301 redirect URLs reappearing in Google – Phantom menace

Over the last few months, phantom 301 URLs have been showing up in Google search results.

What is a phantom 301 URL?

These are old URLs that have been previously 301d and dropped from the Google index, but which are now showing up again. (Read: 301 redirected showing up again after 1 year)

Example 1:

PropertyFinder was bought by Zoopla and 301 redirected correctly with a link map that matched appropriate pages to each other across domains.

Until recently, the PropertyFinder website would not show up for the search, as the site had been ‘de-indexed’ in Google. However, looking at the screenshot below (Jan 2012), it is clear that PropertyFinder now has a Phantom URL in first place in Google search results:

Phantom 301 URL


Example 2:

Dothomes.co.uk was bought by the DPG Group and redirected to FindaProperty.com

Again, as with PropertyFinder, the DotHomes website would not show up in results until recently. Performing a site: search for this old domain suggests Google has acknowledged the permanent redirect:

Google acknowledges the 301 redirect

However performing a direct search for the old domain (dothomes.co.uk) shows a mixed up result that:

  • displays the old 301d URL (dothomes.co.uk/)
  • uses the old 301d URL as destination for the current FindaProperty.com title
  • the current FindaProperty.com description and sitelinks

DotHomes shows in search results


Phantom 301s have been appearing more frequently recently (since Dec. 2011), and understanding the full implications of this change in Google search results is important if:

1. You have a website founded on a hotchpotch of old websites that have been 301’d

2. You are considering a redirection project, such as conversion to friendly URLs from unfriendly, parameter based URLs


What is the impact of a phantom 301?

Websites that have been bought out, or taken over and had their pages correctly 301 redirected to new sites several years ago are most affected by this change.

The historic 301d URLs from these old sites are re-appearing in search results, taking up positions they used to occupy before the 301 was put in place. The impact is at least threefold:

  • There is a new duplicate content risk for the page redirected to (as the redirection has ‘failed’)
  • The search results show an old entry, with a less optimised call to action (historic titles, URL & snippet)
  • Equity may not be passed to the destination URL (as the redirection has ‘failed’)

Before you say, ‘I know how 301s work, and what you are saying simply isn’t true’, read on!

How 301s used to work in the ideal world

What used to happen, is that Google would crawl the old URL, receive the 301 header response and new location, then pass ‘some’ link equity to the new URL, index it and de-index the old URL over a period of a few days.
The upshot is that your new URL would rank immediately, and the old URL would be gone forever…

What’s changed ? Is this Panda related ?

What has started to happen, is these old URLs have popped back into SERPs.
There have been no technical changes, these old URLs are still 301’d (no changes made for many months / years in some cases), but the they are being presented in SERPs carrying the old site name and titles, showing the old URLs and often having much lower quality CTAs.

So the smoking gun points to Google tweaking the algorithm…

It is as if 301 redirects are no longer guaranteed to remove a URL from the index.

If Google believes the old URL is the best result for the search, then it will show it.

Digression follows:

My personal hunch, is that Panda is strongly related to CTR testing and bounce rates. Sites that have suffered under Panda have tended to have the sort of content you’d ignore (packed with adverts, poor layout and spelling etc), or the URL in the search results that you’d usually skip over, because the last time you clicked that site, it was full of articles based entirely on spun content.

Panda nailed those sites, they were the sites people didn’t like to click on, or stay on.

The phantom 301 URLs could be the latest extension of presenting and testing the URLs that people prefer to click. They are back in the popularity contest, despite the permanent redirect. An old URL may have had the best CTR. The only way to find out, is to re-present the old URL in the search results and see how it fares. If it receives a lot of clicks, then the phantom menace may be there to stay, whether it is 301d or not.
This change may leave Google open to abuse and may change the way we work with old domains

Here are some ideas:

  • Create a lot of duplicate pages with poor titles and CTAs, then 301 them to competitor URLs in the hope that some of the ‘fresh’ pages create phantoms and devalue the competitors original URL.
  • Occupy more search positions by creating multiple URLs within a site (such as changing to friendly URLs), to allow ranking of the old unfriendly URL that has been 301d alongside the new friendly URL. Continue to add new URLs and 301 to old URLs to create a 301 farm. Google may show some of the new URLs alongside their duplicates for CTR testing.
  • Link build to old domains (if they were popular) that currently 301 to your site. These old domains are often recalled strongly and continue to be entered in search results, even when a company’s name has changed. For example, even though Santander bought Abbey, searching for ‘Abbey National’ still has a lot of suggestions, and shows phantom 301 results in the SERPs:
Abbey National Phantom search result

If you have any experience of this phantom 301 phenomenon and how it could be used to advantage, please get in touch.

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