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What Are Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) Status Codes and Why Do They Matter?

There are certain technical processes that occur with your website behind closed doors. When a visitor accesses it, for instance, he or she will send your website a request header. Your website will then send the visitor a response header with a specific Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) status code.

All visitors will receive an HTTP status code. Each time a visitor attempts to load a page, your website will respond with an HTTPS status code. Depending on how your website processes a visitor’s request header, though, he or she may receive an undesirable HTTP status code that denotes a bigger problem.

Overview of HTTP Status Codes

HTTP status codes are numerical codes in response headers that convey how a visitor’s request — or a search engine’s request — was processed by your website. Consisting of a string of three numbers, they indicate a response to a visitor’s request.

Your website will communicate with visitors through headers. Visitors will send a request header to your website when accessing a page, after which they’ll receive a response header sent from your website. The HTTP status code included in a response header is determined by the way in which your website processed the visitor’s request.

Most visitors will probably receive a 200 HTTP status code from your website. The 200 HTTP status code is the universal response for successful requests. If a visitor requests a page at a specific URL and your website loads the page without any hiccups, he or she will typically receive a 200 HTTP status code.

Common Types of HTTP Status Codes

There are several dozen HTTP status codes, each of which indicates a specific response. With that said, all HTTP status codes fall under one of five classes. Classes are groups of similar responses. Each class consists of a different type of response. You can identify the class of an HTTP status code by looking at its first number.

The five classes of HTTP status codes include:

1. 1xx: Your website is still processing the visitor’s request and needs more time to complete it.

2. 2xx: Your website successfully processed the visitor’s request.

3. 3xx: Your website received the visitor’s request but redirected him or her to a different URL rather than the requested URL.

4. 4xx: The visitor’s request was invalid or erroneous.

5. 5xx: Your website was unable to process the visitor’s request due to a server-side problem.

The Impact of HTTP Status Codes

Why should you care about HTTP status codes? Since they indicate responses to visitors’ requests, they can affect your website’s user experience. If your website can’t process a visitor’s request, it won’t be able to display the appropriate page. The visitor will then receive the appropriate HTTP status code, which will be displayed in the visitor’s web browser rather than the requested page’s content.

Some HTTP status codes are bad for search engine optimization (SEO). Too many 5xx HTTP status codes may harm your website’s rankings. This class of HTTP status codes indicates a problem with your website’s server. If your website’s server is overloaded at the time of the request, it will respond with a 503 HTTP status code. If your website’s server doesn’t support the protocol specified in a visitor’s request, on the other hand, it will respond with a 505 HTTP status code. There’s also the 500 HTTP status code, which indicates a generic side-serve problem.

5xx HTTP status codes are bad for SEO because they prevent visitors from properly accessing and using your website. Visitors expect pages to load after clicking links or typing addresses. With a 5xx HTTP status code, some or all of the pages on your website won’t load. Whether visitors click a link to an affected page or type the page’s address in their web browser, it won’t load. Therefore, 5xx HTTP status codes foster a negative experience that’s bad for SEO.

4xx HTTP status codes can be a concern as well. With broken links, for example, visitors will receive a 404 HTTP status code. This HTTP status code indicates that the requested page wasn’t found. If you link from one page on your website to another page using the wrong URL, the link will be broken. As a result, a 404 HTTP status code will be sent to all visitors who try to follow the link.

You can leverage other HTTP status codes to improve your website’s SEO. 3xx HTTP status codes are particularly useful for SEO. This class of HTTP status codes indicates a redirection. When visitors try to access a page, they will request content from a URL. Moving the page’s content to a different URL means that visitors won’t be able to access it at the old URL. Instead, your website will return a 404 HTTP status code.

You can use a 3xx HTTP status code, however, to redirect visitors from the old URL to the new URL. The 301 HTTP status code indicates a permanent redirection to a new URL, while the 302 HTTP status code indicates a temporary redirection to a new URL. You can configure your website to return a 301 or 302 HTTP status code by adding a redirect snippet to your website’s .htaccess file.

How to Find HTTP Status Codes

You can find your website’s HTTP status codes in different ways. To find broken links that are causing 404 HTTP status codes, run your website through a broken link checker like drlinkcheck.com. Alternatively, Google Analytics reveals 404 HTTP status codes in the “Site Content” section.

The easiest way to find HTTP status codes is to use websniffer.cc. This free tool will sniff your website’s response headers to reveal its HTTP status codes. Just enter the URL of a page, and websniffer.cc will show the exact response header returned for that URL. Of course, different page URLs will trigger different HTTP status codes. You’ll need to test each page URL to determine its HTTP status code.

HTTP is the language that your website uses to communicate with its visitors. Within this language are words represented as HTTP status codes. Your website will respond to visitors’ requests with HTTP status codes. Ensuring that your website responds with the right HTTP status codes will improve its user experience and SEO.

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