So far, we’ve discussed what HTTP Status Codes are, and explained their definitions in terms that don’t require you to be a programmer. This article is a bit different. It covers the three HTTP Status Codes every SEO needs to be familiar with, but it also looks at five other common codes, and the REL Canonical attribute. Note that throughout we’ll be referencing the codes that are ‘returned’ – which literally means that the server your website resides on has returned that code in answer to the browser or robot attempting to access your site or pull information from it.
When you’re done reading, you’ll know what each of these codes does, but more importantly, how they impact links and the authority of those links – or link juice, as it’s commonly called. We’ll start with the seven codes, and leave the REL attribute for last. If you’d like a more detailed description of the HTTP Status Codes, have a look at our article on the topic
200 Success, Everything is OK, is the code that gets returned when your website does what it’s supposed to do. In web terms, it means that your user went directly to your website, with no problems, redirects, or other errors. All of your link juice stays on the site, and you can pat yourself on the back. Good job, because this is only one of two occasions where we can say that everything is working fine.
301 Moved Permanently, Permanent Redirect, is the code returned when your link has moved permanently. It redirects visitors to the new page, and also transfers all of the link juice with it. Of course, you’ll likely want to build a new link profile for the moved page, but that’s covered elsewhere in our 301 Permanent or 404 Not Found article. This the first of the three codes you should be familiar with.
302 Page Found, Moved Temporarily, or Temporary Redirect, is the first of the codes that you get when things are not working fine, at least from a SEO perspective. It functions almost the same as the 301 HTTP Status Code, but unlike 301, it leaves the link juice behind. That’s because it’s telling the person or robot connecting to your site that you’ll be moving your content back. Because of this, it’s not good. This is the second of the three codes you should be familiar with.
404 Page Not Found, will appear when there is nothing there. There are different schools of thought on the subject, with some people believing that you should try to redirect, while others argue that you can’t redirect for every possible instance of a person incorrectly typing a link (a common cause of 404 Errors). The truth lies somewhere in the middle, with valid reasons for both, depending entirely on your site and the circumstances. Obviously there is nothing here for robots, and any link juice that might have been associated with a page that used to be here isn’t being sent anywhere else. Users might see an old cached page, but as a general rule, no one’s going to see anything. This is the third of the three codes you should be particularly familiar with.
410 Gone, Permanently, is going to be what you put up when a page is permanently removed. It tells search engines to remove it. According to Google, while they do differentiate between 404 and 410 HTTP Status Codes (see video below), they treat them more or less the same.
Specifically, a 404 and a 410 are treated more or less the same, and webmasters should not worry overly much about it (Matt Cutts).
However, experience says otherwise, I have seen 404s hanging in the SERPs way longer than 410s. And after all, if something aint coming back, its best practice to mark it as such – also John Mu said so too.
500 Server Error, Something’s Not Right, this is a common error that can mean a lot of things, but basically, it means your site is down for that user or robot visit. No one is going to see anything, and there is no link juice going anywhere.
503 Unavailable, Come Back Later, is a code that has a very specific use, but one that people don’t often use. Let’s say that you’re updating your server, and your site will be down for a bit. In this case, it let’s people know that you are indeed still around, but that something is going on that is temporarily preventing them from seeing your content. For some, it’s more or less an alternative to a 404, but when used that way, it can be confusing to users. More importantly, as with all things SEO, not serving up content to hungry users means you’re probably going to lose them to a site that’s actually serving up pages – costing you the visitor and any potential link juice or business they might have brought with them.
So, those are the seven HTTP Status Codes you’ll want to know about. Obviously, you’re not going to see all of them all of the time, but in the event one does pop up in your path, you’ll have a better idea of what it is, and why the code came up, which brings us to the REL Canonical tag.
Basically, the REL Canonical tag is a bit of a stepchild to the HTTP Status Codes, and not part of the standard. This is why we’ve discussed it last. However, thanks to the almighty Google Empire – it’s increasingly being used as a Band-Aid for bad HTTP Status Codes, or people looking to reduce server load (read, possible future Google penalty).
In simple terms, it’s supposed to be a tag you add to an existing page in order to redirect when either you don’t otherwise have the ability to 301 it, or you’re displaying the content across multiple sites or pages. This is because it works across domain as well, so you could post the same news story on five different sites, but by using canonical tags, refer search engine and link juice to the main page, while showing your content across several pages. Before you ask, yes, this is absolutely misused for increasing page rank.
At the end of the day, it’s really about what you’re trying to do, and how you intend to do it. An online store will utilize different methods than an online magazine to achieve the same results. It really just depends on who you are, and what you’re doing with your content or your clients’ content.