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Have a website? Then you’ve likely heard about search engine optimization (SEO) — the process of making your site easier to find, crawl, and rank for search engines.
The better your SEO, the higher your website ends up on search engine ranking pages (SERPs) — as a result, the greater the chance of your site being noticed by potential customers.
And with 68% of all website traffic coming from organic and paid searches — rather than through social media shares and other marketing channels — the right SEO strategy is critical.
Many SEO techniques are straightforward: Don’t keyword stuff. Keep your content relevant. Improve your website’s user experience (UX) by cutting complexity and boosting speed. But other metrics also matter.
Case in point? Redirect chains. These interconnected Internet issues cause problems for search engine spiders, frustration for users, and potential problems for your page ranking.
But what exactly is a redirect chain? Why is it potentially problematic? And how do you find and remove these unintentional website course corrections? Here’s what you need to know.
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What is a redirect chain?
A redirect chain occurs when there’s more than one redirect between the initial link users click on and the eventual destination page.
There are two common types of redirects: 301 and 302.
301 redirects happen when the destination page permanently links to a new URL and 302 redirects point to temporary pages while new content is created or websites are built. From an SEO perspective, both are treated the same.
Consider a backlink from a reputable site that leads to a page on your site, which we’ll call URL A. If users click on the link and are taken directly to URL A, it’s considered to be a single 301 redirect. Perfect.
But what happens if the content on URL A needs a refresh? You update the content with URL B, then set URL A to redirect users to the new page. This causes a redirect chain — your backlink leads to URL A which redirects to URL B. Add new pages and the chain gets longer and longer, and longer…
Two Reasons for Redirects
In most cases, redirect chains are unintentional, and they typically happen for one of two reasons:
1. Content Updates
Since changing backlinks on other sides isn’t easy — you’d need to get in contact with the site owner, ask them to amend the link, and hope they have the time to do so — it’s often quicker to simply redirect the initial backlink to a new URL. As websites grow and content changes, however, the number of steps between the initial click and eventual destination can increase dramatically.
2. URL Specifics
Redirect chains also occur when businesses rapidly scale up their website and small issues with URL specifics turn into larger redirect problems. For instance, consider the URL:
Since it lacks the https now expected for secure website browsing, you update the URL to:
This creates a redirect, but there’s another issue — no trailing slash after “products”. So what happens? You amend the URL again:
The result? You’ve gone from one to three redirects with only minor changes. Combined with new content generation and applied to your site at scale, it’s easy to see how redirects can quickly get out of hand.
The Negative SEO Impact of Redirect Chains
What’s the big problem with redirect chains, anyway? Since the links point users and search engine crawlers in the right direction, what does it matter if it takes a few extra steps?
As is turns out, large redirect chains can significantly impact your spot in SERPs for three reasons:
1. Link Juice Loss
The “boost” your site gets from reputable backlinks is often called “link juice” — the more juice you get, the better for your search rankings.
With just one redirect from a backlink to your site, you get 100% of the juice. Add another 301 redirect and you’re getting (on average) about 85% of the link juice. Add another and you get 85% of 85%, or just over 72%. The more links, the less juice.
2. Reduced Site Performance
It makes sense: The longer the chain, the more time it takes your destination page to load as browsers work their way through link after link. And with site performance now a critical factor in boosting SEO, more redirects mean lower rankings for your page.
3. Crawling Concerns
Search engine bots will only crawl so much before giving up. Called their “crawl budget”, most smaller websites don’t need to worry about search spiders spending their entire budget before reaching the end of the site — unless redirects start to ramp up.
The bigger and more numerous your redirect chains, the longer it takes for search engines to reach the end. Eventually, they’ll just stop looking.
Also worth mentioning are redirect loops. Here, initial links lead to URL A, then URL B and the URL C, and then back to URL A — causing a loop. Eventually, browsers stop redirecting and users end up with no content. Not surprisingly, your SEO suffers.
How to Find Redirect Chains
While you could go through your site manually and evaluate every page, every link, and every redirect, this is both time and resource-intensive — especially if you’re in the middle of site expansion or rolling out a new content strategy.
Best bet? Use online redirect checker tools to determine where your links are working as intended and where they create potentially problematic chains. Some popular solutions include:
Simply type in your http:// or https:// URL to discover any 301 or 302 redirects for a specific page. This free tool is great if you’re only worried about specific URLs but isn’t ideal for checking your entire site.
Sitebulb delivers a host of reports that evaluate how crawl-friendly your site is, where redirect issues exist, and how links are distributed across your site. Sitebulb offers a 14-day free trial followed by a monthly subscription model.
3. Screaming Frog
The SEO Spider from Screaming Frog lets you find broken links, audit link redirects, and discover duplicate content. SEO Spider comes in both free and paid versions — the biggest difference is that the free version will only crawl 500 URLs while the paid version offers unlimited redirect reports.
DeepCrawl bills itself as the “world’s best website crawler” and offers three plans: Light, Light Plus, and Enterprise. The Light plan is designed for one project and 10,000 URLs per month, while Light Plus offers 40,000 URLs, and Enterprise comes with unlimited redirect reconnaissance.
How to Remove a Redirect Chain
Once you’ve found redirect chains, removing them is straightforward — simply change the redirect link of the first destination page to the final URL rather than pointing it toward another redirect.
In practice, this means changing the redirect of URL A, in our example above, to URL C rather than URL B — in turn, skipping the middle step and ensuring your site doesn’t lose any link juice or SEO ranking. If URL B is still backlinked by other sites, you can leave its redirect to URL C intact. If it only exists as a bridge between the older URL A and the newer URL C, it’s worth removing redirects entirely and deleting or archiving the page.
Remember — every 301 redirect after the initial jump costs your site approximately 15% of potential link juice. Fill your SERP cup by cutting down redirects wherever possible.
How to Prevent Redirect Chains
To prevent redirect chains from building up over time, it’s worth regularly checking your site with redirect tools like those mentioned above. It’s also a good idea to keep a record of new URLs as they’re created — either by using a shared spreadsheet or by leveraging automated tools for this purpose — to help ensure that new URLs are connected to the first 301 redirect rather than those further down the chain.
Breaking Bad (Chains)
Although it’s not possible to entirely avoid redirect chains from backlinks and other dofollow sources, SEO starts to suffer the longer these chains become. Best bet? Use robust redirect tools to find long-tail chains, break them into smaller pieces wherever possible, and develop URL management frameworks to reduce redirect risks.
Originally published Dec 24, 2020 7:00:00 AM, updated December 24 2020