In my circle I see a lot of advice regarding Google SEO. Now, I am no expert and have a lot of learning to do myself, but one thing I do know is redirects and what not to do. Google Bots have been crawling sites for years and I have been studying this for quite some time, yet I still see this advice given almost daily.
Do not – I repeat do not – redirect your 404 to the homepage. Do not redirect dead links to the home page. Please. Don’t do it.
Think of the Google crawl as a mouse and your site a maze (sorry to all of the animal lovers, but this is a metaphorical mouse so chill). When that mouse is going through a maze it’s looking for cheese. When it goes to a dead end it will turn around and find a new route. Sometimes it will go to that dead end a couple of times, but after that it will drop that turn from it’s memory and continue on its path until it finds the prize.
Your deleted post is the dead end. The wall that mouse hits is the 404 page.
Now imagine that wall has a door. The mouse gets excited and thinks it’s getting closer to the prize, but every time that mouse goes through the door it’s back at the start. That mouse will get frustrated and give up, right?
Now imagine that mouse is your reader.
Google expects posts of change and be 404’d. It’s the nature of a site. Consider that many MANY top sites purge old posts. Google does not penalize sites for purging irrelevant posts.
Google WILL penalize sites that redirect to irrelevant pages, such as the front page. Don’t do it. It’s about user experience. It will also cause Google bots to not drop those deleted posts from their index and it’s basically a big mess. Think about this – when Google crawls a sitemap and crawls an URL that the user has redirected to the front page it creates a loop in the crawl. Essentially it will hinder crawls and indexes, which will hurt your search results because posts aren’t getting crawled as often as they should.
Google’s main goal boils down to user experience. They want readers to stay on your site for as long as possible. The longer readers stay, the better it is in search results because Google sees them as relevant and popular, so it will show them to searchers more. Google will crawl a dead URL around 3 times before it drops that URL from its index. So a 404 is recommended because it will tell Google that page is no longer relevant.
Google recommends an informative and engaging 404 page – at the very least a search option. You can also put top posts, recent posts, whatever as long as it keeps the user on your site. Your theme will probably have this already and you can easily check it out by going to yoursite/404.
Basically Google wants clean and tidy. The spiders don’t like to get confused 😉 so if you have to redirect (which if you are rebranding you do need to) make sure it’s done correctly – hardcoded through your host htaccess and avoid plugins if possible.
My research includes conversations with top google analysts and reading up on reputable SEO experts such as John Mueller and Gary Illyes.