What Are HTTP Status Codes?

22 Jan, 2020

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Essentials of Digital Marketing: HTTP Status Codes

Welcome to rankingCoach's digital marketing essentials. Now that many hosting services provide user-friendly drag and drop applications for building a site. It has become possible to build a website with no prior knowledge of programming languages.

When it comes to getting a website found online, digital marketers with the right strategy do not need an MA in computer science to be successful.

However, a basic understanding of how the internet works can really help, especially, with understanding the logic behind crucial digital marketing activities that are so important for SEO. To help build up this elementary knowledge, today we will answer one important question:

What are HTTP status codes?

Everyone knows one HTTP status code that we tend to associate with disappointment: 

      Error 404 Page
      page not found 

We know this code far better than the others because every website has a page that references this 404 status code: the 404 error page is shown to users when the page they are looking for cannot be found.

The reason why users see the 404 error page because something has gone wrong in the hidden conversation occurring between the browser and server in the messaging format of HTTP. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you will understand what I mean by this.

The best way of understanding HTTP status codes is to go from the start:

What is HTTP?

To view and interact with a website on the internet we use a web browser like Chrome, Firefox, Explorer. When talking about HTTP these applications are referred to as the client. They are used to access websites that are stored on computer networks, known as servers.

HTTP is the standardized set of messages your browser/client uses to access and interact with the data that is hosted on the server. The actual content the user is accessing on a website to read, delete, add to, etc. could come in all kinds of other formats video, text or image formats like MP4, PDF, GIF, but the messaging format used to ask for this information is HTTP.

Interesting Fact: HTTP was invented by Sir Tim Burners Lee, because it is the messaging system that makes interaction between your browser and the server possible, many people refer to Sir Tim as the inventor of the internet. 

So What are HTTP Status Codes?

We have established that HTTP is a system of messages for communication between a client/browser and server. To understand what role HTTP status codes play in this interaction I would like to use an analogy: 

HTTP Status Codes & The Lime Green Package

Imagine I ask my friend on the phone to post me a lime green package that I left in a cupboard at their house. My friend could respond to me in innumerable ways, but many of these responses can be divided into the following 5 general categories of meaning.

1) My friend communicates to me that she is listening to my question and trying to understand it.

2) My friend communicates that she has understood my question and is working out how to send the package.

3) My friend doesn't store the lime green package in the cupboard anymore but she has it somewhere else and could send it.

4) There is a problem with my telephone so my friend tells me to check my phone because they cannot hear me.

5) There is a problem with my friend's telephone so they cannot respond.


A General Way of Understanding How HTTP Status Codes Work

These five different groups of answers function in a very similar way to HTTP status codes with the client/browser taking my place and the server taking the place of my friend. 

Fortunately for us, unlike human languages that have multiple ways of saying the same thing, HTTP is much simpler. There is a set three-digit code for communicating each meaning. This is what makes HTTP a protocol, which is part of its full name: Hypertext Transfer Protocol. 

These messages are all handily placed into five different groups that can be identified with the first digit of the code. These categories fit roughly into the five groups of meaning listed in the conversation with my friend about the lime green package. The second and third digits signify a more nuanced message linked to the overall meaning of the first.

1)  HTTP 1xx status codes: The I'm Listening Codes

These messages refer to the status of the channel for requests.

For instance, these codes could mean the server is open to your browsers requests (HTTP 100 status code Code) or that the server has received the request but is processing its meaning (HTTP 102 status code) 

2) HTTP 2XX status codes: The Message Received Codes

These messages generally communicate that the request has been received and some additional information on the response

This can be as simple as the request was received and that the response is being worked on (HTTP status code 202) or something more nuanced like the request was received can only be partially fulfilled ( HTTP status code 206) 

3) HTTP 3XX Status Codes: What You Are Looking For Is Somewhere Else Codes

Codes starting with 3XX are most commonly known for their role in redirects

Redirecting is an activity that site owners conduct when they have moved the address of a page to another location and want to make sure that users and search engines can find the new location. For instance, these codes can mean that a page's address has changed permanently (HTTP 301 status code) or that it has temporarily changed  (HTTP 302 status code).  

4) 4XX Status Codes: The Blame It on The Client Codes

These codes show that there is a problem because of something the Client (in our case the browser) has done.

For instance, the user could be trying to access something they don't have permission to (HTTP 401 status code) or that  the URL they have typed is wrong or doesn't currently exist (HTTP 404 status code) 

5) 5XX Status Codes: Blame It on The Server Codes

These codes communicate a problem with the host of the site.

So anyone trying to buy tickets to a popular rock concert may have seen the message that shows the server has too much traffic or is down for maintenance (HTTP status 503). Or perhaps the website has crashed but no one knows what is wrong so we get the general server error code (HTTP status code 500).

So Why Do I Need to Know What HTTP Error Codes Mean?

On top of the benefit of having a general idea of how the internet works, you are now better prepared for digital marketing fixes and techniques that we will explain in this blog in the coming year.

For instance, knowing about redirect codes is extremely important for anyone looking to move pages on their website to a new location. If we don't redirect the old traffic then any rankings from the old pages will be lost. To see just how important this is, check out what happened to Ryanair who got this wrong with their website.

Understanding the meaning of error 404 status code is also extremely important for link building activities. If a link from another person's website to yours returns the error 404 message then that link is broken and therefore not helping you. 

This is just the start of a series of articles to come in this area. Hopefully, at the very least you now have a better understanding of what HTTP status codes are and why that website is showing you their 404 error with broken robots on it!

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