If you were ever looking for an exhaustive piece of information on how redirects are used in SEO, read on, this post is for you.
First off, what are redirects? To put it in other words, redirection is URL forwarding. It's when you type in one URL, but get taken to another URL instead. Let's say, you enter buylater.com and get redirected to buynow.com.
What are redirects for?
Redirects can be set up using different techniques and may serve a whole variety of purposes.
Let's talk about the cases when redirects are perfectly legitimate and improve user experience.
1. Website redesign
If you are redesigning your website, you can barely do without redirects. Redirects are used to take visitors from old webpages to new webpages, as well as to forward the hard-earned PR and rankings to the new site.
2. Internal duplicate content
301 (moved permanently) redirect is normally used to redirect a non-WWW version of a site to the WWW one. For instance, if you have both www.example.com and example.com indexed, it's best to pick one of these URLs as you main URL, and redirect the other one.
This solves the problem of having 2 identical variants of a homepage indexed by Google, as well as merges both pages' PR. By the way, when no redirect is possible, it's recommended to use a cross-domain canonical tag.
To learn more about canonicalization, you can read this post we did on how to use canonical tags.
3. Multilingual website
One may also want to redirect visitors to appropriate regional and/or language versions of a site. For example, when users type in example.com, they may get redirected to example.com/de, example.com/fr, example.com/en, etc., depending on their IP addresses.
By the way, do provide an explicit means of switching to other languages, since some visitors could be traveling and do not wish to be redirected to a regional site.
4. Mobile site
Creating mobile versions of websites is a hot trend now, since the mobile Web has been growing rapidly. What many webmasters do is they create a mobile subdomain or subdirectory (m.example.com or example.com/m) and then they identify mobile users by the browsers they use (user agent would be indicative of that) and redirect them to the mobile site.
And, if you'd like to learn more about the technical realization of redirects, here is the link to a Wikipedia article.
The sneaky Nickies of the Web
However, not all webmasters use redirects for the above mentioned purposes. Some black-hat SEO's use them to forward visitors to their landing pages via so-called "doorway" domains. Most of the time, doorway pages offer little to no value in themselves: they're stuffed with keywords to the extreme and are used to funnel Web traffic down to some other place.
For example, you search for Teddy bears, click on a result and end up on a porn site.
But are the search engines really good at identifying these malpractices?
How the search engines fight redirection spam
I've recently come across 2 interesting pieces of information. One is Microsoft's research paper on the methods of fighting redirection spam, and the other one is a video on cloaking by Matt Cutts. Both give you an idea of how these search engines define and fight redirection spam.
For example, Microsoft could be using so-called "search monkeys" in place of its regular bot. Search monkeys are bots that appear to be human searchers. They are used to discover websites behind the cloaking ones. Regular search engine bots can't do that, because the black-hats know the IP addresses and the user agents of those bots and redirect them to webpages that are different from what's being shown to human users.
Google also reportedly checks top results for traditionally over-spammed queries (like buy viagra online, cheap car insurance, etc.) and manually removes doorway sites from index. Well, not that this really stops black-hats from creating new doorway pages all the time, but may discourage some less industrious ones.
That said, there are still white-hats complaining that sneaky camouflage artists outrank them for popular queries in the SERPs. Please note that the just provided complaint came AFTER the Penguin update that was supposed to rid Google's top results from sites that use cloaking and black-hat redirects.
So, by the looks of it, the search engines are still not perfect at fighting redirection spam. Hopefully, they will get better soon, which would reward and benefit those using legitimate SEO techniques.
What if you’re unjustly accused of sneaky redirects?
Sometimes, a website can get unjustly accused of using doorway pages or unlawful redirects. The webmaster would get a notice in Webmaster Tools and shortly after that the site would either sink in the SERPs or be removed from index altogether.
Anyhow, if penalized by mistake, there are two things you can do:
1. Raise the issue at Google Webmaster Central
2. File a reconsideration request.
*Please, remember that a reconsideration request will only work if there has been manual action taken against your site. If your site got downgraded due to an algorithmic change, you will simply get a standard reply that "no manual action has been detected". Also, if you only received a warning, but no penalty, there is no point filing a reconsideration request.
Post Flickr image by snorski.
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