301: SEO, 911, and SOS!

December 15, 2014

301 Redirect

If you don’t know what a 301 error code is, it’s time to admit ignorance is no longer bliss—especially when it comes to your website and search engine optimization (SEO). Ever since the first websites appeared, developers have been chomping at the bit to get rid of that pesky “www.” According to popular theory, a www-less world would make websites easier to remember, look cleaner, and there’s basically no point to them anymore. However, from an SEO standpoint, there’s more to it than that. Humans today are hardwired to type in “www”, so what happens if they do or don’t when it comes to SEO?

Be careful when asking, “Does www matter?” around geeks and developers because you might spark a battle which you won’t want to be in the crossfire for. Know that generally speaking, nothing “bad” is going to happen if your audience types in www or not. However, just like with any war, things are a little more complex than they appear.

So Should We Use it or Not?

Let’s start from the beginning. When you register a new domain name, you can register the www or not. A www today is actually a subdomain—kind of like how the “blog” in blog.yoursite.com is. It’s basically a relic from a time when people had to specify that they were using a World Wide Web site. The other options back in the day included ftp or gopher sites. Almost always, whether a person types in www.yoursite.com or yoursite.com, they’ll end up at the same place. However, know that they’re actually totally different uniform resource locators or URLS, so the content could feasibly be totally different.

For Google (the higher power of SEO), “canonization” is practiced. This is what happens when a URL has a “preferred domain.” You can pick the preferred domain as a site owner, but if you haven’t then Google is happy to make the decision for you. Whatever the preferred domain is, that’s the one that’s indexed. This is bad news for SEO because what if Google chooses yoursite.com, but you’ve spent all that time, money, and effort pointing your links to www.yoursite.com? Your SEO campaign goes down the drain.

It’s pretty easy to pick your preferred name—simply go to Google Webmaster Tools, click on your site, click the gear icon, click site settings, and then choose your preferred domain.

301 Emergency Code

A 301 redirect happens when a page is permanently moved to a new URL or location. It’s an HTTP status code. For example, maybe you chose yoursite.com as your preferred domain, but you want to make sure if someone types in www.yoursite.com, they get redirected to the right page. You can set up a 301 redirect. This means all your hard work (and those inbound links as well as trust records) will automatically move to your preferred domain.

Actually setting up that redirect can be tricky, so make sure your web developer is on top of it. For WordPress users, there are scores of free plugins to help you do it—check out Simple 301 Redirects for an easy option. If you’ve dug a little deeper, you may have stumbled upon allegations that 301 redirects mean giving up 15 percent of that delectable “link juice.” There’s no final call on this one, but with Google’s Matt Cutts, head of Web Spam, making contradictory statements about it, many SEO gurus are taking this potential urban legend with a grain of salt.

So should you 301 redirect? Absolutely. It’s efficient, easy, and fast—just like website management should be.

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