503 Service Unavailable Status Code Can Kill Your Search Traffic

This is a post I am sure the “Andy Beard Haters Club” will gloat over, but as I haven’t been able to find a resource anywhere on the effect extended use of 503 Service Unavailable can potentially have on a site, and in particular the effect on search traffic, I thought I should write about it.

Using 503 Server Unavailable For Extended Periods Can Kill Your Search Traffic

Using 503 Server Unavailable For Extended Periods Can Kill Your Search Traffic

This isn’t your typical scenario – 503 errors are frequently sent when a server becomes overloaded, or there are some backend problems. A search of the Google Webmaster Help forums doesn’t bring up a huge amount of cases, and mostly it is enquiring about what someone should do when they want to do some maintenance on a live server, probably for a short time. In my case I didn’t plan to be in “Maintenance Mode” for an extended period. Here is the complete timeline:

  • April 6th – I received an email from Jeff Walker announcing that he would be reopening PLF2.2+ in 2 weeks time – I had been working on some unique WordPress split-testing stuff that I thought would be a useful high perceived value bonus to my audience – it was time to reawaken the blog anyway.
  • April 6th Late – activated maintenance mode plugin with a custom theme – I added some stuff about PLF 2.2 and a subscription form for notifications – also still had tracking code on the page.
  • April 12th – Even though it was the weekend, noticed a significant reduction in search traffic
  • April 15th – Due to problems with the maintenance mode plugin and access permissions, I was forced to open up more of the site than I intended – I was trying to have it set up so that only the feeds and a couple of landing pages could be access by non-admins – it didn’t quite work as expected, so I opened the whole site up.
  • April 15th – posted first blog post in 9 months
  • April 15th onwards – tinkering with site structure – I had gone live with a lot missing such as custom query string revisited, thus indexing depth could be a problem.
  • May 2nd – might seem totally silly, but this marks the day I added Google Analytics back on the blog – 2 weeks with no stats at all was both infuriating for a stats junky, but at the same time helped me to remove the shackles – at least off of one leg.
  • May 20th – bit the bullet and switched permalinks for most of the site (possible article) – also removed robots.txt from a few historical posts (more on that to follow)
  • May 25th – Seeing if search will recover

I only expected to be down for 2 or 3 days, and switching on maintenance mode was a great way of focusing my attention on what needed to be done.

It could be looked on as something devious – some kind of bait and switch of a whole domain – I looked on it at the time as providing a clear message of what was going on, and providing something interesting to visit in the meantime.

One thing I haven’t added back into my header are variuos claim meta tags for the various search engines, but is probably something I will add as and when I get around to it.

Whilst I haven’t included full traffic details, I can assure you that search traffic dropped across the board, even on terms that have brought trafic for years and where I have so many links it would seem silly for me not to rank, such as phrases related to nofollow, dofollow, and various plugins.

My search traffic isn’t totally dead, down by 75%, so I am receiving only 25% of the search traffic I used to. I don’t have the custom tools available or the time to compare reindexation times with recovery of search traffic potentially due to switching permalinks.

At least I haven’t had to deal with as much comment spam :)

The short form:- 6 days giving a 503 service unavailable page was enough to kill my search traffic, though it took 2 more days for it to die.

I am not saying that maintenance mode is a bad plugin, or that this isn’t the recommended way to deal with site updates that require you to restrict access for a short while. I do most development either using a combination of XAMPP and Netbeans on my PC, or on varous development domains.

I have also heard of cases where sites have been offline for months and have experienced almost instant recovery.

Do you have any experience with 503 Service Unavailable, and the effects it can have on search results if returned consistently for extended periods?

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  1. says

    This is going to be the nice experiment to try.

    And when you were doing it, did you also notice or looked at Search listing as to what kind title your listing was showing…..???


    • says

      The “kick” of changing permalinks has helped with other problems in the past, on other sites, so I am hoping it will help here.

      When I had the 503, the title remained the same as I didn’t change it, and search listings didn’t change for the period I had the 503 that I noticed, though losing the listings wasn’t something I was expecting, so I wasn’t looking.

      I did notice that the page itself wasn’t ranking for terms related to Product Launch Formula, even though in the past, by inserting a large content section on the home page, that had an effect.

      The 503 page did rank when I pulled out long-tail phrases directly from the content.

  2. electronics ipod says

    I found when my website was unavailable for a few days people tend to think you’ve disappears of the face of the earth. unfortunately you get forgotten about too quickly. Having reliable service is a must, downtime for a big site is a major issue.

  3. says

    I often see such signs, when people don’t do 301 redirects, when changing permalinks. Your post doesn’t say you did.

    I have personally observed how 3 days of downtime had significantly reduced the Google traffic (by 80-90%) for two weeks. It cost the business a lot not to renew and switch the hosting ;)

  4. says

    I suffered something worst in the last month. My (ex) hosting service didn’t return the right headers. Google couldn’t reach robots.txt file so… it stopped to crawl my pages!

    I quickly disappeared from google… Solution? I had to change my hosting service!


  5. says

    Hey, I ran into the same type of problem with Google being blocked from my sites. Evidently my hosting provider picked up their crawler as a denial of service attack or something since it was crawling pages like crazy.

  6. Tatang Sulaeman says

    I found when my website was unavailable for a few days people tend to think you’ve disappears of the face of the earth. unfortunately you get forgotten about too quickly. Having reliable service is a must, downtime for a big site is a major issue.

  7. says

    I used this status code for a short period (2 days) with 503 header “Retry After” without traffic drop.
    Here’s the official suggestion by Google: http://bit.ly/V5v1o
    Thank you for sharing your experience!
    Greetings from Italy.

  8. says

    A friend was running some flash game type sites and had a few days downtime getting the backups going again when the server went kaput. He said it noticably affected his rankings and traffic and took a little while to get it back upto what it was originally.

  9. says

    as per my view and experiment that 503 header is spam for google, it will not redirect the traffic from one domain name to other domain name, becuase considered it spam.

  10. says

    You are absolutely right. I had a site with 27K Alexa ranking, and PR3 page rank, and 5k UV. The site went down with 503 errors and my site was off for 2 days. Once the server was back, my ranking was dropped to 42K and 2K UV and finally the site got 503 errors 3-4 times and now there is no more traffic !

    I think to have a good quality host is very very important else all the hard work is in vain due to problems in server.

  11. says

    Interesting Andy, did you issue a (‘Retry-After: 12345′) value along with the 503 to say when to try again or just issue the 503? As i recall from the protocol guidelines, a 503 with no Retry After value defined is treated as a 500 response which is simply “Internal Server Error”.

    So it may of been 6 days of Internal Server Error, and not “Come Back Later” responses.

    I had my site 404 for almost 5 days due to a server collapse, and rankings didn’t budge not even for the more competitive stuff.

    It will come back, it will be interesting to get a follow-up post of how the recovery progressed.

  12. says

    Andy great to see you back. Your stuff is solid as usual. Thank God I have never ever contemplated using that maintenance plugin. What an absolute disaster. 75 percent of lost search traffic… Yikes

  13. Edwin says

    There are other ways, not only 503, for example when your database server is down, it happened to me, fortunately google web crawler did’t visit my page that day.

    [moderator note: if you are going to drop links that are totally unrelated to context, at least make the effort to format them correctly before I delete them]