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.
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?