Server Optimization

One of the first things we do when we start doing SEO for a new client is check out the server that the website sits on. Some of the things we look for on a server:

  • old websites that still might be indexed
  • file permissions
  • folders, images, and other resources
  • the overall file/folder hierarchy
  • anything else that might be out of place

At one point we actually wrote a PSA to webmasters across the globe because we were finding so many servers with multiple websites sitting on them. This might not sound like a huge deal but imagine the confusion if someone lands on the old site and starts finding conflicting information. Or what about if Google decides that you are using duplicate content?

If you are an SEO, it is your duty to at least learn the very basics about servers. In this section of the guide we are mainly going to focus on Linux server being that they cover such a large portion of the market, however understanding Windows servers as well can be beneficial.

HTTP status codes

An HTTP status code is used to give information about the server to the user, such as a page not being found or one that was redirected. You might not have realized, but from the very first time you were on the internet, you’ve experienced HTTP status codes whether you know it or not. An HTTP status code in and of itself won’t help you rank better on the web, but gaining a technical understanding of the most popular status codes will make you a much stronger and smarter SEO consultant in general.

At the very least, understanding what a 301 and 404 is is imperative to learning SEO.

Some of the most popular status codes from an SEO standpoint are:

HTTP Status Code Reason
200 OK
301 Moved Permanently (Redirected)
302 Temporary Redirect
403 Forbidden
404 Not Found
500 Internal Server Error
502 Bad Gateway
503 Service Unavailable

In total there are dozens of status codes, but for the purpose of this tutorial we will only be dealing with 5 of the above.


The caveat with this status code is if you are doing everything right, this code is issued. For instance, if you are reading this page right now that means a 200 status code was passed along with it, meaning everything is OK.


One of the most common status codes is 404, not found. This status code has gotten so popular that people have even started to make jokes about it or make their own custom 404 pages. When a page is deleted or moves to another location the server will issue a “404.” From an SEO standpoint, you generally want to avoid 404’s on your website. 404’s tend to frustrate your website visitors and Googlebot is not a fan of them either.

Try to make your 404 page custom, not the default server 404 page. A lot of folks will actually put a minified version of their website sitemap on their 404 page, to help point users in the right direction. Other, more savvy webmasters will make conditional 404 pages. But don’t listen to people that try to tell you that a 404 will kill your chances in SEO. Even Gary Illyes of Google made light of this situation recently:

While 404’s are definitely something you need to be aware of, and in control of, the mere existence of them will not penalize you in any way.


301 is another popular status code. In fact it is so popular that we wrote an entire section on this status code within this guide. 301’s can get really tricky. We’ve seen 301’s make or break an entire website plan of action, so be careful. 301’s do pass linkjuice or authority so keep that in mind when creating them. In order to set up a 301 redirect, you’ll have to access your web servers .htaccess file (for Linux servers).


The 403 Forbidden status code you fill usually only find if the server admin has blocked the page, folder or resource.Sometimes this is something intentionally that your webmaster did to block something, other times it might have been done accidentally or as a result of an error. As an SEO it is your job to help diagnose these issues and figure them out.


You will see a 500 internal server error if something is wrong with the website such as an improperly configured database. Other times you will see this error if you are out of memory on your server or if you are having PHP issues. The problem with many of these errors, or statuses is that they are very general and difficult to diagnose. Get to know these status codes and you’ll be a much stronger SEO.

More information:

Hosting and CDN’s

Hosting is another topic that could either make or break your website depending on the decision you make. A slow hosting provider could cause delays in your website loading time which could frustrate both your own users as well as Googlebot. Don’t be fooled by “SEO web hosting” for one minute. While some of these hosting companies may actually have some beneficial SEO elements such as multiple IP’s most of the time these hosting companies feature what is already included in regular hosting companies.

CDN’s or content delivery networks can be beneficial with sites that have lots of traffic, and lots of content. In short, A CDN is a network of servers that will deliver your content using the closest server to your visitor. In a typical web hosting environment, all files are server from one central location. With a CDN, files are served from multiple locations throughout the world. For example if you client is in Sydney Australia, instead of your website having to travel all the way from your central server in NYC, a copy of your website is stored in Sydney so instead of it taking .5 milliseconds to travel it will only take .2 milliseconds. It might not sound like a lot of time, but it adds up when you have 1000’s of files and many visitors viewing your website at the same time.

If you are running a small website, chances are you don’t need a CDN. If you’ve got a large operation with a ton of dynamics, you may want to consider a CDN. If that is the case there are a number of reputable options out there including Amazon, MaxCDN, and much more.

Subdomains vs Subfolders

Ah, one of the greatest debates of SEO’s. Should I put my content on a subdomain or should it put it within a subfolder of my website? If you Google this topic, you’ll literally find 100’s of questions written by SEO’s and just as many answers and opinions on this subject.

Before we go any further, lets clarify what we are talking about exactly:

We aren’t saying there aren’t uses for subdomains. For instance our CDN is on the subdomain and all of our images are hosted there. This isn’t a huge issue since all of our actual content resides on our main domain. Many more examples exist also.

If you want our opinion: we stay away from subdomains as much as possible. Sure, I can find just as many arguments for one side or another, but our experience doing SEO over the years has lead us to the stance of not using subdomains if given the choice.

If you must use a subdomain, there are some things to know. First off, treat a subdomain like a new website in terms of crawlability and link equity. We’ve seen a number of cases where content was moved from a subfolder to a subdomain and the SEO essentially had to “start over.” So know that before you make any moves.

The unofficial answer on subdomains vs subfolders: I wasn’t going to post this here on our official guide, but it has to be said. 8/10 SEO’s prefer subfolders over subdomains. I.E. they prefer keeping the content on the root domain rather than “spreading it out” on a subdomain. This isn’t always the case and there are some rare exceptions.

One exception is this: my friend has a very popular mens magazine. He recently thought about adding a section called “guns and tactical.” Since most of his revenue came from Amazon and Google and he knew they didn’t play well with firearm related content, he wasn’t taking any chances. So he created a new subdomain and segregated all of that content so when they went to audit his site, they wouldn’t see this new section.

On-Page SEO Guide Table of Contents