There’s a lot of lingo in search engine optimization (SEO) and online marketing that makes the field alienating for attorneys and lawyers. At times, it’s like reading code. When it’s literally computer code it’s less frustrating because you know there’s only so much you can do to put that into plain English. But when the words you read seem devoid of meaning and it’s not a line of HTML or CSS, it can feel like these marketing insiders are hiding the ball on you.
Not the least confusing “terms of art” are the error messages that you can encounter while surfing the web or building or maintaining your website. It takes time to understand 404 errors and 301 redirects. When you’re tasked with understanding how they different from, say, 503 errors or 307 redirects, though, things start to get out of hand.
Here’s what you need to know.
HTTP Status Codes and What They Do
You use the internet with a browser, like Google Chrome, Firefox, or (shudder) Internet Explorer. When you go to a website, the browser contacts the server that hosts the domain and requests the site’s information. The server responds with an HTTP status code and then, if everything is in order, the content of the website you’re trying to reach.
However, if there is a problem, the HTTP status code is where the diagnosis will be.
Categories of HTTP Status Codes
The first digit in the status code gives you a ballpark idea of who’s responsible for the problem with the website:
- 100s are informational codes that indicate that the server request was received, and that the process is ongoing
- 200s are success codes, indicating that the server request was completed
- 300s are redirect codes that push your browser in another direction to complete the server request
- 400s are for client errors, or problems accessing the website that stem from the user
- 500s are for server errors, or problems accessing the website that come from the website, itself
The 4 Error Codes You Need to Know
There are numerous HTTP status codes out there. Some are common while others are very rare. There are even joke HTTP status codes. You don’t need to know them all, but you do need to be aware of these four and understand their purpose to avoid being confused when SEO talk gets technical.
Page Not Found: 404
The most ubiquitous, frustrating, and potentially dangerous HTTP status page is a 404 error, or “page not found” error. A 404 error tells the user that their browser’s server request cannot be completed because the request is incorrect for some reason. In most of these cases, the content has been moved or deleted, leaving the requested address empty.
404s are serious issues when they are on your domain. People are coming to your website and being rewarded with a blank space. They’re almost guaranteed to return to where they came from, diminishing the time spent on page (an important SEO metric) and increasing the page’s bounce rate (another important SEO metric). Preventing 404s by keeping your URLs stable or providing redirects when necessary is a big part of maintaining a website.
Content Permanently Moved: 301
If you restructure your law firm’s website or move just a single page from one location on the internet to another (read: you change the URL of an article or page), there will be links out there that point users and search engine crawlers to where the content used to be. Redirecting that traffic from the content’s old house to its new address is essential—if you don’t, that traffic will be lost, forever, as it stares a 404 in the face. Plopping a 301 redirect at the old URL automatically pushes visitors to the article’s new location, with no further action required on their part, and tells their browser to stop looking where it used to be.
Content Temporarily Moved: 307
A 307 redirect is very similar to a 301 redirect, but specifically tells browsers that the change is only temporary and that it should check back in at the original location of the content for subsequent server requests.
Service Unavailable: 503
Sometimes, it is the server involved in the transaction that causes the problem. When the server is being overloaded with requests for a particular site or is having other technical issues—like if there is a power outage or it is down for maintenance—the visitor will be hit with a 503 error message.
For website owners, 503 errors are annoying because there is often little they can do to prevent them except changing or upgrading their servers or getting a new hosting company.
Correct Use of Codes Prevents SEO Disasters
By using HTTP status codes correctly, you can avoid a catastrophic situation where search engine crawlers become confused while on your site and scuttle your SEO, and can ensure that your website’s viewers get to the pages they’re looking for. Each of these protects your law firm website’s spot in the rankings, maintains your web traffic and keeps a steady flow of new clients coming in.