The phrases “404 Not Found Error”, “Error Establishing a Database Connection” and “509 Bandwidth Limit Exceeded” can make the heart of any web-dependant business person instantly drop.

Everybody knows server downtime means an invisible website that won’t be getting any online leads/sales until it is back up. However, did you know that unresolved hosting issues can also damage your overall SEO strategy?

With the Panda and Penguin updates continuing to push towards real-time caching and indexing, we’ve got a sneaking suspicion that being on top of your hosting is becoming more important than ever.

How Has Google Handled Websites with Hosting Issues In the Past?

There are a few different theories about the way Google deals with server downtime.

In 2013, Matt Cutts – former head of Google’s web spam team – told website owners not to worry if their hosting drops out for a few hours as this type of one-off problem won’t affect rankings.

Back then, the time between when a site drops out and when Google recognised the problem could have been anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks. Once Google bots detected the site was down, it would remove the listing from search engine results entirely – especially if a 404 error accompanied the downtime. The site would then stay invisible in search results until it was crawled once again – another process that could take a few hours to a few weeks.

As long as the downtime didn’t turn into weeks, or happen on a regular basis, Google just kept checking back to the site, and once it was up again, it would return it to its former ranking glory.

This whole process made sense – after all, Google didn’t want to direct customers to a closed shop front and tell them just to wait for it to open again at some yet to be determined time in the future.

How is Google Responding to Hosting Problems Now?

Cutts’ reassurance that hosting and SERPs aren’t connected is three years old now, and recently we’ve noticed that Google is responding to website outages in a new and curiously speedy way.

While Google has issued no official statements about hosting problems for a long time, this week, two KDM clients noticed Google respond differently to their downtime issues.

The clients – who were both using the same host – experienced server issues that saw their websites go offline for a couple of hours.

However, when these particular sites went down, instead of maintaining their ranking position before dropping off the map altogether once they were crawled, they both experienced a 12 ranking drop within hours of going down.

Once the websites’ host resolved the issue a few hours later, the sites once again began their crawls back to the tops of their results. Yet the speed with which Google detected the problems, and the preference for issuing ranking drops as opposed to delisting have raised a few questions:

  1. We know that Panda is now part of Google’s set of core algorithms. Is the Panda algorithm’s ability to immediately react to low-quality signals going to lower significantly the time Google takes to cache and index broken pages from now on?
  2. Before the outage, both client’s websites were ranking in the upper half of the first page results for their respective search terms. Is it possible that Google is now prioritising moving – not deleting – broken pages from the first page of search engine results?
  3. Both clients were fairly large businesses that constantly receive a fair amount of traffic. Could a website’s popularity now affect how long it takes to cache them and then index the results?

Tips for Avoiding Downtime Ranking Drops

Unfortunately, no matter how big your business’ budget is, it’s impossible to avoid downtime 100% of the time. Hosting problems can be caused by anything from server software updates to natural disasters, through to malicious website attacks.

However, there are simple steps you can take to mitigate the damage caused by an offline website:

  • Use tools like Pingdom to alert you every time your site is down or performing poorly. Or, at the very least, make sure you check the box to receive notifications about hosting issues when you sign up for your domain. Emails and calls from dissatisfied customers are not the right way to find out there’s a problem with your site.
  • Don’t skimp on hosting – it’s a buyer’s market out there, and you can afford to be picky. Beware of cheap “unlimited bandwidth” packages, what they offer in bandwidth they often lack in speed or reliability.
  • Read the reviews of your hosting company before you sign up. If they have unhappy customers, the internet is where these clients are going to vent.
  • Wherever possible, choose a host that is local. You’ll want to be able to get in touch with them straight away if you encounter any problems.
  • If your host is always failing you, go with someone new. Once Google flags your site as an unreliable resource, it may take several recrawls to recover your rankings. Or, if your site is down for too long, Google will think it doesn’t exist anymore, and it will be removed from the index altogether.

Have you noticed hosting issues affecting your rankings? We want to know about how your site’s downtime has affected your SEO performance. Please, comment with your thoughts below.