Website Down? How to Work Through Planned Site Downtime

website downHere’s the unfortunate reality of running a website:

You will have downtime.

Your website may use the best hosting company and the best-of-breed infrastructure. But, hiccups in server uptime every once in awhile are par for the course. Technical difficulties can force a server to shut down. Or, an update may require taking a website down for a few hours.

Whatever the case, outages can prove bank-breaking. They cost businesses $26.5 billion every year!

Sure, a planned downtime is different from an unplanned outage. With the former, one expects to get back online.

But, be warned:

Even planned downtimes can turn ugly – from dipping rankings, poor customer experience, to a reduction in revenue.

Worry not. In this guide, you’ll learn how to prepare so planned downtimes don’t turn to unplanned disasters.

Taking A Website Down For Maintenance? Here Are 2 Big Mistakes To Avoid

If a downtime is inevitable, be sure to let both website visitors and search engines know that the outage is only temporary. And many get this part wrong.

For example:

A website owner may remove all of the files from the server to give the website’s theme a complete overhaul. This results in a 404 error (“Not Found” error) when people try to access the site. And the error message does little to inform searchers and bots about the actual situation.

Is the site gone for good? Or is the outage temporary? If the latter is true, when will the website get back online?

A 404 error message doesn’t answer any of these questions.

The worst case scenario:

Visitors may assume the website has gone out of business, and they may not access or search for the website again.

Search engines often have the same reaction. Google, Bing, and co. may assume that the site no longer exists and schedule it for deletion in their index.

Other webmasters know enough not to pull out of their server files during planned downtimes. They take the extra step of adding a simple page along with a sentence or two to explain the outage. All of the website’s pages are redirected to the message.

The workaround does the job as far as keeping human visitors in the loop is concerned. Search engines, however, are still miles away from a total understanding of our language. The message won’t make any sense to these bots.

Moreover, search engines may think that the page has replaced the entire website, depending on how the redirection was carried out. A terrible way to lose hard-earned rankings and traffic!

Preparing For A Planned Downtime

Now we know what mistakes to avoid when taking down a website temporarily. The rest of this guide will show you how to prepare along with the right redirection and HTTP status code.

Know Which Channels To Use For Updating Visitors

Are you going to put up a dedicated status page? Will you put it on your blog? Or, should you communicate the issues via social media instead?

The method that makes the most sense is the one that lets you reach the majority of your audience. Of course, you can use multiple channels for sending updates. Nevertheless, having a primary communication medium and redirecting everyone there will keep all parties involved on the same page.

Put Someone In Charge

After identifying the ideal communication platforms, put someone in charge of updating the status of the downtime. Now this depends on a number of factors like the nature of the issue and your website’s audience.

For example:

A tech-savvy customer base may require the expertise of the DevOps team to update everyone and answer technical questions about the issue.

If the site’s customer base isn’t too technical, having someone from the customer service team might be the best bet. A customer service expert’s skill will prove helpful in handling inquiries and keeping customers calm during the downtime.

The Right Redirection And HTTP Status Code

Planned outages not marked as such can have a negative impact on a site’s reputation and rankings. Fortunately, one can better deal with downtimes and preserve their site’s rankings by using the right redirection and HTTP status code.

Let’s have a quick review of the most important codes and their meaning:

  • 200 OK: The standard response for successful requests.
  • 301 Redirect: Tells the search engines that the resource is on a new and permanent location. It passes most link juice from the original website, making it the best redirection method when rebranding a website with a new domain or URL.
  • 302 Found: A 302 redirect means the requested page or website is sitting at a different location for the time being. The search engines recognize this and will prevent passing link juice to the temporary location.
  • 404 Not Found: The page or website isn’t in the requested location, and gives no indication whether the outage is temporary or permanent.
  • 503 Service Unavailable: The server is unavailable temporarily for a number of reasons like overload or maintenance. Search engines recognize the temporary state of affairs and won’t de-index the website.

The first section of the guide taught us that using a 404 error code during planned downtimes is a terrible idea. Instead, you want to use a 503 status code.

Aside from informing search engines of the downtime’s temporary nature, a 503 status code lets website owners provide an estimate as to when the site will return online. This can be done with ease by adding a Retry-After header.

Keep in mind, however, that a 503 status code shouldn’t be on for too long. Doing so may leave Google thinking that the website is gone from the World Wide Web for good.

Planned Downtimes Shouldn’t Lead To Unplanned Disasters

A website may go down not because it’s out of business but for routine maintenance. However, visitors and search engines like Google won’t see the difference unless you tell them. Fail to make the distinction and losing visitors and rankings may follow.

Don’t let planned downtimes lead to unplanned disasters.

In this post, we looked at everything you need to know before taking a website down for maintenance. We identified the biggest mistakes to avoid, the preparatory steps, and the right HTTP status code for planned downtimes.

Keep this guide handy and may your planned downtimes be smooth and hassle-free.