HTTP Status Codes: 404s, Redirects, and Others You Need to Know

Tuesday, January 30th
Content Manager

Mark Wilson

HTTP status codes are usually only something you pay attention to when they occur unexpectedly. “Wait, I thought this page existed! I typed in the URL correctly and everything.”

While this is probably the most common status code (the 404 status code) that people are aware of, it’s far from the only one that website creators and digital marketers should be aware of.

Having a simple plan for handling different HTTP status codes can help keep your website clean and intuitive to use.

That’s the biggest reason why you should be aware of them: the user experience. Mismanagement of status codes on a website can be confusing for visitors, which will hurt your web traffic, search rankings, and bottom line.

So we’re going to give you a thorough overview of HTTP status codes, what they mean, and how to interpret and handle them. But the important takeaway is how you turn that into a process for your website that’s simple and sustainable.

HTTP Status Codes: What Are They?

When you visit a webpage, your browser will make a request of the server that is hosting the website. “Hey, you there, show me this page for the URL I typed in. Please and thank you!” It doesn’t use those words of course, but that’s more-or-less what’s happening.

A status code is the hosting server’s response to the browser. Most of the time you will never “see” the status code, because when the request works properly, it just means you will see the webpage you intended to visit.

Even this corresponds to a status code. One of the good ones, that is, where everything is working properly. Mostly, though, we’re going to focus on the other cases, where something isn’t quite right.

Status codes are a 3-digit number, and start with a 1-5 digit. Each of these starting digits corresponds to a different broad type of code, as follows:

  • 1XX Codes - informational response. The server is processing a request.
  • 2XX Codes - successful response. The request was processed as expected.
  • 3XX Codes - redirection. Additional actions need to be taken to fulfill the request.
  • 4XX Codes - client error. The request was not processed for one of several potential reasons.
  • 5XX Codes - server error. The request is valid, but the server is unable to fulfill the request.

We’ll dig into some specifics below, but that should give you a good sense of the types of status codes that you might encounter, and what they mean.

The Problem Codes: How to Fix Them

If an HTTP status code is in those 1XX or 2XX categories, chances are you don’t need to worry about it. The request is either in process or went through successfully. Some digital marketers and web users will go their entire lives without having to consider these codes in any detail.

It’s the 3XX, 4XX and 5XX codes that we want to discuss, because they require more understanding for both users and developers.

5XX Server Errors

If you’re a user, 5XX errors aren’t your fault, and unfortunately there’s not much you can do. However, just to be sure that your internet connection isn’t acting funny and that it’s actually a server issue, you can check on sites like Down For Everyone or Just Me.

If you’re a web manager or developer, though, 5XX errors are a big problem. It means your hosting server is down. A 503 code, which indicates that the server is down temporarily, is not quite as bad. This might relate to routine maintenance that causes a site to be down temporarily. But it’s planned in advance.

A 500 error is worse, because the server is just unavailable, and this usually isn’t pre-planned. This can affect revenue for obvious reasons, and can also hurt your search rankings if crawler bots (like those from Google) try to visit your site while it’s down.

If you’re experiencing frequent 5XX errors, it may be time to look into a new hosting service. Average downtime for a good hosting service these days should be well under 1% of the time. 

Importantly, this doesn’t count planned outages for things like code updates and patches to web services. These are often routinely scheduled, and will create periodic, pre-planned downtime. Depending on the complexity of the services you offer, 100% uptime is not only impossible, but not necessarily desirable for many companies.

When to Redirect a Webpage: 3XX Codes

A redirect is when you type in or click on a specific URL, and the website transfers you to a different page with a different URL.

This isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it’s a tool that can enhance a website’s usability, but only when it’s used wisely.

For our purposes, we’re going to be looking at 301 and 302 redirect codes. These are two that digital marketers should have in their toolbox to create a seamless web experience.

301 Code - Permanent Redirect

It’s important to understand two things about permanent redirects:

  1. It signals to search engines that the original link is gone, and that any SEO value from it should be transferred to the new URL that you're redirecting to.
  2. It is usually paired with an indication to the user that the original page has been replaced.
  3. There is a 308 code that also permanently redirects. While the two don’t work identically, 301 codes are still the predominant way to set up a permanent redirect.

For an example of when you’d want to send these messages, let’s say you have a popular page detailing a particular local event…but it’s for last year’s event. The information in it is no longer relevant. You could update the page to include this information, or you could redirect that page to your main Events page so that users can click on upcoming event links, instead of past events.

Just as frequently, most websites go through iterations where products, services and people change. So a direct link to your former CEO’s profile page might exist on 50 industry websites, but John Smith doesn’t work for you anymore. So you might redirect www.{URL}.com/team/john-smith to the main /team page, instead of keeping a link alive for someone that doesn’t work there anymore.

eCommerce companies do this all the time, often with a redirect link to a new or related product that may be a good replacement for one that’s no longer available.

Another common use for this is with job postings. Many people will bookmark the link to a job listing that they may be interested in. If you fill the position, though, that link is going to a position that no longer exists. Removing the page and redirecting it to your main list of open positions is a common strategy.

302 Code - Temporary Redirect

The name is somewhat self-explanatory. This code temporarily redirects a page.

Importantly, there’s an extremely similar 307 code that’s used to differentiate between two similar functions. 302 codes are still the predominant method of setting up a temporary redirect, though. 

Why would you want to do this instead of a permanent redirect? Remember that the SEO value from a redirected link goes to the new URL that you redirect to. So if you plan on bringing a page back at some point, you may want it to retain any SEO value that it’s already accrued.

Cyclical events are a common use-case for this. You might not have the information ready for next year’s event yet, but you’ll be using the same landing page to promote as you did the previous year.

Or perhaps a product is temporarily out of stock, but you expect to carry it again in the future.

404 Error Codes

There are several 4XX error codes, and they’re listed in more detail below. But right now we’re going to take a look at the most common one you should be aware of: the 404 code.

The 404 HTTP code means that the server can’t find the particular page you are looking for. The website as a whole is functioning; it’s not a 5XX error, in which case the entire site is likely down. It’s just a missing page.

If you’re a user and you experience this, the first thing you should do is first check that the URL is typed correctly. A misspelled URL such as might produce a 404 error, but you were looking for /about.

If the URL is still missing, this means it’s a website issue. You could contact the company if it’s truly important, or it may just be that what you’re looking for no longer exists.

If you’re a web designer or marketer in charge of monitoring websites, you should know how to handle 404 codes. Your visitors might alert you to them. Others might show up on a site audit or report from Google Search Console. Or you might know of one because a particular page was just removed from the site.

An easy solution is to set up a redirect, either temporary or permanent. This is what most websites will do when they discover 404s, and it’s a simple recommendation that will keep you safe from embarrassing search stories from visitors.

However, it’s often impossible to account for every possible 404 that could occur on your site. Which is why it’s also important to focus on the 404s themselves.

Making Your 404 Page Look Cool

If users are going to occasionally stumble across a 404 page, why not use it as an opportunity to enhance your brand a bit?

Sure, finding a missing page isn’t a great brand image, so the best thing is to avoid them. But the cleverest websites also have unique, often funny, 404 pages that admit to their mistake before suggesting alternate resources available on the site. Ideally, you get a small chuckle out of the visitor, and they click to another area of your site.

Most website builders, and any web development company worth their salt, can design a unique 404 page for your site that directly reflects your brand character. The internet is awash with examples of brands that have done clever things with the 404 pages to stand out. So why not give it a try yourself?

Complete List of HTTP Status Codes

Alright, so now you know about the status codes that you’re most likely to encounter as a digital marketer, and those that occur most frequently as issues for users.

Below is a more comprehensive list of all major HTTP status codes. Some you may never see or have to deal with in your career.

But if you’ve encountered one that isn’t listed above and is perhaps a bit more unique and rare, you can see the brief description below to help you search for additional information or, if it’s an error code, a solution to the underlying issue.

1XX Status Codes: Informational Responses

  • 100 - Continue
  • 101 - Switching Protocols
  • 102 - Processing
  • 103 - Early Hints

2XX Status Codes: Success Codes

  • 200 - OK
  • 201 - Created
  • 202 - Accepted
  • 203 - Non-Authoritative Information
  • 204 - No Content
  • 205 - Reset Content
  • 206 - Partial Content
  • 207 - Multi-Status
  • 208 - Already Reported
  • 226 - IM Used

3XX Status Codes: Redirection

  • 300 - Multiple Choices
  • 301 - Moved Permanently
  • 302 - Found (was previously "Moved Temporarily")
  • 303 - See Other
  • 304 - Not Modified
  • 305 - Use Proxy
  • 306 - Switch Proxy
  • 307 - Temporary Redirect
  • 308 - Permanent Redirect

4XX Status Codes: Client Errors

  • 400 - Bad Request
  • 401 - Unauthorized
  • 402 - Payment Required
  • 403 - Forbidden
  • 404 - Not Found
  • 405 - Method Not Allowed
  • 406 - Not Acceptable
  • 407 - Proxy Authentication Required
  • 408 - Request Timeout
  • 409 - Conflict
  • 410 - Gone
  • 411 - Length Required
  • 412 - Precondition Failed
  • 413 - Content Too Large
  • 414 - URL Too Long
  • 415 - Unsupported Media Type
  • 416 - Range Not Satisfiable
  • 417 - Expectation Failed
  • 421 - Misdirected Request
  • 422 - Unprocessable Content
  • 423 - Locked
  • 424 - Failed Dependency
  • 425 - Too Early
  • 426 - Upgrade Required
  • 428 - Precondition Required
  • 429 - Too Many Requests
  • 431 - Request Header Fields Too Large
  • 451 - Unavailable for Legal Reasons

5XX Status Codes: Server Errors

  • 500 - Internal Server Error
  • 501 - Not Implemented
  • 502 - Bad Gateway
  • 503 - Service Unavailable
  • 504 - Gateway Timeout
  • 505 - HTTP Version Not Supported
  • 506 - Variant Also Negotiates
  • 507 - Insufficient Storage
  • 508 - Loop Detected
  • 511 - Network Authentication Required

Website Status Codes Summary

Ok class, so what did we learn today?

Hopefully a thing or two about managing a website’s link structure so that it’s clean and intuitive for the user.

Within web design, a lot of these practices are considered standard, but they can be foreign concepts to many businesses looking to set up a website for the first time or looking to revamp their digital presence and become more modern.

The result is a better user experience, and being able to give search engines a better understanding of your site’s structure. Both of these contribute directly to the success of your website as a branding and sales tool for your company.

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