How Long Should I Keep My Redirects?
By Matthew Edgar · Last Updated: November 17, 2023
There is no universal answer for how long you should keep redirect rules in place on your website.
Some recommend keeping redirect rules in place forever, but maintaining redirect rules indefinitely is not practical. Some redirects might need to be maintained long term but others will no longer be necessary following a website redevelopment project or other content updates.
Google’s John Mueller has said Googlebot will recognize the redirect within 6 months to 1 year. Sometimes Google recommends the redirect much faster than that. However, Googlebot is likely not the only audience using those redirects. The redirects might have been set up for offline marketing, emails, social shares, ads, or more. A redirect configured for an ad may only need to be maintained for a few weeks but a redirect configured for offline marketing might need to be maintained for years.
Instead of looking for universal answers, we need to understand the nature of each individual redirect and how that redirect is used. There are two main questions to ask to determine how long each redirect should be kept:
We can picture these questions within a simple flow chart. If the redirected URL has high-quality traffic, it is worth keeping. If the redirected URL does not have high-quality traffic, review backlinks. If there are higher-quality backlinks, then keep the redirect. If there are no higher-quality backlinks or not very much traffic, then remove the redirect.
I’ll go through these questions in more detail in this article and discuss the steps you need to take to answer each question to decide which redirects to keep on your website. I’ll also address how you decide if there is enough traffic or backlinks to justify keeping the link and talk about how often you should review redirects.
Does anybody use the redirected URL to reach your website? That could include human visitors or bots from search engines. A redirect that hasn’t received any traffic (or not much traffic) within the last several months likely no longer needs to be maintained. There are three ways to find out:
We can also track redirects using Google Analytics (GA4). This requires some setup work but can be easier to identify redirect usage than when using log files. It really breaks down into two simple steps: adding the tracking parameters and reviewing the data.
Step #1: Add UTM Tracking to Redirects
We can add UTM tracking parameters to the redirect destination. Make sure this is only applied to redirects external to your website. If a link contained on your website redirects and is tracked in this way, you would distort your traffic source reports.
For example, if I want mysite.com/a.html to redirect to mysite.com/b.html, and want to know how many people use this redirect, I could add UTM parameters onto mysite.com/b.html. That would mean I’d be redirecting from mysite.com/a.html to mysite.com/b.html?utm_source=a.html&utm_medium=redirect. The additional information added to the end of that URL wouldn’t affect visitors or affect SEO.
This is especially helpful when you are redirecting one domain to another. For example, I redirect my old company’s URL of qwconsulting.com to matthewedgar.net and I’d like to know how many people still use that redirect. These kinds of redirects are harder to track in log files. As well, these types of redirects are usually more expensive since you have to pay for the secondary domain you redirect to your main domain, so you want an easy way to measure the return on that investment in the secondary domain.
Here is a video I recorded discussing the process of setting up redirects with trackable parameters, including more reasons why you may want to do this.
Step #2: Review Redirect Usage
Then, after the redirect is established, you can go to GA4 to review. Click on Reports, then click on Acquisition, then Traffic Acquisition.
In the traffic acquisition table, change the primary dimension from “Session default channel group” to “Session source/medium” (click the down arrow next to the dimension name).
Once that is changed, search the table for a specific redirect based on the source or medium you have specified. For example, after searching for all domain_redirect mediums configured on my website, I find that 46 people have used the redirect from my old company’s domain to reach my website but only 10 people have used the redirect from the .com version of my domain.
The website’s log files store information about each request made to your web server, including requests made to redirected URLs. Reviewing the log files will identify any human or bot visitors using the redirects on the website.
Step #1: Download the Log File
Check out my article about log files for information about how to retrieve log files from a variety of hosting companies.
Keep in mind that every hosting company stores log files for different times—some hosting companies only provide the last 24 hours’ worth of data, while others give you the prior month’s log file. To understand something like redirect usage, you may need more data than your hosting company stores by default. As a result, you can download your log files on a regular basis so that you can have more data to evaluate.
(Side note: Log files contain user IP addresses, which are considered personally identifiable and, therefore, make log files subject to rules and regulations about privacy. Please keep this in mind when downloading and saving log files. Make sure you respect and comply with all applicable privacy rules.)
Step #2: Opening Log Files
The next step is opening the access log. Typically, log files are compressed as TAR or GZIP files and you’ll need a program like 7-Zip to extract the file. Once extracted, there are a variety of ways to open the log file. In this case, let’s take the easiest: Excel.
Now that we have it open, let’s talk about how you can read a log file. Here is an entry from Elementive’s log file
123.456.789.001 - - [30/Jun/2019:13:06:49 -0700] "GET /google-analytics-viewport-or-browser-size/ HTTP/1.1" 200 11306 "https://www.google.com/" "Mozilla/5.0 (Macintosh; Intel Mac OS X 10_14_5) AppleWebKit/605.1.15 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/12.1.1 Safari/605.1.15"
Let’s pull out the two key pieces of information we care about to evaluate redirects:
- “/google-analytics-viewport-or-browser-size/” – the user requested a page on Elementive’s site with the URL google-analytics-viewport-or-browser-size
- 200 – this is the HTTP response status code. A 200 indicates the page loaded normally.
For more information about the file, check out Wikipedia’s entry about log formats.
Step #3: Finding the Redirects
Now that we know how to open and read our log file, let’s find the redirects. Assuming we have the log file open in Excel, we can filter through the log file entries to find redirects. In this example, I’ll walk through filtering to 301 redirects. However, redirects can return 302, 307, or 308 status codes so you should filter for each status code to ensure you are finding every redirect on your website.
Begin, by setting up filtering in Excel and adding a text filter.
We want to filter for anything returning a 301 status code. There are a lot of numbers in the log file entry. We want to narrow in on the number after the HTTP protocol so that means we want to find the number after the quotes surrounding the protocol. The status code should have a space on both sides of the number.
Next, we want to get the individual URLs. In the cell next to the log entry, put the formula:
This will extract the URL from in between the HTTP protocol statement and the GET command.
Step #4: Count Redirected URLs
Finally, we can now go through that list of URLs and count how often each URL occurs. In Elementive’s case, in the last 24 hours, here were our top redirected URLs. Given this volume of traffic, we would likely want to maintain these redirects. However, any redirects we have established that are not found on our log file or are not found in sufficient quantity on our log file would be ones to consider no longer keeping.
|Access Log Count
A redirected URL may not have traffic now, but it might have traffic in the future. If that potential traffic is particularly valuable, you wouldn’t want to get rid of the redirect and risk losing that traffic.
For example, although the domain for my website is matthewedgar.net, you can also reach my website by going to mattedgar.net. The domain mattedgar.net then redirects to matthewedgar.net. In all the years I’ve had this setup, only a dozen people have used mattedgar.net to access my website, but one of the ones who did is now one of Elementive’s best clients. That means the redirect could lead to highly valuable traffic and it is worth maintaining even though this traffic wouldn’t be reflected in logs or Google Analytics data.
Before you delete a redirect simply because it lacks traffic, stop to consider who might use that redirect in the future. If even one or two people use that redirect in the next five years, could it lead to something valuable? If so, keep the redirect. If there isn’t any potential for the redirect to be used, then remove it.
The second question to consider is if people out on the web still linking to the redirected URL. If people are still linking to the URL, those links still are providing some value—either by sending traffic through that redirected URL to your website or by helping your SEO. As a result, redirects with backlinks should almost always be maintained.
Step #1: Find the Backlinks
To begin, we want to find the backlinks pointing to 301 redirects. There are a variety of tools available to help us do this, including paid tools like SEMRush, Moz, Ahrefs, and Majestic. Google Search Console provides a free way to see backlinks, so I’ll be using that for this example. For the best results, you’d want to aggregate data from multiple tools to make sure you have a complete understanding of backlinks pointing to redirected URLs.
After opening your domain in Google Search Console, click on “Links” in the sidebar. This is located near the bottom of the sidebar navigation. On this page, find the “External link” section and look for the “Top linked pages” box in that section. On this box, click “More”. This will load a detailed list of all the top-linked pages. On this page, click “Export” to download an Excel file or to open this list in Google Sheets.
Step #2: Filter Links to Find 301 Redirects
Once you’ve downloaded the detailed file, you will need to get the status code for all of the URLs. Learn how to get HTTP status codes in bulk. Once you have the status codes, add those to the backlink spreadsheet. From here, you can filter to view only those links returning 301 HTTP response status codes (or 302, 307, or 308).
Step #3: Review, Count, & Verify
Similar to traffic, you’ll then want to count up the number of links each redirected URL has. For those with lots of links, it is also important to explore which websites link to that redirected URL using SEMRush, Moz, Ahrefs, Majestic, or other backlink tools. As you review the specific links referencing that redirected URL, check to see if the source page still contains the redirected URL and if that source page is one you want to link to your website.
For example, in reviewing these backlink tools, I found that this domain links to a redirected URL on Elementive’s website. But, when I go to the source page supposedly containing the link, the source page is no longer working.
As you review the links, update the link tallies to get a complete picture of how many links each redirected URL actually has.
How Much Traffic? How Many Links?
Inevitably, after pulling this data, you are left wondering how much traffic or how many links are enough to warrant keeping the URL. One visit per month on a redirect may not be enough to make keeping the redirect worth it. However, if that one visitor who came in on the redirect converted, then perhaps it is worth it.
The same is true of backlinks. If a redirect only has six linking root domains, that might not be worth keeping if your domain already has millions of other linking root domains. But, if your domain only has 50 linking root domains, those six domains linking to the redirect matter a great deal to your overall link profile.
As well, if one of those six linking root domains is a high authority website, the value of that high authority site’s link is likely greater than many of the other links in the domain’s link profile—that would almost always make the redirect worth keeping.
How Often To Check?
Finally, how often do you need to check redirects and determine if they should be kept? This depends on how active your website is. If you are regularly removing old pages, adding new pages, and changing URLs, then redirects need to be reviewed more often. Highly active websites may need to review redirects monthly or quarterly. Less active websites might be okay reviewing which redirects to keep once or twice a year.
At a minimum, redirects should be reviewed during a redesign or redevelopment project. These types of projects often result in URL changes and those URL changes would necessitate updating redirect rules.
Ultimately, you want to keep redirects for as long as the redirect is useful. “Useful”, in this case, is defined as the redirect delivering traffic (or having the potential to do so) and the redirect having backlinks (or at least having backlinks worth keeping). In some cases, that redirect will be useful for a few days, and in other cases, that redirect will be useful for years.
If you found this interesting, you may also want to check out my other articles about redirects:
Need help? Contact me with any questions about reviewing redirects on your website or other tech SEO questions. Want a more DIY approach? Check out my book, Tech SEO Guide which provides a reference to redirects and other tech SEO subjects.