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April 8, 2009

SMX Sydney: 301 Redirects, Why are They Important?

Live blogging of 301 Redirects and Domain Canonicalization session by Greg Boser of 3 Dog Media at SMX Sydney 2009.

Greg Boser says he is a Google Tool. This got a big laugh and tweets in stereo from the audience.

The 301 redirect is the greatest SEO tool EVER invented he says. Why? because it’s the only redirect that passes link “juice”. Understanding and properly using the 301 is all about making sure you always get proper credit for your hard work.

When to use 301s?

– domain migration
– canonicalization
– site architecture changes
– type-in, misspelled and marketing domains (to redirect any misspelled or related domains)

Although I’m a big fan of 301 redirects, I hadn’t really given the issue much thought beyond the fact that you should use them when you switch domains to help Googlebot find it’s way home, so Greg’s session was a bit of a wake-up call. Apart from being hard to pronounce, domain canonicalization is the type of issue that seems to strike fear into the most tech-savvy of webmasters. It’s also an issue that splits the industry, destroys friendships and sorts the geeks out from the nerds or something.

Greg recommended that the audience use the www where possible because most people will link to that version of your site rather than the non-www so you might as well take advantage of the default link juice rather than having to find and redirect the bad links. He also couldn’t resist a light-hearted dig at Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) for using the non-www URLs on all his sites. Which I couldn’t resist tweeting immediately to Danny because I’d always wondered the same thing.

Greg says it’s very important to set up your domains carefully. He gave the example of his old company name Guerilla Marketing vs Gorilla Marketing. He found that searchers would often type in the second, more common spelling but he didn’t own that domain. He couldn’t purchase that domain from the owner so he eventually threw in the towel and his company became 3 Dog Media. Greg said he made sure that he bought all potential versions of the domain this time (e.g., etc)

What is a Conditional Redirect?

A conditional redirect is one that takes place only IF one or more pre-determined conditions are met (user agent, IP, referral source, country of origin etc.) When are they used? Conditional redirects are typically used when what is best for users conflicts with what is best for SEO.

Example Situations:

– Marketing domains
– Near duplicate content
– Self-hosted partner content
– Affiliate programs
– Session tracking removal
– Traditional A/B split Testing
– Bad SERP Correction

What about Robots.txt / Noindex?

Noindex/robots exclusion can be used to deal with indexing related issues but it is important to understand that excluded URLs do not pass link juice. So how does Google feel about conditional redirection? They hate it, says Greg, looking pointedly at Greg Grothaus from Google sitting on the podium next to him.

The Canonical Link Element (which Greg calls *RelCan*) helps a lot. From Google’s perspective, it’s much better than conditional redirects because they don’t have to trust you as much. From a Webmaster / SEO perspective, it has promise. It’s certainly easier to use.

What Else Has Google Been Doing Regarding 301s?

They’re a lot smarter about 301s now. Juice transfer via a 301 used to be automatic with no questions asked. Greg says that juice passage is now becoming more conditional. Redirection strategies that don’t create a normal looking footprint aren’t getting the credit they used to.

Some of the best technical examples on how to actually setup 301 redirects can be found in Stephan Spencer’s presentation).

* Photo courtesy of Andrew Ballard of ReBusiness