In an intriguing revelation, Gary Illyes, the voice of Google, delved into the intricate realm of HTTP 304 status codes and their potential to take an unexpected tumble. Despite its role as a beacon of understanding for search engine bots, the seemingly innocuous 304 status code can orchestrate a mesmerizing backfire of events.
In his musings shared on LinkedIn, Gary Illyes imparted, “Behold the marvel that is HTTP 304, the signal that informs web crawlers about the steadfast nature of content since their last perusal. Yet, within its seemingly straightforward nature lies the potential for a grand unraveling.”
Gary proceeded to unfold a sequence of steps, an intricate choreography in which the 304 status code can unwittingly choreograph a dance of confusion:
1. Crawler requests URL
2. The server encounters some sort of error and serves an empty page with a 200 (ok) HTTP status code
3. The crawler considers that as a transient soft error, and schedules a recrawl to verify
4. Since the content (that was not actually served) hasn’t changed, the server returns HTTP 304 for the particular URL, without content (as mandated by the HTTP standard RFC 9110)
5. The crawler “learns” the error is persistable and doesn’t try to recrawl anymore (it will eventually, but holding your breath is not recommended)
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To clarify the essence, envision a virtual mishap where your server unwittingly treats Google to an empty canvas or a discordant composition. When coupled with the statement “Do not return, dear Google, with a 304 HTTP status code,” the once-harmless status code mutates into a harbinger of chaos.