Google Warns Against “Sneaky Redirects” When Updating Content

When dealing with outdated website content, Google has warned against using certain redirects that could be perceived as misleading to users.

The advice came up during a recent episode of Google’s Search Off The Record podcast.

In the episode, Search Relations team members John Mueller and Lizzi Sassman discussed strategies for managing “content decay” – the gradual process of website content becoming obsolete over time.

During the conversation, the two Googlers addressed the practice of using redirects when older content is replaced or updated.

However, they cautioned against specific redirect methods that could be seen as “sneaky.”

When Rel=canonical Becomes “Sneaky”

The redirect method that raised red flags is the incorrect use of rel=canonical tags.

This was brought up during a discussion about linking similar, but not equivalent, content.

Sassman stated:

“… for that case, I wish that there was something where I could tie those things together, because it almost feels like that would be better to just redirect it.

For example, Daniel Weisberg on our team blogged about debugging traffic drops with Search Console in a blog post. And then we worked on that to turn that into documentation and we added content to it. We want people to go look at the new thing, and I would want people to find that new thing in search results as well.

So, to me, like that one, I don’t know why people would need to find the older version forthat, because it’s not like an announcement. It was best practice kind of information.

So, for that, would it be better to do like a rel=canonical situation?”

Mueller immediately raised concerns with Sassman’s proposed use of the rel=canonical tag.

Mueller replied:

“The rel=canonical would be kind of sneaky there because it’s not really the same thing… it’s not equivalent.

I always see rel=canonical as something where you tell search engines ‘these are actually equivalent, and you can pick whichever one you want.

We’re kind of seeing it as like, ‘Well, these are equivalent, but treat this as a redirect,’ which is tricky because they’re like, ‘Ah, they say rel=canonical, but they actually mean something different.’”

What To Do Instead

If you find yourself having to make a similar decision as Sassman, Mueller says this is the correct approach:

“I think either redirecting or not redirecting. It’s like really saying that it’s replaced or keeping both.”

The best way to link a page to a newer, more comprehensive page is with a redirect, not a rel=canonical.

Or you can keep them both up if you feel there’s still value in the older page.

Why SEJ Cares

Using redirects or canonical tags incorrectly can be seen as an attempt to manipulate search rankings, which violates Google’s guidelines and can result in penalties or a decrease in visibility.

Following Google’s recommendations can ensure your site remains in good standing and visitors access the most relevant content.

Listen to the full podcast episode below:


FAQ

What are the issues with using rel=canonical tags for updated content?

Using rel=canonical tags can be misleading if the old and new pages aren’t equivalent.

Google’s John Mueller suggests that rel=canonical implies the pages are identical and a search engine can choose either.  Using it to signal a redirect when the content isn’t equivalent is seen as “sneaky” and potentially manipulative.

Rel=canonical should only be used when content is truly equivalent; otherwise, a 301 redirect or maintaining both pages is recommended.

Is it acceptable to keep outdated content accessible to users?

Yes, it’s acceptable to keep outdated content accessible if it still holds value. Google’s John Mueller suggests that you can either redirect outdated content to the updated page or keep both versions of the content live.

If the older content offers valuable information or historical context, it’s worthwhile to keep it accessible along with the updated version.

How should redirects be handled when updating website content?

The correct approach to handling redirects is to use a 301 redirect if the old content has been replaced or is considered obsolete.

A 301 redirect tells search engines—and visitors—that the old page has moved permanently to a new location. Additionally, it allows the transfer of link equity and minimizes negative impact on search rankings.


Featured Image: Khosro/Shutterstock

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