When Bad Redirects Happen to Good Websites

301 Redirect CartoonPreviously, we took a deep dive into what redirects are, how they affect your SEO, and when you should use them.

To quickly recap, a redirect is a method to forward users and robots from the page that was originally requested to another URL.

As a major pillar of technical SEO, redirects have a direct impact on the key factors defining your SEO performance: rankings, traffic, load time, user experience, crawl budget, and, ultimately, your revenue.

Redirects are a double-edged sword.

To make sure you come out unscathed, I want to show you the most common redirect issues that can affect search performance and show you the real-world cases of how some big names have helped or hurt their own cause with redirects.

Why So Serious?

It pains me to recall the cases I’ve seen when redirects turned out to be the root cause of revenue losses. Oftentimes, recovery is possible if you act rapidly. But, redirect damage can take months to recover from. The more time that passes, the more difficult it is to get back what you lost.

A bad redirect is pretty much like an internal wound that never stops bleeding, stealthily draining life from your website. Since working with redirects takes specialized technical skills, the average business owner often fails to spot redirect issues.

I saw this once when auditing an ecommerce site for an industrial parts company. Revenue had dropped, but one URL told the story in Google Analytics. It had been a top product page, producing thousands in sales.

Then, one day, for whatever reason, a developer changed the URL but did not redirect it to the new location. Visits and revenue from that old URL dried up. There was no reason for search engines to keep sending visitors to a dead page. After having been a 404 error for over a year, it was now deindexed and time to start over from scratch.

Many business owners play the SEO game offensively, aggressively chasing after higher rankings while completely overlooking the tedious, yet critical technical SEO measures that maintain what has been achieved so far. Redirects are one of these.

As Warren Buffett famously put it,

“It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.”

Caught up in the pursuit of growth, most folks invite trouble by ignoring one simple truth:

Technical SEO preserves revenue.

And before you roll your eyes, ask yourself a simple question: Why pour fresh water into a leaky bucket?


So how do you prevent bad redirects from chipping away at your SEO performance? You study them inside and out.

Redirects That Will Make You Go Hmmm…

While redirects are meant to be a tool for shaping site structure, some of them definitely don’t fit the mold.

These common SEO redirect issues drag your site down.

1. Using the Wrong Type of Redirects

Using the wrong type of redirects

Even though you can send users to another URL in multiple ways, based on the task at hand, some redirects are just better than others. It’s as simple as that.

Each type of redirect has its place. Picking the wrong one may lead to unintended negative consequences: the loss of link equity along with acquired PageRank and, in the worst-case scenario, having valuable web pages deindexed by search engines.

For instance, using anything except 301s to permanently move a page to another URL is almost always a bad idea.

Google has been trying to get the message across for years:

Although Googlebot supports several kinds of redirects, we recommend you use HTTP 301 redirects if possible.

For that reason, SEO consultants are likely to advise you against tinkering with redirects on your own.

2. Redirect Chains

Redirect chains

A redirect chain occurs when it takes more than one redirect to reach the destination URL.

What in the world could be wrong with that?

Apart from increasing load time and frittering away crawl budget, the longer the redirect chain, the less PageRank and link equity the final URL in the chain gets—with the losses compounding as you go along.

In a perfect world, any redirect should take the user from Page 1 to Page 2 in one hop. In reality, for many sites (especially ecommerce stores) that may be technically impossible to accomplish.

With that said, here is a good rule of thumb for you to follow:

Always try to minimize the number of hops in a redirect chain. Less is more.

Again, Google chimes in to shed some light:

Avoid chaining redirects. While Googlebot and browsers can follow a “chain” of multiple redirects (e.g., Page 1 > Page 2 > Page 3), we advise redirecting to the final destination. If this is not possible, keep the number of redirects in the chain low, ideally no more than 3 and fewer than 5. Chaining redirects adds latency for users, and not all browsers support long redirect chains.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than 5 hops, but I’ve seen them switch between permanent and temporary within the chain, which has to be confusing to search engines.

3. Redirect Loops

Using the wrong type of redirects

A redirect loop occurs when Page 1 redirects to Page 2, and Page 2, in turn, redirects back to Page 1 with no final URL in the redirection series—effectively short-circuiting anyone unlucky enough to land on either of the pages.

In the eyes of search bots and web browsers, redirect loops resemble a ride on the Ferris wheel that never ends; it may be fun for a while, but at some point, everyone starts to feel nauseated and wants to leave.

Running in circles like rats in a wheel, at some point search bots abandon the cause and move on to other URLs while web browsers return the ERR_TOO_MANY_REDIRECTS error.

And while redirect chains may be a necessary evil for some sites, you should weed out any redirect loop with a vengeance as it only serves these purposes:

  • wasting crawl budget
  • ruining user experience
  • causing indexing issues

4. Redirecting to an Irrelevant Page

Redirecting to an irrelevant page

As you may have heard, when you set up a permanent redirect, the SEO value of the original page is passed on to the destination URL. That’s true.

However, if the two pages have nothing in common, all that link equity and PageRank goes down the drain.

Which brings us to another simple common sense ground rule:

Always try to set a redirect to a relevant page.

As Google’s John Mueller said, “A redirect from one page to an entirely different page will result in no PageRank being passed and will be considered a soft 404.”

5. Mass Redirects to a Single Page

Mass redirects to a single page

Mass redirects mean the practice of redirecting a massive number of pages to a single URL as a means to drive up its page authority—or because someone is too lazy to work through each page individually.

As you may have guessed, that’s not cool.

The same goes for forwarding users to a 404 page instead of a relevant URL. Sure, it takes digital elbow grease to get the work done, but you want your site to run smoothly, don’t you?

6. Broken Redirects

Broken redirects

Whenever a redirect leads to a page returning either 4xx HTTP status codes (client errors) or 5xx response codes (server errors), a broken redirect—another perilous specimen to watch out for—takes place.

Suppose Page 1 redirects to Page 2 which returns a 404 status code (page not found). When that happens, the SEO value Page 1 managed to accumulate over time goes to waste.

In addition, think of what happens when a potential paying customer lands on a URL like that. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict the outcome: nine times out of ten, you lose that visitor.

That’s why having a reliable SEO consultant on board is so critical because your chances of accidentally spotting broken redirects are slim to none—and slim just left town.

7. Malicious External Redirects

Malicious external redirects

You are fully in charge of what you choose to link out to, but you can never exercise the same degree of control when it comes to other sites.

Imagine this scenario. You posted an article that contains a link to a relevant page on another site. So far, nothing sounds like trouble. And then that other site gets hacked, bouncing the users you invited to visit it to a malicious site with malware-infected pages.

If that sounds surreal to you, don’t kid yourself: 30,000 new websites are hacked every day.

The implications? Obviously, the hacked site gets stepped on by search engines, but since the redirect chain starts on your page, the damage may reflect back to your site as well.

Be careful where you link.

8. Redirects vs. Canonicals

The canonical tag (“rel=canonical”) helps you consolidate the master copies of a single page—including all the link equity and PageRank scattered across the copies—to a preferred URL.

This HTML link element plays a critical role in managing duplicate content, the plague of every CMS, every ecommerce store. From an SEO perspective, canonicals work like a silent redirect without the actual redirection taking place.

With that said, you may entertain the thought that redirects and canonicals are pretty much interchangeable. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Search engines treat the canonical tag like a “hint” whereas redirects are definitive, leaving robots and users no other choice but to follow your lead.

I’ve seen all kinds of canonical weirdness on client sites, the most common being canonicalizing all pages to the home page or canonicalizing to a templated page or leaving out canonicals altogether (and not including self-referencing canonicals).

But that’s a story for another day.

For now, if it makes sense and can be done, opt for redirects as a fool-proof way to transition SEO value from one page to another.

When Redirects Make Money or Make Headlines

Let’s look at examples of how big brands leverage the power of redirects—or completely mess it up, ending up either on the news or losing millions in revenue—so we can learn a lesson or two.

Some stories are relatively benign while others involve devastating losses, but the common thread running through all of them is one simple idea:

No one is too big to be cavalier about technical SEO.

Toys“R”Us Acquires Toys.com for $5.1 Million but Forgets About Redirects

If you think that large companies are too big to play by the rules of technical SEO, then think again.

In an attempt to muscle out the competition in the SERP, Toys“R”Us doubled down on SEO and acquired toys.com for a whopping $5.1 million, only to have the entire site deindexed later.

What happened? Well, someone forgot to set up 301 redirects. The consequences were catastrophic, to say the least. Definitely the biggest redirect SEO blunder in history.

Lesson learned: the “Too Big to Fail” approach can get you in big trouble in the realm of SEO.

A Small Site Accidentally Caught Up in a Feisty VP Debate Uses a Creative Redirect to Stop the Server Host from Crashing.

During his 2004 debate against Senator John Edwards, Vice President Dick Cheney pointed out that the senator had his facts wrong and urged viewers to check the accuracy of his claims on factcheck.com.

So instead of visiting the correct site at factcheck.org, a nonpartisan site that monitors the claims made by major U.S. politicians, the crowd landed on a small site selling educational products.

Obviously, the site owner was not prepared for a massive spike in traffic (about 48,000 people just in one hour). So, trying to save the site from crashing, he decided to set up a redirect channeling all those folks to georgesoros.com, causing a great deal of confusion.

But hey, desperate times call for desperate measures.

Lesson learned: if you ever find your site’s URL being accidentally advertised on national television, instead of watching your servers go down in flames, pick any random billionaire from Forbes’ 2020 billionaires list and dump that horde of visitors onto his site.

Someone Buys JebBush.com and Redirects It to DonaldJTrump.com

In the heat of the presidential race back in 2016, someone bought the domain name JebBush.com and redirected it to DonaldJTrump.com.

While the Bush campaign had nothing to do with the domain name (the official site was based at jeb2016.com instead), this shenanigan caused a lot of noise—and laughs—in the press. Now removed.

Lesson learned: when you’re a major presidential candidate, better pour some extra cash into your web strategy.

AT&T Buys Webhosting.com and Sets Up a Redirect to Webhosting.att.com

Never underestimate the power of a generic domain name. Sure, it must have cost AT&T a great deal of cash to acquire webhosting.com, but in return, the company secured digital property that will keep driving tons of type-in traffic for years to come.

Just let that soak in. Massive traffic. Free of charge. Regardless of how the main site ranks in the SERP. Forever.

Still not impressed? This story of the former domain name owner Jesse Rasch may change your mind:

The day we launched our new retail web hosting brand at WebHosting.com, our sales quadrupled and would continue to grow in the weeks to come as the domain’s generic descriptive nature was highly relevant for search engine optimization.

Well played, AT&T, well played.

Lesson learned: if you happen to run a multi-billion-dollar corporation, consider dropping a few million bucks on a generic domain name.

Update: looks like I spoke too soon because the domain returns an error now. Too bad, I love that domain.

Electronic Group Interactive’s Official Site Redirects to a Porn Site

Trying to squeeze out additional revenue, some businesses go to extraordinary lengths.

But Electronic Group Interactive of Barcelona, a company related to the adult industry, took it to a whole new level by redirecting its visitors from the official site (nocreditcard.com) straight to a site selling porn.

Look, that’s not how you should leverage the main site, folks.

Lesson learned: keep the company site separated from other related digital assets.

Key takeaways from this post:

  • Technical SEO preserves revenue and saves businesses from collapsing.
  • Redirects have the potential to ruin your SEO strategy if done incorrectly.
  • Those reluctant to allocate their resources to monitor and fix redirect issues pay dearly with their SEO performance.
  • As your site grows, redirect issues will inevitably pop up at some point. Regular SEO audits help keep that in check.
  • You are never too big to fail.

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