There will always be times when webmasters need to change a website’s urls, temporarily point one page to another or take down a page (permanently or for routine maintenance). When encountered with these types of situations, many webmasters are unsure of how to handle the task at hand. As these issues are fairly common, we have compiled a bit of information about common HTTP status codes and their uses for you to refer to as needed.
We’ll start with the basics. This HTTP status code indicates that the request was successful. You want this for all of your site’s pages (the ones that you want indexed).
301 Moved Permanently
If at any time a URL of a page changes (maybe from a site redesign or a new page has been created to replace an old one), it is recommended to use a 301 Moved Permanently redirect. This code tells search engines that the page should be permanently redirected to the new page. This also helps to make sure users are sent to the correct page.
This code should only be used for temporary redirects. The word ‘temporary’ is key. There are very few instances where this type of redirect should be used, but unfortunately it is the easiest to implement, so when trying to implement permanent redirects, we often see that a 302 Found was implemented instead. With this HTTP status code, Google will continue to crawl and index the original URL.
404 Not Found
A 404 Not Found status code means that the page does not exist. It could have existed in the past, but does not presently. In most instances, websites will issue the generic 404 page when the requested page cannot be found. However, these pages do not have your site’s navigation and can’t help the user find the information they were originally looking for; this why it is always recommended to create a custom 404 page.
503 Service Unavailable
Many of you have tired to go to a website and it is down; perhaps due to maintenance tasks taking place. The best thing to do in this situation is to return a 503 HTTP status code. This tells search engines that the site is only down temporarily. Similar to 404 pages, you should also create a custom message explaining when the site might be available again.
It has been the case for many years that the most optimal way to handle defunct pages on your website was to have the server return a 404 (Not found) HTTP status code. Google has just recently confirmed, however, that they now consider the 410 (Gone) response code to be a stronger signal that the page has gone away for good.
HTTP response codes are designed for both users and search engine spiders to give them information about what has happened to a site’s page. When a user stumbles upon a page that is issuing a 404 or 410 response code, they will sometimes see the message “Page Not Found”. So, if both of these response codes yield the same response for the user, what is the benefit of using one over the other?
According to Google, when a page issues a 404 header response, it may sometimes still revisit the page to ensure that it is truly defunct. What this means in terms of indexing is anyone’s guess, but using the 410 response code will at least ensure that Google will never go back to that page again and get to the more important pages on the website, thus facilitating crawlability.
The 410 response code should be used when there is no other option, meaning that this page cannot be redirected to a similar or corresponding page. So if you’re absolutely sure that a page no longer exists and will never exist again, using a 410 would likely be a good thing. It’s probably not worth the time or effort rewriting a server by changing the 404 to a 410, but using the 410 in the future will at least give Google the stronger message that they are looking for.