What Is A 503 Page And How To Use It

Posted on June 21, 2013

Your website is down or is going to go down. You are moving servers or your site has been hacked or any number of other reasons and your site is offline, including your site getting too much traffic. These kinds of problems are the ones that businesses need to plan for prior to them happening to limit the damage. So when these unavoidable down times happen, what do you do? The simple answer is that you can use a 503 service unavailable status code to lessen the blow.

So what is a 503 service unavailable code? Technically, it is a server-side error, meaning the problem likely stems from the website's server. It displays differently based on a number of factors, but you likely have seen one of the following:

  • 503 Service Unavailable
  • HTTP Server Error 503
  • HTTP 503
  • HTTP Error 503
  • 503 Service Temporarily Unavailable
  • Http/1.1 Service Unavailable
  • Service Unavailable - DNS Failure
  • 503 Error
  • Error 503 Service Unavailable

Obviously, this is a less than ideal situation. Your site viewers don't get to explore your website, purchase your product, fill out contact forms, or anything else. That is a problem in itself that requires its own solution, but what do you do for search engines when your website is down? If a search engine spider attempts to crawl your site while your site is down, you could lose your search engine rankings, which is a problem that will persist well after your site is back up and running.

By using a 503 service unavailable status code, you are effectively saying "Hey Google, sorry. Our site is down right now, so can you please come back later?" If you don't have a 503 status code up, your site could be essentially telling Google and other search engines "Come on in! All is fine here!" And upon seeing that the site is down, Google may very well think you are spam or a non-existant site, causing you to drop off the search engine map.

John Mueller of Google recently posted this in regards to his thoughts on the topic:

Dear webmasters, if something goes drastically wrong with your hoster, and you can't host your website anymore, please return a "503 Service unavailable" HTTP result code. Doing so helps search engines to understand what's up -- they're generally more than happy to give your site some time to catch up again.

Returning an error page with "200 OK" will result in us indexing the change of content like that (and if all of your pages return the same error page, then we may assume that these URLs are duplicates). Redirecting to a temporary page will result in that redirect being used for indexing. It's fine to show text to users on a 503 error page, or use fancy JavaScript, etc.

A simple way to handle that - if the webserver is down - is to change the site's DNS to point to a temporary server that returns the 503 for you.

Once the issue is resolved, we'll generally jump back in and crawl your site to get the indexed information updated. If you weren't able to return a 503, it'll probably take a bit of time for things to settle back down with regards to search, but it'll come back, don't worry. If you need to ramp crawling up slowly, you might also want to adjust the maximal crawl rate in Webmaster Tools (we pick up that setting about once a day).

At any rate, if your site was affected by issues like these, I hope you're able to resolve them (and the other, perhaps more important issues that often go along with disruptions like these) as soon as possible. If there's something Google can do with regards to web-search to help get your site get back on its feet, feel free to post here, in our forums, or join our office-hours hangouts.

« Return to all Blogs