wildcards are another option to use when any number of characters might come before or after another character. Say your site is no longer selling red widgets. All of the URLs for red widgets contain the words red-widgets. In that case, take every URL that contains red-widgets and 301 redirect it to the main widget category.
To do that we would use a wildcard character — an asterisk.
Old URL: https://samplesitecom/widgets/red-widgets*
New URL: https://samplesitecom/widgets
The asterisk indicates any URL that begins with https://samplesitecom/widgets/red-widgets and contains characters after red-widgets should be 301 redirected to https://samplesitecom/widgets.
Wildcards can reduce a list of thousands of URLs down to tens.
Redirects that enforce canonical URLs should also be called out in a 301 redirect map. For example, if your canonical URLs are hosted on HTTPS, your HTTP protocol should be 301 redirected to your HTTPS URLs. This should be done for www subdomain URLs versus non-www; uppercase URLs; and URLs that end in a trailing slash or an index file.
For example, if your canonical URLs follow the format of https://samplesitecom/widgets, you would 301 redirect all URLs containing HTTP, www, capital letters and a trailing slash — such as http://www.samplesitecom/WIDGETS/ — back to https://samplesitecom/widgets, which is the canonical version. These canonical-based 301 redirects would keep instances of duplicate content low and indexation clean.