301s, 404s, and 500s, Oh My: Your Guide to Common HTTP Status Codes (And What They Mean For Your Website & SEO)

301s, 404s, and 500s, Oh My: Your Guide to Common HTTP Status Codes (And What They Mean For Your Website & SEO)

Building a well-organized website is crucial to delivering a satisfying online experience for your customers, which in itself is crucial to ensuring they actually want to, you know, do business with you. Good design, easy navigation, fast load times, clear, concise calls to action – all of these are factors that work together to create a web property that says, "Hey, you've come to the right place."

But "well-organized" means more than a sexy design, speedy browsing and shopping simplicity. That's just the surface of it: there are a whole whack of technical issues that go into the construction of a website, working quietly on the back-end of things to help ensure users end up where they should.

That's where those numbers in the headline of this article come in. HTTP status codes are a key aspect of any website, but for business owners, they can be a bit of a headache, especially if you're regularly reviewing analytics and traffic reports and continuously see numbers like "301", "302", "404", "500", and don't know what they mean, or if they're good or bad for your website and search efforts.

So grab a coffee, get comfy and keep reading – our guide to common HTTP status codes should help clear up some confusion and make it a little easier to understand what some of those numbers are actually telling you, what they mean for search engine optimization and what your web team should do if you're seeing too many of them.

The 300s: Redirects

The 300 series of status codes refers to redirects. They're basically a way of saying, "We've moved" – for whatever reason, the page that a user is trying to get to has a new address. Two of the more common 300-series status codes are 301s and 302s.

301: Permanent Redirects

301s work as a purposeful way of permanently re-routing a user from Page A (old page) to Page B (new page). They're usually necessary when a product or service has a new URL, so that when users who aren't aware of the update try to visit the original page, they'll automatically end up on the new one. They can also be used for common typos.

Are 301s Good or Bad for my SEO?

Generally, they're good: Google likes to see that you're doing as much as you can to deliver a positive user experience, and so long as the URL to which you're redirecting is relevant to the original one, automatically sending someone to a new page is seen as a helpful action. You shouldn't have any 301s in place if the new URL has little or nothing to do with the old one, however - for example, if you're a clothing company, it's probably not very useful to redirect a page about shoes to a page about hats.

As far as any SEO value that the old page has built up goes, it usually passes 90 – 99% of ranking power to the new page.

302: Temporary Redirects

302s are essentially the same as 301s, except they're meant to be temporary. Think of it this way: a 301 is like telling customers your store has a new address, while a 302 is like saying you're closed for renovations but are set up in a different location across town until they're finished.

Are 302s Good or Bad for my SEO?

For the most part, 302s are bad for SEO: they don't pass any ranking power on to the new page, as they're meant to be temporary, and really shouldn't be used if you can help it. Stick to 301s for redirects, especially if they're meant to last. If you notice a lot of 302s in your website reports, talk to your web team about changing them as necessary.

The 400s: Not Found

The 400 series of status codes is probably the most well-known, and something you've encountered yourself when you're browsing the web. They mean that the page you're looking for can't be found – it's gone, for whatever reason, and all that's left is a half-technical explanation that says, "Sorry, we don't know what you thought you'd find here, but it's gone."

404: Not Found

404s are simple: all they mean is that the URL that's been entered doesn't exist. It could be from a typo, it could be from a page that's been broken – whatever the reason, there's no content to return from the requested address.

Usually, webmasters will create a custom 404 page like this, something that makes it clear that content the user is looking for isn't there while also giving them an option to go back to the home page or another page that might be useful to them.

Are 404s Good or Bad for my SEO?

That depends, because there are actually two types of 404s: soft 404s and hard 404s.

Soft 404s

A soft 404 sends users to a page that doesn't offer any real useful options for where to go next, other than back. They're generally bad for SEO, especially if your website is returning too many of them, mostly due to the negative experience they offer users. If you see a lot of soft 404s in your web reports, talk to your web team about cleaning them up.

Hard 404s

A hard 404 is usually good for SEO. Google even says they don't impact your site's ranking, and while they do encourage you to clean them up where you can (for example, some 404s could be 301 redirected to another relevant and useful page), they're OK to have on your site, as they're a good way of telling users the content they're looking for can't be found while offering them other options for where to go.

410: Gone

A 410 means that the page a user is looking for is completely, 100% up and gone and not coming back. It's different from a 404 because a 404 is saying that the content can't be found and could result from a typo or older URL that's no longer valid and hasn't been redirected, while a 410 is saying that the page itself is no longer there and won't ever be again. The key difference is that search engines may continue to crawl pages that return a 404, while eventually they'll give up on a page that returns a 410, removing it from their index.

Are 410s Good or Bad for my SEO?

They're usually good, but only if the page on which the 410 has been implemented is gone forever and won't be coming back. If you're no longer offering a certain product or service, don't plan on doing so again and have no relevant pages to which you can redirect, a 410 would be appropriate.

As with 404s, you can create a custom 410 page to tell users and customers that what they're looking for is permanently unavailable (for example, "Sorry, but we no longer sell this item!")

The 500s: Server Errors

500 errors refer to problems on the server side of things. The request from the user was valid, but for whatever reason the server can't fulfill it. The main difference between 500s and 400s is that 400s mean the page itself can't be found, while 500s mean there's a problem connecting to the server as a whole. These are more difficult for webmasters to control than 300s and 400s, and should be dealt with quickly to avoid delivering a bad user experience and making search engine crawlers think there's a serious problem with your website.

500: Internal Server Error

This is basically a generic way of saying, "There was a problem returning your request." It's a little frustrating because it doesn't give much in the way of an explanation.

Are 500s Good or Bad for my SEO?

They're bad, because generally, search engines won't really favour websites that are giving them errors that indicate something is wrong with your server. If you're seeing a lot of these, get your technical team on them ASAP.

503: Service Unavailable

A 503 means that the server couldn't handle the request made by the client, usually due to an issue such as an overwhelming amount of traffic or maintenance work being performed.

Are 503s Good or Bad for my SEO?

They can be good, as they're a way of telling search engines that the page in question will be back – it's just temporarily down for one of the reasons listed above. A 503 is sort of like a 302 redirect, because it's like telling customers that your store is closed for renovations, only you don't have a temporary store set up to which you can send them.

As with 500s, however, you should keep an eye on 503s and make sure they're only active for as long as you need them to be – as soon as the issue is fixed, the page should be back online. Make sure you keep your technical team on these as well.

Conclusion

All of these status codes are a normal part of browsing the web. Some of them won't really do any harm to your site, while others have the potential to negatively impact it, and it's important to stay vigilant and keep your web and technical teams on top of these types of issues to ensure that both users and search engines get the best possible experience.

Here's a quick summary of what to keep in mind regarding the different status codes we've covered in this article:

301: Permanent Redirects: Good to use when an old URL has been permanently moved to a new URL or for common typos. Pass 90 – 99% of ranking value.

302: Temporary Redirects: Bad in general – okay to use if the original page will only be down for a short amount of time and there's a relevant page to which users can be redirected, but usually best to stick with 301s. Do not pass any ranking value.

404: Not Found: Good to use for pages that no longer exist, as long as you return the 404 status with a custom page that contains useful links to other parts of the website.

410: Gone: Good to use when a page is gone and won't be coming back, such as for a product or service you no longer offer and don't plan to again.

500: Internal Server Error: A bad sign that something went wrong with the server. Should be addressed by your technical team as quickly as possible.

503: Service Unavailable: Generally good, as long as the issue that brought the page or website down is addressed as quickly as possible and things are made live again.

Still have questions about status codes on your website? Feel free to contact us and we'll see if we can clear things up!

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