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503: GONE

There have been a few occasions when Googlers stated that a 503 server response code would be interpreted by Google as a “hold on, something’s getting fixed, don’t update the index with what you find here” situation. That made great sense. How else could a tech-savvy webmaster pause re-indexing while performing an update that would effect public-facing (and thus search engine facing) URLs and content?

But that was the old Google. Matt’s extended vacation, which is like an internship for retiring, is just one of many clues that things at the New Google are not looking good for webmasters.  Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any other Googler step up and take responsibility like Matt did. Who can be considered accountable as a voice of Google today, for technical webmasters?

Certainly not the personas I have seen thus far.

So this site www.johnon.com went dark earlier this summer, with a “down for maintenance” message. Behind the scenes, it served up a 503 response code. After a week or so I got comments from readers asking if the site was gone…. and should they remove outbound links to my content. Uh oh.

An unintended consequence of going down without an obvious message, in this age of Google as penalizing aggressor, meant my site would lose backlinks. Webmasters were afraid to leave broken links on their own sites, because that might be seen as a poor quality signal by Google’s infamous “raters”.

Well, one can’t learn without taking some risk. I updated the home page to remind people that the site would be back, and that a 503 is SUPPOSED to mean “don’t index what you find here cause we’re making changes”.

I was wrong. Google de-indexed the site completely.

Now of course the Google has elastic clauses in all of its guidelines, including this one:

“…lasting 503s can eventually be seen as a sign that the server is now permanently unavailable and can result in us removing URLs from Google’s index.”

I suppose technically I wasn’t wrong… Google didn’t index the temporary holding page contents. And it didn’t re-index the incoming URLs (which I didn’t allow anyway, since it all 503’d). But getting dropped is not what should happen to an established web site when it goes into maintenance mode. And whatever amount of time I waited, is apparently “too long” according to Google. Well, at least we now know what “too long” means.

I suppose it’s time to update the contingency plans… I suppose we’ll have to maintain static cached pages or something… like in the old days.