Myth-Busting: Redirects Cause PageRank Decay

on under Myth-Busting, SEO Auditing.

One of my earliest SEO wins involves a tale of two sites.

Site #1 dominated the rankings; ranking #1 for "linux hosting" for years. Hundreds of other high-value, internationally competitive, expensive-as-hell-in-AdWords phrases too. Just killed it, reaching Alexa <40k from 80%+ organic search.

Site #2, though. That was a mystery. About as old. Also commerical. More authority from inbound links than the other. No spammy practices. I was running both from the start and ran both the same way. Yet the second site just wouldn't rank for a damn thing.

So I struggled. I posted on the Search Engine Watch forums. Back in 2005, Danny Sullivan was in charge, and that was basically the only place you could find those mythical SEO gurus and mavens.

Gathered lots of terrible-to-passable advice there, but for the most part, it stumped everybody.

Then I did a crawl, and realized that all my links were actually redirects. Every single one. It was nearly invisible to the naked eye, because it involved using trailing slash on the end of every web address. Even on the site's menus.

Thus revealing one of my most reliable SEO magic tricks ever.

So I fixed it. And after 2+ years of struggle, I watched site #2 blow site #1 out of the water, ranking on every expensive telecom/managed services query from "dedicated servers" to "[CITYNAME] colocation" and beyond.

Why Did That Work?

Almost nothing in SEO happens in a vacuum, so we're never certain. My early, uneducated guess was just that I was signaling that I was a more attentive website-keeper than others.

As I've leveled up my SEO skills, I learned that Google had told all of us, as direct as can be, that PageRank decays.

In 2005, people were popping up "link wheels" all over. Linking a "circles" of different sites, attempting to throw Googlebot into an infinite loop for infinite link value.

you-cant-do-that

When you think about it like that, decaying PageRank just makes sense. Even before considering that Google's going out of their way to shut down those shenanigans directly.

Might Google "decay" redirects, so that redirected menu links leak away all your site's PageRank? That's been directly suggested by Matt Cutts more than once, and even in Larry Page's original PageRank patents. The simple message we were given? Redirects decay PageRank just like links.

Then, something changed.

What Changed?

Last week, Google's Gary Illyes tweeted:

Well strap a pig to the mud and feed it a biscuit Google, what are we supposed to think now?

My take: I have no reason to doubt Gary, even though Google staff have said plenty of things in the past that don't pan out in testing. Is it because their agenda is to get everybody acting a certain way? Do ends justify means?

Maybe. But probably not.

Just like a lot of other contentious SEO topics, Google and actual testing can disagree and both be right.

Why?

Ranking factors are independent functions and Gary is only talking about one of them. Here's an example.

Redirects, especially chains of them, slow everything down. And we know this:


And I'm sure some of you can find plenty more conflicting scenarios if you thumb through the ranking factors.

Conclusion

I'm mostly taking Gary at his word until I see conflicting evidence, but for now, we're downgrading Redirected Internal Links from Probable to Iffy on the list of direct, negative factors.


Still, if you want competitive SEO, take nothing for granted. The best practice is still to avoid unnecessary redirects. All that's up for debate is how much impact this has on your rankings.

And you can settle that for yourself by just doing things right in the first place and paying attention to what happens next.

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  • Sometimes it feels like SEO mythbusting must be a full-time job, so I'm glad you're doing it. I can just share your posts and go on my merry way.

    • Thanks Michael! Glad to help how I can.

      So much misinformation out there, much of it intentional as click-bait, but most SEO bloggers hear something like the Gary Illyes tweet and it's just forever law for them, without looking at the bigger picture.

      Those situations are my favorite to write about.