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Updated October 22, 2001

Promotion Tip:
META Refresh And Search Engines

by Larisa Thomason,
Senior Web Analyst,
NetMechanic, Inc.

  
August 2001
Vol. 4, No. 15
 • Promotion Tip
 • CSS Tip
 • Beginner Tip
  

When you change your web site address or a file name on your site, you have to spread the word to visitors, other sites that link to yours, and search engines. Many webmasters use the META refresh tag to send visitors to the correct address until everyone's links are updated. But most don't know that innocent use of that tag may significantly lower your page rank or even get you banned in some search engines.

How It Works

The META refresh tag tells the browser to automatically request another page from the server after a certain number of seconds. This is also called "redirecting" because you're sending the visitor to a page other than they one they requested.

Redirecting works like this: when visitors click on a Web page that contains a META refresh tag inside the HEAD section, they're sent to a different page without actually clicking on a link. This is called page side redirection.

Here's the syntax:

<META http-equiv="refresh" content="2; 
             URL=http://www.ASpamSite.com/">

This META tag will send a visitor to the new URL after 2 seconds. You can set the timing to 0 seconds and have it jump immediately or set it for 30 seconds or longer.

Uses And Abuses

The META refresh is an easy way to make sure that visitors see the correct page. There are legitimate reasons for using the tag, but search engine spiders usually don't spend a lot of time evaluating them. Often, they'll leave as soon as they encounter a refresh attribute because it's a spammer favorite.

Here are the most common uses for the META refresh:

  • Domain Forwarding: Sites that use free hosting services usually have a domain name like www.members.aol.com/lumpkinclothingco/. That address doesn't inspire confidence in most visitors, so many sites purchase a real domain name and use a domain forwarding service. The service immediately redirects visitors who type in www.LumpkinClothingCo.com to the real AOL site. This service usually costs a lot less than using a paid Web host.

    It's fine to give visitors your alternate domain name, but always submit the main site to search engine spiders so they don't encounter the redirect.


  • Slideshow Effect: Sites use the META refresh to create a slideshow effect that ushers visitors through the site one page at a time. Avoid this technique on pages you plan to submit to search engines, but it's fine for other pages in your site.


  • Splash Pages: Some sites with splash pages require visitors to "click to enter." Others display the page for a certain period of time, and then use a META refresh to move visitors into the site.

    Since many splash pages are heavy on graphics and light on content, you don't want to submit them to search engines anyway. That is doubly true when you use a META refresh. Submit the page you're redirecting visitors to instead.

  • Doorway Pages: Both legitimate and spam sites use doorway pages to get to the top of the ranking. A doorway page targets certain search terms and optimizes that page specifically for those terms. The problem occurs when the site targets terms that are completely inappropriate to the site's topic. Visitors who search on those terms may click on the doorway page, but then are quickly redirected to the spam site.

This type of abuse led some search engines to ban sites that use redirects. AltaVista is the most strict: sites with the refresh attribute set to less than 30 seconds have been banned as spam. The policy of other search engines varies. In the past, Google hasn't been too worried about spam since it relies mainly on link popularity to rank sites - but it does plan to institute stricter policies later this year.

Alternatives To META Refresh

Since search engines constantly change their algorithms and spam policies, a tag that may be fine one week could drop you to the bottom of the rankings the next. It's best to not use the META refresh attribute on pages you want indexed, but if you do, set it to at least 10 seconds.

Server side redirection is a better way to ensure that visitors can still find your Web pages after you make changes because there are no spamming penalties associated with it. The most common use of server site redirects is to send visitors to a custom error document when they enter an invalid URL.

Although it's a safer, more elegant solution, server side redirection is more technically demanding than using META tag or JavaScript redirects. But it won't get you banned either! You'll need to edit your .htaccess file on your server. This ClickZ article, "The Fine Art of Redirection," tells you how.

If you're using a Web host instead of running your own server, then the server administrator will probably have to make the change for you. Contact your Web host to see if they offer that service.

The META refresh attribute is just one way you can get in trouble with search engines. Make your site more search engine friendly with NetMechanic's Search Engine Power Pack. It's a full suite of search engine tools that can alert you to techniques that can get you banned and give you design tips that will help boost your site to the top of the ranking.



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