Traditionally, the 301 redirect has been the SEO’ers favoured technique when redirecting an old URL to a new one due to its perceived ability to pass on a level of the old URL’s link juice. However, at the recent SMX London conference, Rob Kerry from Ayima, during his talk on ranking factors, , stated that from research he has carried out he could conclude that 301 redirects no longer pass any link juice in the eyes of Google, a theory that was neither confirmed nor objected to by fellow panellist, SEOMoz’s Rand Fishkin.
So how are you supposed to tell search engines you’ve moved your page and pass on some of that precious link juice going into the old page? Well it may just be a coincidence but the demise of the 301 redirects ability to pass on power seems to have coincided with Google’s roll out of the cross domain rel="canonical" tag, a possible hint by Google that this is their preferred method for you to tell them that you have moved your page. Whether the rel=canonical will pass on any link juice...... well currently your guess is as good as mine but this is something we will be monitoring very closely. Is rel="canonical” the replacement for 301 redirect? To put it simply- No. Even if the rel="canonical" tag does solve Google’s problem of deciding whether to index your old URL or your new one, it still leaves you with a huge usability issue in that it does not actually take your users to the correct new page .
Okay so in Google’s perfect world, where every user started their journey by searching in Google the rel="canonical" tag would probably do the trick, but in the real world some people do actually use alternative search engines (hard to believe I know!) which may not support the rel="canonical" tag, and what about traffic coming from bookmarked versions of the old URL or referrals from sites linking to the old URL, not to mention the fact that Google themselves state that the canonical tag is a “suggestion” and may not always be obeyed. The outcome is that some visitors are going to end up stuck on a 404 page (albeit a 404 page that is no longer indexed by Google). So from a usability point of view (isn’t that what Matt Cutts is always telling us is important) perhaps sticking with the 301 redirect is the better way to go about it and is in fact what Google are still recommending over at Webmaster Central
But What About My Links?
So what about all those links pointing to the old URL? Well if 301 redirects and rel="canonical" tags aren’t going to pass on any of that precious link juice then there is only really one other option, you guessed it - manually re-pointing all those links to the new URL. If you only have a few links then this shouldn’t be too much of an arduous task. If you have thousands or even tens of thousands of links then I would suggest highlighting the most powerful and relevant ones, a task made possible through the use of back-link analysis tools such as Open Site Explorer or Majestic SEO, and prioritising from there. There is no way round the fact that this is going to be a time consuming and somewhat tedious task but the benefits of keeping those links is definitely going to make it worth your while.
So to conclude, whether 301’s do or do not pass on any link juice, from a usability point of view they are definitely still the way to go. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the canonical tag for solving duplicate content issues but in this instance I’ll be sticking to 301’s. And if you’re worried about losing the links pointing at the old URL then manually contacting site owners and requesting them to be re-pointed to the new URL is the only way to go.