HTTP Status Codes: What They Are and Why You Should Care

By Chris Thoren, Natural Search Supervisor, Content Solutions

I normally wouldn’t talk about something like this, but it’s a topic that’s come up recently in both client websites as well as SEO best practices. This post is not going to get into each specific code because, quite frankly, it’s not worth it. You would be better served Googling the more obscure ones (which Google Suggest even lists some of them when you start typing ‘http status codes’), or just check out the list for yourself or at the w3C site itself. See, problem solved…all you have to do is click, and your answer awaits you. Isn’t technology grand?

Either way, both sites can be fairly technical, and what do you care if your site returns a 404, 500, 4, 8, 15, or in real-life speak would be Page Not Found, Internal Server Error, Locke, Hurley or Sawyer, respectively (OK, I added some Lost lore in there, but it just seemed to flow – does your site lack the best practices to be a ‘candidate’?). But my point is that getting a basic understanding of how the most common status codes work and how it affects your site, or better yet, how it may affect your rankings, then it may implore you to move ahead with some basic tweaks that could save you some headaches in the future. Or the good ole predicament of ‘How long will it take for Google to refresh my listing?’ So let’s get to it, shall we? (Note: This post does not cover the actual process of implementing a redirect. Many technical factors go into it, but feel free to post in the comments if that’s something you want to see.)

200 – Success…Brilliant (British Accent)
Congratulations! Your website is someone, or something, in the engines eyes. This could be argued as the most/least popular status code since nothing really ‘happens’ from the end user’s perspective. He or she types in, or clicks on, said URL and goes about their online business. On the backend, the Search Engines are happy too since they’re not getting any distress signals from the web server. This is the equivalent of a utopian society in the web world.

301, 302 – So What Moves You (or Your Website)?
The 301 and 302 are the most common of the redirection codes out there. Unfortunately, clients and prospective clients, often use the wrong one. Now, to be clear, the 3xx codes also do not necessarily affect the end user experience; these are more used for backend server requests and to assist spiders along to where they ultimately should go. But which one you use DOES matter, in addition to a possible roadblock for rankings. We usually see clients implement a 302 (temporary) redirect instead of a 301 (permanent) redirect. There is a time and a place for the 302 redirect, which comes into place if you’re moving your site temporarily, and may go back to using the original domain. This tells the spiders a few things…a) there’s nothing to see here, little spider, we’re going to be moving back to our original/previous domain shortly; b) since we are going to revert back at some point, do NOT pass along any past history, inbound links, etc. to this other domain. And therein lies the rub. So if you want the engines to give, or pass along, your sites built-up history, authority and all those juicy links, be sure to use a 301 redirect.

The second part of the redirection importance comes into play with making sure your entire site gets redirected, and that old pages that are indexed by said engine are not still live. As an example, this is what we call “when bad things happen to good websites”:


This is definitely not the type of result you want to pull up when you type in a query to Google, especially if it’s some random one done by a CMO/CEO of a company. That’s when we start getting phone calls and emails to “fix the situation.” Long story short: ensure redirects are implemented properly and that all pages are accounted for.

404 – Hello, Is It Me You’re Looking For?
The good ole 404 Page Not Found error page. We all know what this looks like, and it’s usually not a pretty sight, or site, for that matter. This is the code that’s returned after, guess what, a page is not found. Having this unsightly error has a one-way ticket to the users back button, which in most cases, leads them back to the search engine result page (SERP) and your competitors’ sites. Is this the type of behavior you want your users to be, um, behaving? (Reader shakes his/her in the universal ‘no’ motion.) Well, my friend, the solution is (somewhat) easy—create a custom 404 page. This is not a ground-breaking tactic, but one that can keep valuable eyes on your site and create a better user experience/enhance user engagement. As an added bonus, the engines like it because it’s not a dead end for them and they are able to continue through and eat up all your site information/structure.

501/503 – Who Do You Serve?
In the words of the great Bob Dylan, ‘you gotta serve somebody.’ That’s my way of saying that we’ve moved onto server errors. So, as the name indicates, the 5xx error codes have more to do with server errors on the back-end. These can come about from a big spike in traffic, the server goes down, etc. Like the 404 page, you do have the ability to create a custom error page (again, you need to make some modifications, and would be outside the scope of this post). Again, it’s more about user engagement and keeping the person on your site. Or, you can create something warm and fuzzy like the Fail Whale where the user may think something special happened.

Hopefully this serves useful as a guide into the fun and exciting world of HTTP Status Codes. Again, no need to know the entire gambit of status code numbers, but it would behoove your SEO efforts if you had a basic understanding of some of them and how to avoid possible errors that may affect potential traffic.

If you’re wondering, or are able to stomach, what your site’s server header is coming back as, check it out.


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