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Mueller says that, in some cases, it may be possible to forward ranking signals from an old URL to a new URL without a 301 redirect. John Mueller of Google mentioned this during the June 4 Google SEO hangout. During the course of working on the site, the site owner notices that several URLs have been changed without 301 redirects being executed right away.
Specifically, they want to know if there is a time limit for implementing a 301 redirect before the absence of one impacts rankings. In SEO, a redirect from an old URL to an existing one is a best practice when changing a page’s URL to ensure ranking signals carry over. A new URL can help a page maintain its position in the SERPs. As it turns out, site owners aren’t completely out of luck if they don’t set up redirects immediately, since Google is capable of forwarding signals on its own.
301 redirect not required:
A 301 redirect is not required to forward ranking signals from Google to the site owner, Mueller says. However, it depends on the situation. “It’s tricky because there is no specific time for this, especially because there are different variations of this kind of problem situation that you have here. In particular, if the old content still exists, and you’ve created a copy of that on a new URL, then in a case like that we will treat those two URLs as being part of the same cluster. And we’ll try to pick a canonical URL between those two URLs. And we may switch over to your new URL for that. And if that’s the case, then essentially we will forward all of the signals from the old URL to the new URL automatically even without a redirect in place. In that scenario, probably you will not see a big difference if, at some point, later on, you add a redirect. The main difference you would see is that it would be a lot clearer for us that you want the new URLs to be indexed and not the old URLs. So in that setup, probably you wouldn’t see a ranking change but probably you would see that we would switch over to the new URLs a little bit more consistently.”
Google’s URL recognition:
It may be reassuring to hear that if you are in a similar situation with your website, but there are a couple ‘ifs’ as to whether signals will be forwarded. It sounds like these conditions must be met, based on Mueller’s response: If a URL changes, but the content remains the same, then Google can still forward the signals, the signals can be forwarded to Google if it recognizes the new URL as the canonical version. However, if the content of the page changes along with the URL, it seems less likely that Google will be able to forward the signals. It’s also possible that Google will consider the old URL canonical, which would mean that signals wouldn’t get forwarded. Always opt for manual redirects over Google redirects. The fact that Google may be able to forward signals on its own is good to know if they’re not set up right away.