Case Study: Do 301 Redirects from Aged Domains Really Help SEO?

For years, black-hat SEOs have been using aged domains in order to create PBNs for SEO.  But recently a new phenomenon has emerged: white-hat (or at least gray-hat) SEO experts buying aged domains and using 301 redirects in order to increase their domain authority and thus their Google rankings.

Now, it’s obvious that everyone has an opinion on whether this is a legitimate way of increasing Google rankings.  But what’s not obvious is that everyone seems to have their anecdotal evidence about whether this tactic works.  I personally have used this tactic a few times, and although it seemed to work, I have no hard data on whether it actually did.  So in this article, I will try to create an experiment and get real, hard data to determine if this is actually a way to improve your Google rankings in 2022-2023.

Introduction

What are aged domains and 301 redirects?

Aged domains refer to domains that were previously used someone else.  During that period of use, they have gained some level of authority, and have a backlink profile that helps them look authoritative to Google.

Often these domains simply expire because the person who built the original site either never got it off the ground, or decided to move on to something else.  In fact, in some cases, moderate to large websites with extremely high authority have gone out of business and just let their domains lapse.

Because Google relies heavily on backlinks to determine whether a site should rank for a certain keyword, a person creating a new site on one of these domains has instant credibility, and will (or should) instantly rank well.

How well the new site ranks is directly correlated with the backlink profile of the aged domain,  This means aged domains have become very valuable, with good ones selling for thousands of dollars.

A 301 redirect is essentially a direction sent to the browser saying that a page has moved elsewhere.  301 is the HTTP response code for permanently moved.  You can use this to tell a browser (or a search engine crawler) that your site has moved.

301 redirects are generally handled by the web server or programming language, but it’s pretty easy with most CMS software to do a 301 redirect via a plugin.

How does this strategy work?

The aged domain 301 strategy is intended to help you increase the authority of your money site.

The strategy involves purchasing aged domains with good backlink profiles and setting them up on a server that simply responds with a 301 redirect to your money site.

Essentially, you are setting up a dummy site on the aged domain that tells browsers or Google that the this site has moved to your money site.

The expectation — or at least the hope — is that all of the authority of the aged domain will be added to the existing authority of your money site.  Like this:

How a 301 redirect to an aged domain works. Above the line is before Google has indexed the 301ed domain, and below the line is after Google has indexed the 301ed domain.  Note the backlinks in blue (the blue arrows) are now connected to the money site.

Ideally, once you do the redirect, your money site gets the link power of all of the backlinks pointed to the aged domain.

Is using aged domains and 301 redirects a black-hat technique?

In the past, people using aged domains generally created PBNs (private blog networks) using those domains.  The PBN would inflate the authority of the money site by creating fake sites on each of the aged domains, and then linking to the money site.

This was looked down upon by Google, who released several updates to target PBNs.  Interestingly, however, 301 redirects are not considered black-hat techniques, and they even are (at least to some extent) sanctioned by Google.

There are many cases in which combining sites using a redirect would be appropriate.  For instance, if one company bought another company, the acquirer may redirect the acquiree’s website.  In this case, the pages from the acquiree’s website would be moved to the acquirer’s website.  The result should have the authority of the combination of the websites.

Now, in our case, we aren’t totally using this technique in the way it’s intended to be used.  Using an aged domain that no longer has an indexed site is different from merging two active websites.  Nevertheless, the general technique is not black-hat.

The experiment

In this experiment, I purchase a domain in the travel industry and use a 301 redirect to point that domain to my already existing travel site.  My travel site already ranks for a number of keywords, but I would like to improve its rankings so it can be more profitable.

For reference, here is an Ahrefs overview of the travel website I currently own.

The Ahrefs overview for my money site.

The site that I am using as a money site was originally not a travel site; however, the niche it was originally in stopped being viable, and over a period of 2 years, I slowly re-defined the site.  So although the site has reasonable DR and a large number of keywords, they are not in the travel space.

By redirecting an aged travel domain with a lot of backlinks from articles in the travel space, I am hoping to give my money site a higher level of authority in the travel space.

Purchasing a premium aged domain

I purchased a domain in the travel industry with the intention of 301 redirecting it to my money site.  Here is an Ahrefs overview of the domain I purchased:

An Ahrefs overview report for the aged domain I purchased.

You will notice that the DR of the aged domain is 19 and the DR of my travel site is 51.  If the experiment is successful, I would expect the DR of my travel site to increase by at least a couple of points, to 55+.  I would also expect that Ahrefs rank of my travel site should decress from around 589,000 to the low 500,000s.

Another thing that you will notice looking at my travel site vs the aged domain is that my site has a huge number of backlinks from a relatively small number of domains.  The aged domain has a smaller number of domains and a much smaller number of backlinks.

However, the aged domain’s backlink profile is better in the travel space than my site’s.  Let’s look at some other scores from Moz to see how these sites compare:

Moz scores for my travel site and the aged domain.

You’ll notice from these scores that the aged domain has a much higher percentage of quality backlinks.  The backlinks to the aged domain are from high quality travel sites, as well as travel articles on major sites like the Huffington Post.

While my site has a good number of backlinks, there aren’t too many from travel sites, and there are even fewer that are from major travel sites.

The best way to redirect

Since the aged domain has been dormant for a period of time, and it’s no longer indexed in Google, it’s important to resurrect the domain in a way that doesn’t raise suspicion.

In the past, I have built sites on aged domains with success, only to cause problems later by changing old content or adding the wrong redirects.

For this experiment, I need to determine the best tactic to preserve the domain rating of my money site while adding the authority of the aged domain.  The problem is: the authority of the aged domain is at least partially based on the original content on it.

There are a few options for how I implement the redirect.  The first option is to simply redirect the root of the aged domain to the root of my money website.  However, if I do this, all of the value (and backlinks to) the lost pages on the aged domain is lost.

The second option is to redirect any URLs on the aged domain to the root of my money website.  I have used this tactic in the past to mixed results.  In some cases, it has worked well; however, in other cases there have been problems.

The final option is to get a list of URLs on the aged domain that had backlinks, and recreate those pages on my money site.  I can find the original pages on archive.org, although I can’t simply add the pages as is due to copyright protections.

Instead, I take the top most backlinked URLs from the aged domain and re-create those pages with my own content (which will be based on the original content on the pages).

Pitfalls and penalties

With almost any SEO work, there are risks.  Here, we are risking getting the money site penalized by Google.  Although the chance of a manual action is small, there is a chance that this major change to the money site will negatively affect it.

Since Google is always modifying their search results, it’s very difficult to tell whether my change affected the site negatively, or if the site was affected by changes to Google’s rankings and had nothing to do with the changes I made.

For instance, at one point I built a site on an aged domain in the home improvement niche.  The site immediately ranked, and my new posts instantly ranked on the first page.  However, after a few months of having the site active, I made a change to how the original URLs were handled (before the change they just returned 404 errors, and after the change, they were redirected to the home page).  Soon afterward, the site fell precipitously in the Google rankings.

I still don’t know whether this happened because of the change I made, or it was just a Google algorithm change.  Nevertheless, this story illustrates the dangers of a major SEO change.

For this experiment, I will create new versions of all of the top linked pages.  On Ahrefs, I found that there are 4 pages besides the homepage that are commonly linked.

Using Ahrefs to determine the pages that I need to recreate.

On Archive.org, I found the originals of these pages.  From there, I can rewrite the articles.

The results

At this point, I have created the redirect and have begun watching the rankings.  I will complete this post in a month with the results of the experiment.

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