Although the meta refresh often gets abused to trick visitors into popup hells by sneaky pages on low-life free hosts (poor man’s cloaking), search engines don’t treat every instance of the meta refresh as Webspam. Folks moving their free hosted stuff to their own domains rely on it to redirect to the new location:
<meta http-equiv=refresh content="0; url=http://example.com/newurl" />
Yahoo clearly states how they treat a zero meta refresh, that is a redirect with a delay of zero seconds:
META Refresh: <meta http-equiv=”refresh” content=…> is recognized as a 301 if it specifies little or no delay or as a 302 if it specifies noticeable delay.
Google is in the process of rewriting their documentation, in the current version of their help documents the meta refresh is not (yet!) mentioned. The Google Mini treats all meta refreshs as 302:
A META tag that specifies http-equiv=”refresh” is handled as a 302 redirect.
but that’s handled differently on the Web. I’ve asked Google’s search evangelist Adam Lasnik and he said:
[The] best idea is to use 301/302s directly whenever possible; otherwise, next best is to do a metarefresh with 0 for a 301. I don’t believe we recommend or support any 302-alternative.
Thanks Adam! I’ll update the last meta refresh thread.
If you have the chance to do 301 redirects don’t mess with the meta refresh. Utilize this method only when there’s absolutely no other chance.
Full stop for search geeks. What follows is an explanation for not that experienced Webmasters in need to move their stuff away from greedy Web content funeral services, aka free hosts of any sort.
Ok, now that we know the major search engines accept an undelayed meta refresh as poor man’s 301 redirect, how should a page having this tag look like in order to act as a provisional permanent redirect? As plain and functional as possible:
<title>Moved to new URL: http://example.com/newurl</title>
<meta http-equiv=refresh content="0; url=http://example.com/newurl" />
<meta name="robots" content="noindex,follow" />
<h1>This page has been moved to http://example.com/newurl</h1>
<p>If your browser doesn't redirect you to the new location please <a href="http://example.com/newurl"><b>click here</b></a>, sorry for the hassles!</p>
As long as the server delivers the content above under the old URL sending a 200-OK, Google’s crawl stats should not list the URL under 404 errors. If it does appear under “Not found”, something went awfully bad, probably on the free host’s side. As long as you’ve control over the account, you must not delete the page because the search engines revisit it from time to time checking whether you still redirect with that URL or not.
[Excursus: When a search engine crawler fetches this page, the server returns a 200-OK because, well, it’s there. Acting as a 301/302 does not make it a standard redirect. That sounds confusing to some people, so here is the technical explanation. Server sided response codes like 200, 302, 301, 404 or 410 are sent by the Web server to the user agent in the HTTP header before the server delivers any page content to the user agent (Web browser, search engine crawler, …). The meta refresh OTOH is a client sided directive telling the user agent to disregard the page’s content and to fetch the given (new) URL to render it instead of the initially requested URL. The browser parses the redirect directive out of the file which was received with a HTTP response code 200 (OK). That’s why you don’t get a 302 or 301 when you use a server header checker.]
When a search engine crawler fetches the page above, that’s just the beginning of a pretty complex process. Search engines are large scaled systems which make use of asynchronous communication between tons of highly specialized programs. The crawler itself has nothing to do with indexing. Maybe it follows server sided redirects instantly, but that’s unlikely with meta refreshs because crawlers just fetch Web contents for unprocessed delivery to a data pool from where all sorts of processes like (vertical) indexers pull their fodder. Deleting a redirecting page in the search index might be done by process A running hourly, whilst process B instructing the crawler to fetch the redirect’s destination runs once a day, then the crawler may be swamped so that it delivers the new content a month later to process C which ran just five minutes before the content delivery and starts again not before next Monday if that’s not a bank holiday…
That means the old page may gets deindexed way before the new URL makes it in the search index. If you change anything during this period, you just confuse the pretty complex chain of processes what means that perhaps the search engine starts over by rolling back all transactions and refetching the redirecting page. Not good. Keep all kind of permanent redirects forever.
Actually, a zero meta refresh works like a 301 redirect because the engines (shall) treat is as a permanent redirect, but it’s not a native 301. In fact, due to so much abuse by spammers it might be considered less reliable than a server sided 301 sent in the HTTP header. Hence you want to express your intention clearly to the engines. You do that with several elements of the meta refresh’ing page:
- The page title says that the resource was moved and tells the new location. Words like “moved” and “new URL” without surrounding gimmicks clear the message.
- The zero (second) delay parameter shows that you don’t deliver visible content to (most) human visitors but switch their user agent right to the new URL.
- The “noindex” robots meta tag telling the engines not to index the actual page’s contents is a signal that you don’t cheat. The “follow” value (referring to links in BODY) is just a fallback mechanismn to ensure that engines having troubles to understand the redirect at least follow and index the “click here” link.
- The lack of indexable content and keywords makes clear that you don’t try to achieve SE rankings for anything except the new URL.
- The H1 heading repeating the title tag’s content on the page, visible for users surfing with meta refresh = off, accelerates the message and helps the engines to figure out the seriousness of your intent.
- The same goes for the text message with a clear call for action underlined with the URL introduced by other elements.
Meta refreshs like other client sided redirects (e.g.
Another interesting question is whether removing the content from the outdated page makes a difference or not. Doing a mass search+replace to insert the meta tags (refresh and robots) with no further changes to the HTML source might seem attractive from a Webmaster’s perspective. It’s fault-prone however. Creating a list mapping outdated pages to their new locations to feed a quick+dirty desktop program generating the simple HTML code above is actually easier and eliminates a couple points of failure.
Finally: Make use of meta refreshs on free hosts only. Professional hosting firms let you do server sided redirects!
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