HTTP is the standard protocol defining how information passes between your visitor’s browser and the server hosting your site and HTTP status codes are your handy way of knowing exactly what is happening within that process.
For web marketers, it’s well worth the effort to get familiar with these status codes. By understanding your site’s backend activity you can recognize errors that demand attention and find opportunities to help improve (or at least not hinder) your SEO efforts.
A quick HTTP status code overview
HTTP status codes are three-digit numbers. The first number indicates which of the five categories each belongs to. The categories refer to either a type of request or type of error, as follows:
1xx status codes: Information request
Status codes beginning with a “1” communicate that a server is processing information, but has not yet completed the request.
2xx status codes: Success
These status codes indicate that a requested information transfer was successfully completed. For marketers seeking to improve SEO, these codes mean that no action is required, everything is working correctly.
3xx status codes: Redirection
These redirect codes communicate that your visitor requested information that was not available at the targeted address.
4xx status codes: Client error
These codes signal that the client (the browser accessing the site) has encountered an error when trying to receive server information.
5xx status codes: Server error
5xx codes point to server-side errors, the client request was issue-free and yet the server could not finish the transfer.
Six HTTP status codes that are arguably most critical to SEO
While there are more than 60 HTTP status codes to be aware of, some are more relevant from an SEO perspective than others.
The following six status codes are especially important to understand and watch out for.
1) 404 – Not found
A 404 page not found error is perhaps the most commonly known HTTP status code and can signal to marketers that a page is failing to deliver content to visitors.
The server cannot return information because the resource or URL doesn’t exist. Landing at a 404 page is detrimental to SEO because unavailable content leads to a bad experience for both your audience and the search engine crawlers that are so critical to your SEO success. To address these errors, ensure that any 404 pages utilize a 301 redirect to reach an available and relevant page.
2) 301 – Moved permanently
You’ll recognize this code as the prescribed solution to the 404 errors just mentioned – a 301 status code means that the requested resource or URL has been permanently redirected somewhere else. This code is a valuable tool for sending visitors to relevant content that is available on the site.
Marketers can and should set up 301 redirects for pages that are no longer available so that their audience lands on useful content instead of error pages. The 301 code gives search engines the message to update their index for the page.
3) 302 – Found
Similar to code 301, code 302 is another type of useful redirect to know. However, this one is temporary rather than permanent. A 302 code directs browsers to a new URL, ensuring that visitors reach relevant content – but stops short of instructing search engines to update the page index.
4) 307 – Temporary redirect
This code offers a more specific redirect method than the 302 code and has the browser perform the redirect instead of the server. This is useful for sites served on HTTPS that are on an HTTP Strict-Transport-Security (HSTS) preload list.
Side note: If you are running an HTTP site, it’s definitely in your best interest to migrate to HTTPS.
Thus, using codes 301, 302, and 307, marketers can optimize SEO by closely controlling search engine crawlers’ understanding of what content exists, and how they ought to crawl and index that content.
5) 503 – Service unavailable
This error indicates that the server cannot process a request due to a temporary technical issue. The 503 code informs search engines that processing was stopped on purpose and tells the search engine not to de-index the page (as it would when seeing other server errors). However, if the 503 error isn’t resolved over a long period of time, search engines can begin to view it as a permanent error that warrants deindexing. Therefore, marketers should address 503 errors as rapidly as possible to avoid deindexing of the unavailable page and the negative impact on SEO that would come hand-in-hand with that scenario.
6) 410 – Gone
This dramatic-sounding code means that a resource or URL is unavailable because it was deleted on purpose and was not redirected. When search engines see a 410, they will remove the page from the index instead of redirecting. Marketers should be sure to properly correct any page issues or implement effective redirects so that visitors arrive at content pertinent to their search needs.
By at least understanding the most relevant HTTP status codes and properly addressing website fixes that can make or break SEO success – marketers can help ensure their sites function smoothly and offer the intended experiences for both search engines and potential customers.
Kim Kosaka is Director of Marketing at Alexa.com.
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