How to handle Googlebot during site downtime

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  • October 26, 2007

This week one of my clients was carrying out some web design work that required part of the site to be taken offline for several hours.
Google normally spiders the site quite a lot so the client didn’t want to mess up any rankings during the downtime.
The best way to manage this according to Google is to give spiders a 503 (Service unavailable) header code when they visit. This tells search engines that the problem is temporary and they will come back another time.

Serving the error message is easy if its just a static php page and you can even choose the number of seconds Google should wait before coming back.

header("HTTP/1.1 503 Service Temporarily Unavailable");
header("Status: 503 Service Temporarily Unavailable");
header("Retry-After: 3600");

Add a nice error message here

However sometimes you need to apply the code to all pages in the site, in this case you need to add this code to your .htaccess file

Options +FollowSymLinks
RewriteEngine On
RewriteBase /
RewriteCond %{HTTP_USER_AGENT} ^.*google.* [NC] RewriteRule .* /errorpage.php

You should make sure your error page is giving the 503 header as shown in the php snippet above and most importantly test your code as soon as it goes live to check for problems.

Patrick Altoft

About Patrick Altoft

Patrick is the Director of Strategy at Branded3 and has spent the last 11 years working on the SEO strategies of some of the UK's largest brands. Patrick’s SEO knowledge and experience is highly regarded by many, and he’s regularly invited to speak at the world’s biggest search conferences and events.

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