SEO Tip #95: How Should I Configure ‘If Modified Since’ On Database Driven Pages?

Matt Cutts: Great question, very specific, so let’s dive in. So for people who don’t know, suppose you have a static file, you can say “if modified since” in the http header is to say how essentially how old this file is. If it hasn’t been modified since 2007, Google doesn’t have to keep fetching it all the time or we can just check whether it has been updated and if it hasn’t we can just reuse the copy that’s in our index.

So ‘if modified since’ can be really, really helpful to tell search engines and bots whether the content on a specific page has changed or not. So Tommo’s question is the template hasn’t changed, but we’re using a database to update a large chunk of the page, and what do you do with ‘if modified since’ then?

Well take a step back and say to yourself: “okay a search engine comes to a page, has the page changed or not?” That’s sort of the litmus test. And not just like a tiny little bit of change but like a substantial fraction of the page. In this case, since you’re using database-driven techniques to update a large fraction of the page, as far as users care and so as far as search engines care the page has changed.

So in that situation I would say if you do have the ability to control the ‘if modified since’ header I would update that. Because remember Google will look and it will see, “oh the page hasn’t been modified. Maybe we don’t have to fetch that page again. Maybe we’ll just reuse the copy that we’d crawled last time.”

So whenever you’re thinking about this with database driven sites, if you have dynamic content, content that is changing each time, content that changes every few days, I would update the ‘if modified since’ header if you can. And you can sort of keep it in sync with the content.

If you can’t do that then worst-case you can remove the ‘if modified since’ and then Google will not assume that the content is necessarily old or that it hasn’t changed. Instead it will be forced to crawl that content to find out whether it really has changed.

So, kind of an esoteric, really specific question, but my answer is: if the page truly has changed and you are updating it via database or whatever, and that sounds like what is happening here, then I would also change the ‘if modified since’ header so that the search engine knows to fetch that page again.

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About the Author

Andy Johnson

Andy Johnson has been on the Internet since the its dawn(ie his first computer program was recorded on cassette tape) and his first hard drive cost about as much his current MacBook. His first byline was in 1993 for a local newspaper rag he eventually helmed, and his last “real job” was at a computer start up which ended when it ended. Throughout it all he’s freelanced and blogged. Now he is mesmerized by Search Engine Optimization forever trying to “rise to the top” for the right reasons. He’s been married to his wife Julia for as long as he can remember and has two lovely, wonderful children. He looks forward to sharing the latest in the technical best for all the online entrepreneurs.