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301 redirects and Google PageRank loss

Posted by Michael Bloch in web development (Tuesday March 16, 2010 )

A rumor in the SEO world circulating for many years is that 301 redirects cause a loss of PageRank on Google. Here’s the official word on that from Google Engineer, Matt Cutts… well, sort of.

In an interview with Matt Cutts by Eric Enge of Stone Temple Consulting; the following comments were made about the 301 redirect and PageRank.

Eric Enge: Let’s say you move from one domain to another and you write yourself a nice little statement that basically instructs the search engine and, any user agent on how to remap from one domain to the other. In a scenario like this, is there some loss in PageRank that can take place simply because the user who originally implemented a link to the site didn’t link to it on the new domain?

Matt Cutts: That’s a good question, and I am not 100 percent sure about the answer. I can certainly see how there could be some loss of PageRank. I am not 100 percent sure whether the crawling and indexing team has implemented that sort of natural PageRank decay, so I will have to go and check on that specific case. (Note: in a follow on email, Matt confirmed that this is in fact the case. There is some loss of PR through a 301).

As you can imagine, this exchange has attracted a lot of attention around the traps. “Some loss” of PageRank is also a little vague. How much? I guess we’ll never know, but bear in mind Matt was commenting on a specific scenario – where a full site is redirected.

My experience of 301’ing individual pages has been that the page can drop in rankings for a couple of weeks and then rebound and stay solid. In some cases, it can bounce back better than ever if the 301 is being used to address a problem. The temporary tanking was more of an issue a few years back and quite often these days the transition can be brief and seamless, with little or no unusual negative movement whatsoever.

Most often where I’ve seen a 301 do damage is where something went wrong on the webmaster’s end, such as it not being implemented correctly.

If you have a problem page or you absolutely need to change domain names, you need to do something and the 301 is still the safest way to go. If you have a page that ranks well already, but you want to 301 redirect it to squeeze some more out of it in terms of SEO; try to figure out another strategy – don’t gamble what you can’t afford to lose.

Bear in mind nobody knows Google’s secret sauce and any major change you make to an established site carries risks. It’s sometimes a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, unless of course the page in question contravenes Google’s general guidelines.

The issue of 301 redirects wasn’t the only topic discussed in the interview. Mat and Eric touch on issues such as PDF links, PageRank sculpting, affiliate links, nofollow, canonical issues, “crawl budget” and a stack of other stuff. It’s one of the better interviews with Matt I’ve read for quite some time and well worth poring over for a while.


How to set up a 301 redirect
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