How to deal with planned website inaccessibility

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Tomer Honen and Caspar Szymanski, Search Quality Team, Dublin

We are often asked if site inaccessibility during Googlebot crawl can adversely affect site visibility in Google search results. Sometimes the site is unavailable for technical reasons, for example, when it is closed for maintenance or redesign. Such situations, not indicated properly, can adversely affect the reputation of the site. We cannot guarantee indexing or ranking, but there are methods that can cope with the planned downtime of a website without negatively affecting its visibility in the search results.

For example, when requesting a site page instead of returning an HTTP 404 status code (Not Found) or showing an error on a web page with a 200 status code (OK), it is best to return a status code 503 (Service unavailable) , which tells the search engine that it is simple temporary. Moreover, it allows webmasters to provide visitors and bots with information about when the website will be restored.

If the downtime in seconds or the estimated date and time of the downtime are known, they can be specified in the Retry-After header field used by the Googlebot to determine the appropriate moment to reindex the URL.

Server response status code 503 may be a good solution in other situations. It is good practice to return the status code 503 “Service unavailable” for server errors, site inaccessibility, traffic overruns or stub pages (including “Site closed for reconstruction”). In case of planned server downtime, such as hardware repair, it is worth having a separate server that returns the code 503.

Nevertheless, it is important not to treat the status code 503 as a permanent solution to the problem: continuous delivery of 503 can be considered as a sign that the server became permanently unavailable, as a result of which we can remove the URL from the Google index.

header ('HTTP / 1.1 503 Service Temporarily Unavailable');
header ('Retry-After: Sat, 8 Oct 2011 18:27:00 GMT');

This may look like the information in header-e when using PHP, if you configure the answer 503 (Service unavailable).

Similar to how you can make 404 pages more useful to users , you should also correctly configure messages 503 to explain to users the current situation and provide them with information about when the site will be available again.

For more information on HTTP status codes, see RFC 2616 .

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