SEO update: changes in 301 redirection rules for lawyers

At one point or another, attorneys will probably have to change page URLs, change domains, or move website content to a new site altogether. Redirection of URLs (or pointing one URL to another) is a common practice in SEO. It’s performed to preserve search rankings and to ensure that outside links pointing to an attorney’s website remain functional.

Until recently, redirects were not the healthiest thing for page rankings, but they are a necessary evil. Inevitably, page content, page URLs, and domain names change. Changes can be driven by the need for accurate content or for some SEO purpose. Without proper redirects, pages with established authority and backlinks lose a tremendous amount of established link equity and authority. This leads to poor SEO and a unsatisfactory experience for the user.

Recently, there have been changes to how Google treats redirects. Here’s a rundown:

Types of redirects

There are a few different types of redirects. All redirects do the same thing but have different implications for SEO.

301 redirects: Also known as the permanent redirect. This tells search engines that a resource (i.e., a page and its content) has moved permanently and isn’t coming back. These redirects are the most popular among SEOs because they pass PageRank from the old page to the new page; the drawback, however, is that up to 15% of PageRank is typically lost in the process.

302 and 307 redirects: A 302 redirect informs a search engine that the resource has moved, but only temporarily. A 307 is the more modern version of the 302. Generally speaking, SEOs do not like to use 302s because they do not traditionally pass PageRank.

Meta refresh: The black sheep of the redirect family is the meta refresh. It’s a crude type of redirect that does not promote a good user experience and has few good uses. Lawyers should know about it, even if only to know what to avoid.

Why would lawyers redirect their pages?

If you’ve never had to do it, setting up redirects may seem idiotic. After all, if something changes on a website, people will eventually find it anyway, right? Maybe in some cases, but, in general, failing to add redirects when changes are made can have a disastrous effect on search rankings, inbound linking, and—ultimately—traffic to an attorney’s website.

Here’s a snapshot of inbound referring domains that point to one of our client websites. Over 2,100 different websites point at this domain, which has helped this client achieve a Domain Rating of 51 and gain substantial traffic from organic searches. Both Domain Rating and Domain Authority are important barometers for ranking well in searches.

referring-domains

Links are an incredibly important aspect of ranking web pages. In fact, Google has disclosed that links are a top-3 ranking factor in its algorithm.

If the firm above were to change its domain name or change the URL that most of those links point to without creating permanent redirects, it would gradually lose its hard-won positioning in search. People who followed those links from other websites would get the dreaded 401 “Page Not Found” message—definitely not a desirable outcome.

Here are some reasons why attorneys may want to redirect web pages.

Old bio pages

Lawyers, partners, and other employees come and go from a firm, and career or bio pages become outdated as staff changes. Although it might make sense to delete the page, why forfeit an opportunity for someone to find you in search? If a bio page has a lot of authority in search or has several links pointing to it, then redirecting the user to a relevant replacement is a better idea.

Outdated legal news

Legal information and news items change constantly. Lawyers have to keep their sites up to date in order to remain relevant and authoritative. If a story, blog post, article, or other piece of information is ranking well in search but must be moved, it is best to create a redirect instead of deleting it entirely.

Moving from HTTP to HTTPS

This is one of the most common and all-encompassing reasons that attorneys need to redirect pages. Because the installation of security certificates on an attorney website affects all its pages, many redirects need to be made in this case.

Making URLs pretty

A common optimization task for attorney websites is making URLs pretty. Attorneys may not touch the content on a page, but if URLs are ugly and need to be optimized, redirects should be made from existing URLs. Redirects are often necessary because ugly URLs get indexed and linked to.

Fixing broken links

When URLs change, any links to those pages are broken. This creates a poor user experience and hurts a page’s ability to rank in search. Any time a URL is changed, attorneys should pay close attention to whether or not any links point to that page.

Rebranding the firm

Another common reason for a domain change is a rebranding effort. If a partner leaves or joins a firm, name, logo, and domain changes might occur. Redirects are essential here for maintaining search and referral traffic.

Changing domain name

Once professional top-level domains, or TLDs, were released, many attorneys flocked to the .lawyer and .attorney domains. While evidence does not show that these domains enhance search rankings, acquiring a TLD can be a good way to stand out. Whether you are changing to or from a professional TLD, redirects should be implemented so existing traffic is preserved.

Old rules for redirects

Let’s briefly touch on how redirects used to work:

301: A permanent redirect that passed PageRank but caused a deterioration of up to 15%

302 and 307: Temporary redirects that did not pass PageRank at all

HTTPS migrations: Websites would lose Domain Rating because of the large numbers of redirects

Lawyers doing small numbers of redirects would not notice a difference using permanent redirects. It was disheartening that many sites were penalized for switching to HTTPS after Google promoted it as a good move for site owners.

current-vs-old

New rules for redirects

Today, no PageRank is lost for any kind of redirect. This was first mentioned by John Mueller in February 2016 on Google Plus. In a Q&A post, he wrote that no PageRank is lost from any kind of redirect.

mueler-post

This is not surprising if you understand how Google operates and why it makes the changes it does.  User experience is paramount in Google’s eyes, and HTTPS adoption has been a major push for the company. Given the old way redirects were configured, it didn’t make sense for lawyers with substantial link profiles to switch to HTTPS and risk diminishing their PageRank.

Gary Illyes, a trends analyst at Google, also mentioned the redirect change in a tweet this past July.

He points out something absent from Mueller’s post: any type of redirect will not cause PageRank to be diminished through links. This assumes that Google will figure out what attorneys are trying to do when implementing a redirect on their site, regardless of how they do it.

Conclusion: Best practices for redirects

It’s great that Google is making redirects foolproof, but lawyers should always strive to make proper redirects to avoid potentially costly mistakes down the road. So:

  1. Any permanently moved pages should be configured using a 301 redirect;
  2. Pages that are redirected should point to other similar pages, which creates a good user experience;
  3. If a page truly is moving temporarily, the 302 or 307 redirects may be used; and
  4. It’s almost never a good idea to use the meta refresh.

The URLs of attorney websites mature and build trust over time. Changing those URLs can have a negative impact on search rankings if lawyers aren’t careful about redirecting pages. It’s also important to note that all redirects (even those done properly) carry risk.