What You Need To Know (and Do) To Avoid Losing Your SEO

Are you considering a migration of your website from one web host to another? Do you want to push a redesign of your website or new features? Here is what you need to know and do in order not to impact the natural referencing of your website and what are the best practices to follow to avoid offending our dear GoogleBot (Google).

In which cases the maintenance mode of a site can (and should) be activated?

Sometimes your site will need maintenance for X or Y reasons.

Triggering maintenance mode is strongly recommended in many cases such as:

  • correct security vulnerabilities,
  • update plugins on CMS,
  • push new features into production,
  • push into production a new version of a website (as part of a complete overhaul),
  • change server,

Thereby, it is not uncommon in the life of a site to go through many phases of maintenance.

But now, for the latter to happen in the most fluid way without impacting the SEO of your site, it is better to do things according to the rules of the art, namely, by following an “SEO friendly” maintenance methodology.

In which case should you set up an SEO friendly maintenance methodology?

Maintenance, if it lasts more than a few seconds / minutes, can have negative impacts on the ranking of your site in search engines.

It is therefore important to do things correctly if you want (and want) to maintain good SEO on Google.

How to activate the maintenance mode of your site without impacting your natural referencing (SEO)?

Most of the time and for most sites, maintenance takes place over a relatively short period (less than a few minutes) and GoogleBot will not have (except on very large sites) tried too hard to access and crawl your site between time.

In this case, no need to worry, the impacts will be almost nil (but that does not mean that you should not prepare things for a future unexpected or forced maintenance of your site (ex: hack of your server / website)).

In other cases, when the migration or maintenance takes several tens of minutes (several hours, or several days), or your website is constantly crawled by GoogleBot (in this case, you’re in luck), Google will try inevitably sooner or later to explore your website.

As you probably already know if you are interested in an SEO maintenance topic like this, GoogleBot has a limited time per website to crawl it (this is called the crawl budget, or crawl budget in French).

Thus, if during the time that Google allocates to you, it is impossible for it to browse the pages of your site, several times of site, it will say that your site surely has a problem, and that is not what you want…

In this case, it risks reducing the time spent on your site, to a certain point, if the maintenance lasts too long (and it is poorly managed at SEO level), no longer come to your site at all , which, you can imagine, is not at all good for your natural referencing in the short and medium term.

What are the (concrete) risks of mismanaging the maintenance of an SEO-level website?

Concretely, what may take place if you mismanage SEO-level website maintenance is:

  • very negative impacts on the indexing of your future new pages;
  • not taking into account your post update / maintenance page modifications (or in any case a late / delayed taking into account);
  • the downgrading of your pages in the search results (if it lasts too long and it does not have the right information in terms of response codes and HTTP headers).

How do you stop Google from downgrading your website? How to properly manage your maintenance in an SEO friendly way?

Using a HTTP response status 503, by customizing your error page, and by setting the “retry-after”.

Good practice is to change your site to HTTP status 503 (with custom error page) to inform that this is a temporary error (service unavailable) then tell GoogleBot from when it can retry using the “retry-after” directive.

Do not use the status 404, 200 or 301/302 redirects.

If Google encounters a 404 while crawling your site, it will usually remove that page from search results until it comes back the next time to verify that the page is back.

However, if Google repeatedly encounters a 404 on that specific page, it will eventually delay re-crawling (and therefore re-indexing), meaning that more time will pass before the page returns in the results of research.

To overcome this potential loss of ranking on one or hundreds of pages, you need to return a 503 status code every time you work on a particular page.

FYI, here is the official definition of state code 503:

“The server is currently unable to process the request due to server overload or temporary maintenance. The implication is that this is a temporary condition that will be alleviated after a certain delay. If known, the length of the delay MAY be specified in a Retry-After header. If no Retry-After is given, the client SHOULD treat the response as it would a 500 response. “

It means that returning a 503 in combination with a Retry-After header, which will tell Google how many minutes to wait before returning is better.

Here is an example of a well-configured retry-after:

Retry-After: Wed, 21 Oct 2020 07:28:00 GMT
Retry-After: 120

Here is a great resource for more info on retry-after: https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Web/HTTP/Headers/Retry-After

Be careful, this does not mean that Google will crawl again in exactly X minutes, but it will ensure that Google does not come back and try to unnecessarily crawl a page that has not changed status before that date.

Good to know: Google will consider pages returning the HTTP status code 200, despite an error (or very little content) on the page, as a “soft 404” in Google Search Console.

Maintenance and natural referencing: what are the most widespread bad practices (and why they should be avoided)?

It is not uncommon to see on sites in maintenance maintenance pages accessible following 302 redirects, or worse, 200, following JavaScript, 302 or 301 redirects (the worst to do).

Here is a little summary of what you shouldn’t do (unless you don’t want your site to be referenced):

  • Redirect your entire site in Javascript / 302 or 301 to a single web page responding in 200 on a subdomain or other : there, roughly, it’s like saying to Google: “my entire site has been replaced by this page (empty / rotten)” and it’s for more than a few minutes (for a 302, it’s a a little less “serious” because it is a redirect considered as “temporary” but if this last one lasts too long, it is not good either.
  • Return a 404 error code and a personalized page (or not) : this is the best way to tell Google that your whole site is “broken”. Absolutely to be avoided.
  • Do not customize the maintenance page (error 503) : here you will not have an SEO impact but it is not good for your brand image or for the user experience.

3 (interesting) things to know during SEO maintenance

  1. Robots.txt and error 503 : Did you know that it is also possible to return a 503 status code for your robots.txt file? Google indicates in its robots.txt documentation that you can temporarily suspend crawling by running a 503 for your robots.xt file. The biggest advantage of this is a lower server load during maintenance periods.
  2. Cache and SEO maintenance : There are a few things you should take into consideration when working with maintenance pages and returning 503 status codes. If you are actively using caching, you may find yourself in a caching situation. is not transmitting status 503 correctly. So be sure to test it properly before actively using it on the live version of your website.
  3. WordPress maintenance and plugins : there are many plugins allowing to correctly manage a maintenance of a WordPress site. Personally, I don’t use any so as not to weigh down the site, I prefer to manage it “hard” in the code, but you are free to use a free plugin like WP Maintenance Mode if you don’t have enough knowledge. techniques (or is afraid of breaking everything).

Do you have questions about setting up SEO friendly maintenance? Comments are open to questions (there are no silly questions).

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