Does your site have a history of revisions like adding, removing, or editing pages or updates to the site architecture or menu structure? Or did a site migration go poorly? Check out our SEO site migration checklist here. Chances are you have a lot of old URLs that were never redirected to the latest live URL.
If a URL is updated or removed, you want to make sure you always 301 redirect users and search engine crawlers to the new URL or the most relevant, live location.
What are 301 redirects?
A 301 redirect is a permanent redirect which passes an estimated 90-99% of the old page’s “ranking value” to the new page.
Why are 301 redirects important?
You want to ensure users and search engine crawlers trying to access your content are sent to the correct place. Plus, you want to pass all previously built up “ranking value” from the old page to a live, relevant location.
How do you find old URLs?
- Find old or duplicate domains
- Broken backlinks
- Historic organic entries
- Indexed pages
- Site crawl issues
- Google Search Console excluded coverage reports
- Frequent 404 traffic
1. Find old or duplicate domains
Did the site live under a different domain in the past? Are there duplicate versions of the site live under a different domain? Redirect them to the primary domain and map out all the individual URLs.
- Duplicate domains often link to one another. Check the top referring domains in backlink checker tools like Ahrefs, Moz, or Majestic.
- Old domains may be used as the provided website on old, obscure business listings.
- Copy and paste a portion of the homepage copy into Google within quotes.
2. Broken backlinks
How many pages no longer live have referring backlinks?
- Many backlink checker tools have a broken backlink feature. I personally use Ahrefs’ broken link checker.
- See if any pages with backlinks have the page title of the 404 error page.
- Run a screaming frog crawl of your site, then export all the linked URLs from your backlink checker tool. Any linked URLs that weren’t in the Screaming Frog crawl should be redirected to a live, relevant page.
3. Historic organic entries
How many pages no longer in use received organic entries in the past?
- Run a screaming frog crawl of your site, then in Google Analytics, export all the pages that received organic entries over the life of the Google Analytics account. Any URLs that weren’t in the Screaming Frog crawl should be redirected to a live, relevant page.
- If there is an unmanageable number of URLs that received organic entries – prioritize your mapping by the highest traffic. Then just find a systematic way to redirect the low priority old URLs – like finding patterns in the old URLs and redirecting those in bulk.
4. Indexed pages
How many old URLs are still indexed?
- Run a screaming frog crawl of your site, then export all pages in Google’s index via a “site:” search and the GSC indexed coverage report. Any URLs that weren’t in the SF crawl should be redirected to a live, relevant page.
5. Site crawl issues
Review a Screaming Frog crawl or any other site crawler – like Ahrefs Site Audit – and see if you can uncover redirect opportunities.
- Does it hit any 404s or 302s that should be updated?
- Any duplicate title or description tags that may indicate duplicate content that should be redirected?
- Do any URLs have a canonical tag referencing a different page? Should that URL be redirected to the canonical?
- Do any URLs have a noindex tag that should just be redirected to an indexable location?
6. Google Search Console excluded coverage reports
Review the GSC excluded coverage reports and see if you can uncover redirect opportunities.
- Not everything listed within GSC excluded coverage reports is actually an issue – so don’t just aimlessly redirect every URL you find in these reports.
7. Frequent 404 traffic
Are any pages frequently hit that return a 404 status?
- In Google Analytics – export ALL pageviews, not just organic, and filter by the 404-error page’s page title. If any get hit what you would consider often in the context of your site – redirected it to a live, relevant page.
BONUS. Cleanup redirect chains
Does the site have any redirect chains? These can lower the value of the domain, increase page load time, and potentially cause other site issues. We want to make sure any redirect goes directly to the destination URL.
- Use the screaming frog redirect chain report. Send any chains directly to the live, relevant destination.
- Map out all your redirects in Microsoft Excel with a column for your redirected old URLs and a column for your redirect destination URLs. Set up formatting to highlight any URLs that are listed in both the redirected and destination columns.
This article does a great job of explaining how to fix redirect chains.
How to determine where to 301 redirect an old URL?
You should redirect the old URL to the most relevant, live location. Below are a few common practices.
1. Same content, new URL
Is the page content the same but it moved to a new URL? Redirect the old URL to the new location.
2. Same subject, one relevant location
If the content was removed, but there is another page discussing the same subject – redirect the old URL to the most relevant, live location discussing that subject.
3. Same subject, multiple relevant locations
Are there multiple locations discussing the same subject – all equally relevant? Redirect the old location to the page you’d most like to boost in organic search – the page which is the highest priority.
4. Category page
Are there no truly relevant pages discussing the same subject? Redirect the old URL to its category page or the next subfolder down, if applicable.
Example: domain.com/category/subject/ could redirect to domain.com/category/
5. Homepage or 404 Error Page
Last resort – if there is no relevant location live, determine if you believe the best user experience would be to redirect the user to your homepage or to just serve them the 404-error page content.
Redirecting the user to the homepage will likely just be counted as a ‘soft 404’ in the eyes of search engines and won’t pass much “ranking value” – so this is the last resort. Try to find any excuse to relevantly redirect to a page within the structure of the site first.