If you have experience with SEO, you’ve probably realized that there are too many Google ranking factors to count, let alone have absolute control over. However, it’s crucial to understand HTTP status codes, such as 404, 301 and 500 if you want to effectively rank your website in the search engines. Today, we’ll understand what HTTP status codes are, how they can negatively affect your website’s SEO and the best ways to address them.
HTTP, also known as HyperText Transfer Protocol, is how web browsers, such as Chrome and Firefox, communicate with web servers. When someone clicks a link on your website, types in a URL or submits a form their web browser sends an HTTP request to the server. Once the server receives your request, it sends back a response with the information you requested and an HTTP status code.
The HTTP status codes themselves are simply three digit codes that help us, and our browsers, understand what’s happening between the browser and the server. They can indicate a variety of states, both good and bad, which a specific page or website is experiencing. For example, a 404 status code indicates that the requested content can’t be found while a 200 status code is a success message.
According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), who provides the official specifications for the HTTP protocol, there are dozens of status codes. The codes can be divided into five different ranges, each defining a different aspect of the communication process between the client (your web browser) and the web server. These ranges include:
This range consists of three status codes, 100, 101 and 102, which are considered information status codes. They indicate that a request has been received and understood.
The 2xx range of HTTP status codes indicates that the request was received, understood accepted and processed successfully.
This range of status codes indicates that the client needs to take an additional action to complete the request. Most commonly, these status codes are used to indicate URL redirection.
4xx status codes indicate an error. In most cases, the error indicates that whatever the client was attempting to access has bad syntax or can’t be accessed for some reason due to a fault of the client sending the request.
The 5xx range of status codes indicates that server is experiencing an error or that it is incapable of performing the request.
HTTP status codes are an important tool to evaluate the health of your website and its server. And although there are dozens of status codes, it’s really not necessary to concern yourself with all of them.
There are, however, a select few that are especially important to understand, and often fix, if they are found on your website. These status codes are important to understand because search engine spiders, such as Googlebot, treat each differently in terms of how they crawl and index your page:
A redirect is a way to send both visitors to your site and search engine bots to a different URL from the one they originally requested. Redirects come in two flavors, temporary (302) and permanent (301). One of the most common URL redirect mistakes is using a temporary 302 redirect when pages are being permanently changed. Although this seems like an innocent enough mistake, it can cause real damage to your website’s SEO.
Consider this: When the Googlebot sees this change as only temporary, it won’t invest much stock into its ranking factors because it believes the old page could be back at any moment. The search engine will maintain the value of the old page, but when it doesn’t come back all of that “SEO juice” remains trapped on the old page.
Instead, it’s best practice to use a 301 redirect. When Google or another search engine crawls a page with a 301 HTTP status code, all of the SEO value of the old page is transferred to the new one. 302 redirects do have their place, however.
If, for example, you needed to temporarily redirect an eCommerce product to another while it was out of stock, a 302 would be preferred. Once the product is back in stock, you can remove the redirect, and the search engines will pick up where they left off.
If you’ve spent any amount of time online, you’ve no doubt encountered a 404 error page. This error indicates that whatever page or resource you were trying to access on a website couldn’t be found on the server. Contrary to popular belief, 404 errors themselves don’t have any effect on your SEO. In fact, search engine bots treat them like basically nothing. What will hurt your SEO, however, are the side effects caused by 404 errors.
First off, if a visitor to your site reaches a 404, it typically leads to a bounce (when a person leaves your website from the landing page without browsing any further). Bounces lead to increased bounce rate, which in turn affects your websites rankings. However, you can combat your users urge to leave by using a custom 404 error page, which will stop your users from seeing this not-so-informative page:
Additionally, it’s best practice to permanently 301 redirect pages with 404 errors to their new versions or another relevant page. This will ensure that any SEO value that page had is carried over to another page and not wasted. Google also provides their own recommendations for 404 errors, which I recommend taking a look at.
500 and 503 status codes indicate that there is a problem with a website’s server hardware, software, or code. Of all types of HTTP status codes, these errors are the ones you’ll most want to avoid and have the biggest impact on SEO.
They are by far the most difficult to fix, and there isn’t always a clear and easy solution to the problem they’re indicative of. Furthermore, these errors typically require the attention of a developer or server administrator as most aren’t technically savvy enough to solve issues at the code and hardware level themselves.
It’s imperative they are fixed, however, because search engines really don’t like them. 500 and 503 errors make the search engine unable to crawl your site or analyze anything about it. The search engines also realize that 500 error codes lead to poor user experience, so it can have a negative impact on your rankings and the indexing of your site.
If you’re curious to see what types of HTTP status codes your website generates, you should login (or sign up and add your website) to Google Search Console and visit the Crawl Errors page. Here you’ll find all of the crawl errors Googlebot has found on your site and should be fixed before your website can be properly indexed.
Interested in learning more about HTTP status codes? Great!
And, finally, if you’d like to see man’s best friend acting out the various HTTP status codes, check out HTTP Status Dogs.
That’s it! You should now have a good understanding of how different HTTP status codes affect your SEO, what causes them and, most importantly, how you can fix them. If you still need help, you can always reach out to a technical SEO specialist like Post Launch to assist in getting it sorted out.