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Google warns against disabling websites during Coronavirus pandemic

Your search ranking will suffer less if you just make it a bit rubbish instead

As companies shut their doors against the coronavirus outbreak, Google has released a set of guidelines to website owners on how to minimise the long-terms effects on their business's search ranking.

An important step, Google says, is to not disable your website altogether. Although business owners might find it tempting to turn off their websites to avoid paying fees or disappoint customers they can't serve, Google says that this might harm your website rankings when the site it brought back online.

Turning your site off "is an extreme measure that should only be taken for a very short period of time (a few days at most), as it will otherwise have significant effects on the website in Search, even when implemented properly," wrote John Mueller, a trends analyst at Google, in a blogpost.

"That's why it's highly recommended to only limit your site's functionality instead. Keep in mind that your customers may also want to find information about your products, your services, and your company, even if you're not selling anything right now."

Instead, the search'n'ad giant recommends being up-front with customers about a temporary inability to secure stock and/or disabling shopping carts. Then re-index using Google's Search Console for a small number of pages, or sitemaps for a larger number of pages.

But if closing your site for a short time is necessary, Google advises you to return an information error page with a 503 HTTP result code instead of removing content. If you need to disable the site for longer, then use a 200 HTTP status code to provide an indexable homepage as a placeholder for users to find when they search for your site.

But Google warns that doing so could have a number of lasting effects on how your site interacts with its search engine. For example, the Search Console verification will fail, meaning you will lose access to information about your business in Search. Ramping up again will be harder as your website will need to be re-indexed, and it might not appear in search results in the same way as it did before the disable.

"This is the recommended approach since it minimises any negative effects on your site's presence in Search. People can still find your products, read review, or add wishlists so they can purchase at a later time," Mueller said.

Mueller also advised against temporarily blocking access to entire regions from your site or using the Remove Tool to wipe out-of-stock products. Just mark it out of stock, Mueller said. "That way people can still understand what's going on, even if they can't purchase the item. If you remove the product from Search, people don't know why it's not there." ®

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