How to deal with planned (and unexpected) site down time

31 Jan

What happens if Google indexes your website when it is down for maintenance?
I recently conducted a SEO audit on a site and noticed that an error page had been indexed in place of the home page. I found this while logging into Google Webmaster Tools when I noticed the wrong page in preview within dashboards. They had under gone essential maintenance over the previous weekend and the site was down for approximately 20 minutes.

Digging into the problem, I checked Google’s cache of the home page. A maintenance page had been indexed; this meant that one of the most powerful pages on the website was not visible for organic search from the largest source of traffic for the website. To check it for your self, type cache: and the website address along with the page you are looking at into the Google search bar i.e. (

Rectifying the problem (Quick fix)

In Google Webmaster Tools, you can call a Googlebot back to the site to re-index a page. Click Diagnostic, Fetch Googlebot, and enter the url that you want to check what Google is seeing on the url that you are investigating. Wait just a few seconds (normally), and you’ll notice the page is picked up by a Googlebot. You can verify that Google has indexed the correct page. You have the option on add the page to the Google Index (Click Submit to Index). Then wait for the page to re-appear in the Google search results. Keep checking the cache of the page until the page you want to see appears.

503 Service unavailable (Long-term fix)

To prevent Google from indexing your site while it’s down for maintenance, you need to change your maintenance page to include a 503 server response. A 503 error means Service unavailable. When Google see a 503 server response it will read it as a de-facto “Come back later” response.

We also looked at setting up a ‘307 Temporary Redirect’, but after a lot of investigation agreed that a 503 Service unavailable was a better solution. After a bit of investigating, we were concerned that creating a 307 response could lead to a Googlebot indexed the error message, and then also continue to crawl the original URL when the website was back up. This would not take us any further forward than the original problem, a ranking hiccough.

Re-try after

Setting up a 503 Service unavailable response you can also include re-try after header indicating then you expect the site to be back after the maintenance. This is a best practice way of explaining that your site is down for maintenance, and you can still explain the error for visitors in that period. Under most instances, Googlebot will not index your error page, and will come back looking for updates some time after the date specified in the ‘Return-After’ header indicated.

Add the copy that you want to tell your visitors that you site is down temporally for maintenance. Then include the re-try after response as an integer number of seconds (in decimal) after the time of the response.

Retry-After = “Retry-After” “:” ( HTTP-date | delta-seconds )
Two examples of its use are
Retry-After: Fri, 31 Dec 1999 23:59:59 GMT
Retry-After: 120
In our example, the delay is 2 minutes.

For more info, check out Google Webmaster blog.

So you don’t need to shout “Help my site was down and Google indexed it”, you just need to prepare for it and create a maintenance page with a 503 server response.

Comments are closed.