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Google says disabling an online business website due to coronavirus should be a last resort

The company says doing so could hurt long-term search rankings

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Google has issued a set of guidelines and a helpful FAQ to website owners to try and minimize the damage being done by worldwide shutdowns, both online and off, over the coronavirus pandemic.

The company says the most important advice it can give is to avoid disabling a website altogether, so long as it’s feasible to continue paying the hosting fees. Some domain registrars, like GoDaddy and Namecheap, are offering support to customers concerned they won’t be able to maintain websites adversely affected by the shutdowns. But Google says disabling a site may harm its search rankings when it is brought back online.

“If your situation is temporary and you plan to reopen your online business, we recommend keeping your site online and limiting the functionality,” writes John Mueller, Google’s senior webmaster trends analyst. “For example, you might mark items as out of stock, or restrict the cart and checkout process. This is the recommended approach since it minimizes any negative effects on your site’s presence in Search. People can still find your products, read reviews, or add wishlists so they can purchase at a later time.”

Some options Mueller says a website owner should do instead is disabling the shopping cart, posting a banner or some other form of informational notice to the website to inform customers of limited functionality, and to use Google’s Search Console tool to ask the search engine to re-index the limited number of pages.

Mueller says disabling a site should be a last resort. “This 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,” he explains. “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.”

If it does need to be done, however, Mueller says there are measures to limit the long-lasting damage it could to do to the site’s broader visibility:

  • If you need to urgently disable the site for 1-2 days, then return an informational error page with a 503 HTTP result code instead of all content. Make sure to follow the best practices for disabling a site.
  • If you need to disable the site for a longer time, then provide an indexable homepage as a placeholder for users to find in Search by using the 200 HTTP status code.
  • If you quickly need to hide your site in Search while you consider the options, you can temporarily remove it from Search.

There’s also an FAQ at the bottom of the page with other useful information, like what happens if you disable a site for only a few weeks and how to handle inventory if you’re operating an e-commerce operation.