What is a URL redirect? In layman’s terms

A non-technical primer into redirecting web-pages

Eric
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A redirect is a tool used by websites for “rerouting” or sending a visitor to an alternative webpage. An example of a redirect would be when you type “example.com” in your web-browser, but are taken to a different website, like “new-example.com.”

URL redirects are an extremely common practice employed by webmasters and content managers to ensure visitors to their website are reaching their desired content.

When would I use a redirect?

  1. A page has been relocated within your site
    • Let’s say your website has a page by the path “/t-shirts” – The “t-shirts” page has been a part of your website sitemap for years, and is one of your most frequently visited pages. Suddenly, you need to build out a more general page on your site that has t-shirts, and dress shirts. Your goal is to have the new page be accessible by a shorter, more general path, like “/shirts”. In this situation, you would want to use a URL redirect to ensure that traffic for the page “/t-shirts” is successfully rerouted to the new “/shirts” page of your website. Without a redirect in place, you could run the risk of visitors still accessing the old /t-shirts page, even though you want to drive all traffic to the new /shirts page. Due to the nature of SEO, it’s possible that there are many links throughout the Internet that still point visitors to the old URL, and it is the job of the URL redirect to ensure visitors still make it to the appropriate page.
  2. Your domain name is changing!
    • Changing a website’s domain name is a drastic decision which must be handled with the utmost care. Let’s say your website has always been www.abc-brand.com. Due to a rebranding effort, you are changing your brand from “ABC” to “XYZ”, and thus your website’s URL will need to be adjusted to reflect the change. In this scenario, it would be critical that you 301 redirect all traffic requesting “abc-brand.com” to the new and improved “xyz-brand.com”. Furthermore, you would want to ensure that all pages within the abc-brand website are also redirected, like abc-brand.com/my-page being redirected to xyx-brand.com/my-page
  3. You have alternative domains that you wish to serve as “shortcuts” into your website
    • It is a common practice for businesses to buy dozens of domain names that:
      • Are spelled similarly to their business name – consider “gogle.com” that redirects to google.com
      • Are variations of their name that visitors may otherwise know them as – consider “joes-tees.com” that redirects to the main business website, “joes-shirts.com”
      • Are shortened, easily typed versions of the primary domain name – consider “shirtsale2019.com” redirecting to “joes-shirts.com”. It is common to find this shorter, more memorable URL variation on physical advertisements because people are more likely to remember them. As such, a URL redirect would be used to reroute the alternative domain name to your primary domain name of your website.

How does a redirect actually work?

When you request a web-page from your browser, there is a server somewhere on the Internet that is receiving your request and responding with the appropriate content. Fundamentally, a redirect occurs when a web-server's response contains a special piece of data (an HTTP response header) instructing the browser to reroute the visitor to an alternative location.

The technical details aside, a browser works by requesting a URL and rendering the page that is returned by the website. If the website wishes the user to be redirected, the server will respond differently than if it was serving a page; it will send an extra piece of data indicating that the visitor should be redirected to a specified location.

Without going into too much of the technical details – a redirect is a behavior performed by a web-browser whenever it receives a response containing a flag (an HTTP header) to do so.

What are the types of redirects available?

    301 Redirect

  • Commonly referred to as a “permanent” redirect.

  • Indicates to search-engines and web-browsers that the requested page has permanently relocated to a new location.

  • Note: permanent redirects are often cached by web-browsers like Chrome and Firefox. Therefore, it may be tricky to retroactively update a 301 redirects target location once it has been established. Any visitors who have already received the 301 redirect response for a URL will likely be served a cached response from their web-browser when visiting the same URL again.

  • Suggestion Only use a 301 redirect when you know that the target location will not change.

  • Common Uses

    • A 301 redirect is appropriate when a website is changing it’s domain name. In this scenario, the site should be 301 redirecting all traffic for it’s old domain name to the new website URL.
    • Another common use-case for a 301 redirect is for pages within your website that have been permanently moved to a new URL

  • 302 Redirect

  • Commonly referred to as a “temporary” redirect.

  • Useful for general-purpose redirects within your website, where you do not want visitor’s to cache the redirect response permanently.

  • Suggestion Use 302 redirects for pages that have changed URL, but are subject to be updated in the future

  • Common Uses

    • A page is temporarily being moved to a new URL
    • Conditions where the destination location of the redirect is subject to change
    • Navigating the user away from a page during an error

  • 307 Redirect

  • Uncommon due to legacy browser support

  • Used for technical scenarios when a visitor’s HTTP request method should be persisted when they are redirected. For example, if a user submits a form, the browser normally issues a POST request to the form’s action URL. If the server responds with a 302 redirect response, the client’s web-browser would typically issue a GET request when handling the redirect. However, if the server responds with a 307 redirect response, the client’s web-browser will POST request to the redirect destination. Please note, form-data is typically lost when redirecting via POST request.

When do I need a redirect?

The most common use-cases that would require a redirect are:

  1. Changing your domain name
  2. Restructuring website pathing, resulting in URL changes for content within your website
  3. URL shortening – having a shorter, more memorable alternative to your primary domain name.
  4. Sending traffic from additional/alternative domain names (Example: gogle.com redirects to google.com)
  5. Sending traffic from your DNS zone apex / naked domain name to your “www” sub-domain (Example: domain.com 301 redirects to www.domain.com)

Important considerations when redirecting a URL

  1. Ensure your URL supports HTTPS connections! Otherwise you may have visitors who are receiving broken links.
  2. When redirecting a specific path within your website, you may want to match paths based on a pattern or Regular Expression, as opposed to a single path.
  3. Seriously consider whether you should use a 301 or a 302, based on the information above.

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