When 5XX server errors crop up, they can be problematic on many fronts; how do you fix them, why are they needing attention and what are they? When you are faced with these specific errors it tends to cross the dividing line from an SEO fixing this issue to a developer – I’ll touch on why this is the case on each of the points below. Although the information on this page is not designed to be diagnostics for developers, it can provide some support for Junior SEOs trying to get a handle on server errors. If your website is completely offline and displays errors around resolving hostnames, you may be having a DNS error issue.
Key questions when it comes to server errors for SEO.
A 5XX error can often be shown in many different ways, ultimately you will see one of the following headers: 500 Internal Server Error, 502 Bad Gateway Error, 503 Service Unavailable Error or 504 Gateway Timeout. The display of these pages can vary from website to website but fundamentally will communicate the headers above in one way or another.
If you can’t see them when you are browsing a website, this doesn’t mean you are out of the woods. 500 Server Errors can be unpredictable and occur in clusters, one-off or site-wide. There are some key ways you can find out if your website is suffering from issues of 500 Server Errors.
1. If you go to Google Search Console > Coverage > Errors, this will showcase any recent errors found on the site in regards to 500 Server Errors.
2. If you stay in Google Search Console > Settings > Crawling > View Report, this will show you connectivity issues to the site also, indicating some trouble with the server, irrespective of the error.
3. These can also be picked up by crawling software such as SEMRush site audit, SiteBulb, Screaming Frog, AHrefs and even Bing Webmaster’s site audit tool. Most of these tools are utilised within my technical SEO audit service.
If you have made a change on a website and the 500 server error has occurred, considering a rollback at this stage may be most viable. This is considering if you are losing revenue and a developer troubleshooting it wouldn’t be viable (or take too long). If you identify it as an issue without any easily identifiable reason, speak to a developer as soon as possible – these types of errors are often caused by server-sided problems, such as PHP, CHMOD access or out of date server-side code.
Common ways you can trigger 500 server errors as an SEO.
- Making changes to the htaccess file.
- Installing new plugin, form or script which triggers a timeout, php error or memory limit threshold.
- Changing CHMOD access via FTP, to a file or directory (or entire root).
- Removing ‘unnecessary code’ which was relied upon elsewhere.
- Updating plugins and themes to major new versions or toggling PHP version up or down.
Key learnings for 500 server errors.
- Keep a backup of the site that is suitable for the business – high traffic, high frequency backup, low traffic, once a day backup (usually).
- Alert the developers quicky – the longer 500 server errors are in place the longer it can harm your rankings, or annoy your customers.
- Create a process for key functionality or full site going offline, include developers or agency where required.
- Make website changes with intent, try and achieve something and don’t just go looking in source code, ad-hoc changes are often problematic.
- Don’t change code, access or key functionality wihtout knowing what you are doing or are operating with a site you are comfortable breaking (Testing site, new site which is offline or WAMP environment for example).
If you are running PPC, you can be wasting your budget by sending prospects to 500 error pages, don’t be afraid to turn off PPC if your site is offline, they likely cannot navigate and it’ll probably annoy your prospects if the error remains in place for a long time.
You can also keep track of 500 server errors through a server log, this logs all occurrences of 500 errors albeit it can provide a substantial amount of information. Some providers will allow you to upload the server log text file and it’ll audit this for you – I think Screaming Frog provided a similar service.
500 server errors are radically different than 4xx client-side errors, I’ve written a little bit more about them on my how to handle 4xx errors for SEO page.