How to Get Rid of Multiple Subpages & Not Get Penalized

SMS Text

SEOs come across this problem very often: what is the best way to get rid of lots of website pages without loosing rankings or getting into any sort of penalties? The problem may be associated with:

  • moving the site to a new domain;
  • changing a CMS;
  • optimization process (for the sake of better crawl rate and usability); etc.

WebmasterWorld thread discusses the issue of removing multiple low-quality pages “primarily as a benefit to the users“; and the pros and cons of the following solutions:

  1. Using 301-redirect across the board (for all the removed pages);
  2. Letting the removed pages return 404 header status-code (and probably block them via Robots.txt).

The best way-out is to try something in-between: find most powerful pages and 301-redirect them, and let all the rest go 404. This solution looks better due to the following factors:

  • 301-redirect shouldn’t be overused as in this case it might both look unnatural and cause some penalties. Thus it is advisable to use it wisely: redirect only those pages that really have the power worth the effort.
  • On the other hand, 404 pages look much more natural when handled properly as “every possible combination of characters except for your actual files is a 404” (first and foremost, make sure the non-existent pages return correct header response and are not linked to internally). Notes from the forum discussion:
    • Some webmasters even saw a positive effect from using 404-approach: search engines seemed more interested in the site and crawled it better;
    • Use Robots.txt to block non-existent pages if you don’t want them to be crawled;
    • Optimize your 404 page: once the visitor gets there, he should find the way to go further. This should be “a quality page that gives the visitor some positive choices“;
    • Make sure to update your internal navigation to prevent both people and bots from following outdated links.
Ann Smarty

Ann Smarty

Brand amd Community Manager at Internet Marketing Ninjas
Ann Smarty is the blogger and community manager at Internet Marketing Ninjas. Ann's expertise in blogging and tools serve as a base for her writing,... Read Full Bio
Ann Smarty
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  • Software Testing

    @Ann, adding 301 to all the removed pages to a single page – sounds like spam? your views please!

  • g1smd

    Funnelling redirects from large multiples of pages that no longer serve content, to one, or a small numbers of URLs, is usually not a very good idea.

  • g1smd

    typo: loosing —> losing

  • Loren Baker, Editor

    @Software Testing : Ann does not say here to redirect all pages via 301, but to locate you most powerful pages, only a small percentage of them, and use the 301 redirect option, 404ing the rest.

    “The best way-out is to try something in-between: find most powerful pages and 301-redirect them, and let all the rest go 404. “

  • Jaan Kanellis

    I really dont see any harm in using 301 redirects for 100s or 1000s of pages at all.

    I have done with positive results.

  • Software Testing

    @ Loren, I am not against you and Ann’s statement, my doubt is if we are adding 301 from few powerful pages to a new page, will that be considered as spam, with respect to G? Its like adding few high pr links to a new page!

  • Ann Smarty

    @Jaan, no harm doesn’t mean it should be done. If we talk about low-quality (extra) pages (otherwise, why would we want to get rid of them?), what’s the point in redirecting them? Wouldn’t it be more natural to just delete them and clean up the site and that’s it? I insist that every method should be based on common sense: if we have the reason to redirect (links, traffic, etc), then do it, if not, then why would you do that?

  • sam lee

    great tips thanks

  • Jim Gianoglio

    I was under the impression that having a lot of pages that return a 404 can negatively impact your rankings. If I were Google, and I was trying to crawl a site that kept returning “Page Not Found” it wouldn’t make me want to rank it higher – even for pages that do have content.
    Can you clarify this Ann?

  • Jaan Kanellis

    Ann if the post is just about deleting pages off your website then say so, but the fact is if you had a 1000 pages on your website and they were getting some clicks/traffic/or had some juice you should be redirecting them. The number of redirects shouldnt even be an issue here.

  • Derek Edmond

    I’ve 301 redirected at least 100 (never 1,000’s) pages of a website to a sitemap page and.or relevant landing pages and not seen an issue with organic search engine traffic in at least 2 recent instances.

    That was for a static website but I have seen redirected blog posts impact organic search engine traffic (pruning out old or outdated blog posts). I’ve never been too interested in the search traffic of the specific blogs impacted to really delve into this deeper though.

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  • Ann Smarty

    Commenting at Sphinn discussion and also adding these points here:
    (btw, you should visit brilliant Sphinn discussion concerning this post):

    “I never saw any penalties either from using 404 or 301 – tried both in various cases. I’ve had cases when plenty of 404 popped up in a day and no ranking (or other) change followed. So, no, I don’t believe that 404 can be harmful or that it is not user or bot friendly (I mean proper 404).

    So yes, I was citing other people’s experience (just because I agree that they might have seen something I failed to see) – and I gave the link to the related discussion and emphasized that 301-penalties are just rumors (“might cause penalties”).

    The solution I offered for the discussed case still seems most reasonable as there should be a good reason behind using 301 (related pages, pages created as substitute, etc).”

    And here is the link to the recent GoogleWebmasterCentral post concerning 404.

  • SEO Canada

    Great post. I personally go for a mixture of 301s and 404s like you suggested. At SMX someone said just to 301 every single 404 directly to the homepage, and I thought this was a terrible tactic (Which Matt Cutts fully agreed with me via email on), I’m so waiting for where Matt would like to take the webmaster tools (not to drop any hints, but some of it directly could relate to this very topic). Cheers.