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Don’t Abuse Users’ Search Experience With 301 Redirects
One of the problems with link development gurus is their obsession with 301 redirects. Heck, I have even heard search engine software engineers tout 301 redirects as the magic solution to maintaining high quality link development. The problem with this 301-redirect obsession is that the focus is on search engine positioning, not the user.
Many SEO firms only focus on gaining top positions. What happens after a searcher clicks on a link to a web site? Not their concern because creating and maintaining a user-friendly web site that converts visitors into buyers—well, it is not what they were hired to do. To this group, losing a link is almost like losing a limb. “301 redirect, 301 redirect, 301 redirect,” is one of their mantras.
I believe that one of the most difficult things for an SEO to understand is that it is perfectly acceptable to lose a link, and possibly multiple links, because the search experience is compromised when 301 redirects are the only solution. In fact, there are situations when presenting a customized 404 Error Page is more acceptable than presenting a redirected web page.
When to use a 301 redirect
As I explained in a previous column, Understanding Search Engine Duplicate Content Issues, 301 is a status code that tells search engines that the content at a specific URL (web address) has permanently moved to another URL. I like to think of it as a Change of Address card for computers.
Many SEO professionals, and even search engine software engineers, often state that 301 redirects should be implemented to preserve the “link juice” to expired content. I completely disagree with that assessment. Reason? The important word to remember in that previous sentence is the word “expired”. If content expires on a web site, meaning that it is not available anymore, then the content expiration should be communicated to both search engines and site visitors.
Here is a typical SEO scenario. A searcher types a specific keyword phrase into a search query, views the term highlighting in search results. Term highlighting is very important for search usability since it provides a powerful information scent and increases user confidence that he/she will be delivered to desired content. When a searcher clicks on a link to expired content, he/she is redirected to a home page to begin searching or browsing for the desired content. The scent of information is compromised. User confidence decreases. If the content has expired, then the search for this content is futile.
“But you must preserve link juice!” cries the link-obsessed SEO professional. I wholeheartedly disagree because, unlike many SEO professionals, I perform usability tests and have been doing so for many years. I observe the search behaviors and reactions to misguided redirects. Searchers become frustrated and leave with a negative impression of a web site. Even if the site’s search engine listing reappears for different keyword queries, searchers no longer click on that link because of the negative search experience.
In fact, in the past six months, I have observed a decline in user confidence with Google searches among some IT professionals. People who fit this particular profile/persona tend to go directly to vertical sites that provide them with a positive search experience, which includes an information scent and satisfactory content delivery.
In my opinion, 301 redirects are a reasonable solution when searchers are delivered to updated information. Of course, whenever a site must rewrite URLs due to a content management system (CMS) migration, a page-to-page 301 delivery is the solution. However, for expired content, delivering a custom 404 page is more appropriate, in spite of the “link juice” theory.
When to use a custom 404 error page
I understand the mentality of “link juice” theorists. Even if a page’s content has expired, “link juice” theorists believe it is perfectly acceptable to substitute the expired content with similar content.
What “link juice” theorists fail to do is perform usability tests and observe searcher behavior. Is the substituted content acceptable to end users? If so, why is it acceptable? Do site visitors take the desired calls to action? If users do not find the substituted content to be acceptable, they will not link to the URL or take the desired call to action.
From a web site owner’s and an SEO professional’s perspective, the substituted content preserves link popularity and delivers prospects to the web site. From the user perspective, however, desired content is no longer available. Users want to know that the desired content is no longer available. They do not want to be redirected to content they did not request.
When content on a web site is no longer available, users prefer to see a customized 404 Error page. Content for a customized 404 Error page should come after a thorough analysis of keyword and clickstream data so that the scent of information is preserved.
If new, substituted content were truly valuable and useful, then web site owners should have no problems getting links to that content.
I understand that it might be a tough pill to swallow, hearing from an SEO professional that there are times when losing “link juice” is perfectly acceptable. Some of my colleagues probably think I am nuts for making such a statement. I would not remove content that consistently delivered high quality search engine traffic and conversions. Nevertheless, web site owners add and remove content from their sites all of the time, and they forget about the user experience and qualified search engine traffic. SEO professionals often forget about the user experience as well.
In the end, if SEO professionals would quit being so overly obsessed with positioning only, they might deliver a better search experience which ultimately results in higher conversions and increased sales.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.