Server Uptime and Downtime

Website accessibility is a major concern for every website owner. People can’t buy your products or contact your salespeople if they can’t access your website. However, your website’s uptime can also play a role in your search engine optimization performance.

What are Uptime and Downtime?

Uptime refers to the time during which your website is operational and available. Downtime is the reverse: the time in which your website is unavailable. Website uptime and downtime are often expressed as percentages.

Websites that are experiencing downtime will send an HTTP status code in the 500 range, usually a 503. Some servers experiencing downtime will refuse the socket connection, which will return its own error.

In theory, the ideal uptime is 100% — meaning your website is available 100% of the time. However, 100% uptime isn’t a realistic goal. Things go wrong and servers have to undergo maintenance. So what are the usual causes of (unplanned) downtime?

What Causes Downtime?

While there are simply too many things that can cause your website to experience downtime to create a definitive list, there are a few common things that cause downtime that you should be on the lookout for.

Hosting quality issues

Cheap and/or low-quality web hosting services are one of the most common issues of downtime, particularly for small businesses. When you own your own business, it’s very tempting to save money on your website’s hosting service. However, when it comes to web hosting, you often get what you pay for.

Sometimes even quality web hosting services can cause downtime issues if you choose a cheap plan that can’t handle the amount of traffic your website receives. Cheap and shared hosting plans can cause downtime or slow load times if you get a sudden increase in traffic.

When choosing a hosting service for your website, choose one that can handle the amount of traffic your site gets. Monitor it carefully so you can upgrade as your traffic scales up.

Note that choosing a shared or dedicated IP address for your web hosting won’t directly impact your rankings, but it can make certain things that do impact rankings easier.

Plugin issues

If you have a WordPress site, you’ve probably added a plugin or two to help with your website. Generally, plugins are great. They can do lots of great things for your website (see our list of best SEO WordPress plugins). However, if they’re not well-programmed or maintained, they can crash your website.

Keep your plugins up to date whenever a new version is released, and make sure it’s compatible with your site. Monitor the plugins you have installed on your site to make sure they’re being maintained and updated by their authors.

If they aren’t, consider removing it before it goes rogue and causes downtime.

Lapsed domain registration

Domain registration and web hosting are two completely separate issues, but you need both in order for your website to be available to users online. Registering your domain is what gives you ownership of your domain in the Domain Name System.

How long your domain is registered for can vary, but it’s often for a few years and it’s always in yearly increments (so you can’t register a domain for 6 months) and never more than 10 years. At the end of your registration period, you will have to renew your domain or it will become available for someone else to claim.

If your registration lapses, your website will no longer be accessible to users because it will no longer be accessible at its domain.

Someone attacks your site

Unfortunately, attacks do happen. One type of attack is known as a "distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack". The purpose of a DDoS attack is to crash a website by overwhelming it with traffic from multiple IP addresses. This makes it impossible to block the attack at its source because it’s impossible to know which “users” are real and which are part of the attack.

Frustratingly, there’s not much you can do to prevent someone from attacking your site, but using a dedicated hosting service can help prevent downtime.

How Do I Know My Site is Up or Down?

Unless you have the time to constantly reload your site to make sure it’s available (or the money to pay someone to do it for you), you’ll need to use an uptime monitoring service.

Using uptime monitor services

If you’re a WooRank customer or trial user using a Project, you can sign up for Uptime Notifications for your website. WooRank will constantly monitor your site and alert if it goes down. You’ll also receive a notification when your website becomes available again.

WooRank uptime notification email

Other uptime monitoring services include Uptime Robot and Pingdom.

How Does Downtime Affect SEO?

Downtime’s effect on your search engine optimization depends on how often it happens and how long it lasts. Google recognizes that downtime happens, either planned (like for maintenance or migration) or when something goes wrong.

The good news is that Google is pretty forgiving on your site’s downtime. If it only happens for a short while — like 24 hours or less — or only happens sporadically, Google will try to recrawl your site on its own.

If your site comes back online soon enough, Google will even try to rank it back where it did before it went down.

In fact, Googler John Mueller explained how they try to avoid punishing a site for downtime:

With regards to this situation where maybe 500 errors were showing or the server was down, that’s something that when we recrawl those pages, we’ll be able to take that into account again and index them and rank them as we did before.

So it’s not something where we kind of artificially hold a website back but it’s more of a technical issue that we have to recrawl those pages and recognize that they’re okay and put them back in our index together with the old signals that we had.

To some extend we try to recognize a kind of failure when we see it happening and keep those pages in our index anyway, just because we think maybe this is temporary and the website will be back soon, so some of that might have actually worked here but some of it might be that we actually recrawl those pages a bunch of times and they dropped out and we don’t have them for ranking anymore.

The good part here is that if we recognize that a page is kind of important for your website, we’ll generally crawl it a bit more frequently. So if it drops out of the index because of a failure like this, then we’ll generally crawl it a bit more frequently and bring it in a little bit more faster than if we would with some random page on your website that never changed for the last few years.

My guess is something like this where if you have to take the server down for a day, you might see maybe a week, two weeks, at the most maybe three weeks time where things are kind of in flux and settling down again, but it shouldn’t take much longer than that.

However, you shouldn’t interpret that as meaning downtime doesn’t matter. If Google can’t reliably access or serve your site to their users, they’ll crawl it less frequently and maybe even deindex it for quality issues.

How to Minimize SEO Impact of Downtime

So, as stated above, Google wants to be forgiving of temporary downtime and re-crawl your site when it’s available. The best way to tell Google that your downtime is only temporary is to return a 503 HTTP status code.

The 503 code tells the human user, browser or search engine crawler that the page is temporarily unavailable and to come back later to access the website.

Here’s an example of basic default 503 page:

Default 503 error page

Just like with 404 pages, creating a custom 503 page is a best practice for your website.

You’ll want to treat your 503 error page just the same as a 404 error code or even better. With a 404 error page, they can still navigate to other pages in your site, however, with a 503, you’ll have one chance for redemption.

Some things to do with your 503 page:

  • Make it visually appealing. Having a plain or poorly-designed error page can make your site look unprofessional.

  • Explain that the downtime is only temporary. If you have scheduled maintenance coming up, put that on the page. Otherwise, note that your team is hard at work to bring your site back online.

  • Try to have some fun with it. Users who encounter a 503 page will likely be frustrated because they’re not able to access the content or feature they were looking for. Try to lessen the blow, perhaps with a bit of humor (if that’s your brand).

If you are having issues with your website server, Google does provide a solution to limit the crawl rate but it’s definitely not recommended. Here’s what Google said about limiting the crawl rate:

We recommend against limiting the crawl rate unless you are seeing server load problems that are definitely caused by Googlebot hitting your server too hard.

Limiting crawl rate:

  1. On the Search Console Home page, click the "Go the old version" link.

  2. Click the gear icon, then click Site Settings.

  3. In the Crawl rate section, select the option to limit Google’s maximum crawl rate.

The limited crawl rate will be valid for 90 days.

If you choose the "Let Google optimize for my site" option, the only way to reduce the crawl rate is by filing a special request. You cannot increase the crawl rate.

Let Google optimize crawl rate

Remember, limiting Google’s crawl rate really isn’t recommended, as it can prevent Google from indexing pages on your site. If your server is really struggling to handle the load from Google’s bots, you should be seriously reconsidering your web hosting service.

What Next

Your first step should be to sign up for an uptime monitoring and notification service to alert you if your site ever experiences downtime.

Then, if you find your site is experiencing significant downtime, you should begin investigating alternatives to your current web hosting provider.

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