What Are ‘Soft 404’ Errors and Will They Affect SEO Ranking?

5 mn read

Having often communicated with various internet marketers and SEO specialists, you may have come across 404 SOFT errors. Everyone wants cool content, and they were landing for new semantic intents. And, of course, everyone needs great backlinks. Where can we go without them? And, oddly enough, they often pass by the usual technical questions that can kill your entire SEO company success in the bud. One such technical point is how Googlebot crawls the site. This article will talk about 404 SOFT errors and how much they affect SEO ranking?

What are 404 SOFT errors?
Let’s figure it out! You’ve probably already seen pages like this:
This is a standard page for 404 errors in the website online store.

Each time a 404 or Not Found error message is displayed, the server should return a standard HTTP 404 response code. The 404 server response code representing the requested URL is not found. This code tells the browser and search engines that the page exists. As a result, if any, the page content will not be crawled by search engines. It represents the server that renders 404 pages for all non-existent URLs. A specially designed design is visible, where the store’s promotions are presented so that the user does not leave the site instantly. This is standard practice in e-commerce, where every visitor counts.

Unfortunately, most specialists who are somehow involved in website promotion do not understand that the “page not found” message has nothing to do with the HTTP response returned by the server. It does not mean that the page is automatically detected as a 404 page by just a 404 File Not Found message. 

The “Soft 404” error occurs whenever:

  • A non-existent page or a page that has been deleted does not return an HTTP 404 response code at the request of a user or bot;

  • A non-existent page redirects users to an irrelevant page;

  • When the page is empty, there is no content on it.

What are the problems with 404 SOFT

If an HTTP status other than 404 is returned for a non-existent page, this may negatively affect the entire site’s ranking. 

On google search: First, if you don’t provide a 404 response code, your site will tell search engines that there is an actual page at the address they are trying to get. As a result, the deleted URL will be crawled and indexed. As a result, you are losing a valuable crawler budget.

Crawling budget is a concept whereby Google crawls a website for a limited time before stopping the process and switching to another resource. Google doesn’t want to crawl content on the same site endlessly, and it makes sense to do everything possible so that Google crawls only new or changed pages in the first place. 

Based on the concept of crawling budget, the process of crawling 404 SOFT pages will inevitably take up precious crawl limits. In other words, instead of crawling the URLs you want, Google bot will scan Soft 404 errors. And this already reduces the visibility of important content on your site. When Soft 404 errors are addressed, there is a trend towards better site ranking in Google SERPs.

Second, and no less important, is the loss of link juice. The online website is redirected to the main page or to a category page. This is done for old product cards that have a link mass. In this case, it is entirely inappropriate and will confuse search robots. The critical point is that deleted, or inaccessible pages should only be redirected to pages with similar content. If there is no direct replacement, the server should return a 404 HTTP status for this URL type.

Another bad practice is the webmaster redirects deleted or not found pages to a custom 404 page, which returns a server response code of 200. In this case, the webmaster has a clear intent: the desire to save the link weight of deleted / not found pages due to linking on a fake 404 page. It will lead to Google marking this custom page as a 404 SOFT error, and no redistribution of the link weight will occur.

How to solve problems with 404 soft errors?

The first thing to do is download all 404s from Google Search Console.

The above example reports 5915 “not found” errors and 2x 404 soft errors. We will need these two reports for analysis.

Google allows you to export a maximum of 1000 URLs in Webmaster Tools. Therefore, in this case, you need to work iteratively: work through the first 1000 – click fixed. After a while, Google will update this report, and you will be able to work through the next 1000 results.

After you dump the list of URLs, you will need to evaluate why these pages are flagged as 404. Google provides somewhat limited information about URLs that they mark as “Soft 404”.

It is advisable to massively check URLs to understand what server response code they return. 

The Soft 404 error, as the HTTP response code, tells Google robots that this page exists and should be crawled. The server returns no content page ad on the page.

Another problem you may encounter when diagnosing the root cause of Soft 404 errors is inappropriate 301/302 redirects.

And like a cherry on a cake. So, we have pages with different content A and B. B – it is morally outdated, and I want to delete it, but there are many links.

What if, before deleting, we replace the content on page B with the content on page A. We track when the Google bot arrives, and then we correct it? I propose to discuss this in the comments. Also, what is the difference between a 404 server response code and a 410 response code, and what use can you find for a 410 server response code?

How to optimize your 404 page?

Each of us encountered a 404 error on the site and wanted to leave such a page as soon as possible. But some businesses, online websites, and the media create pages with a 404 response from the server, which you urgently added to your bookmarks. Let’s discuss achieving this effect and “squeeze” the maximum out of 404. 

Does 404 Error Harm SEO? 

It is believed that having 404 error pages on the website negatively affects SEO ranking, but it’s not true. 404 Not Found error represents that the page does not exist but helps users find your website relevant and redirect them towards the actual page. 

From google help:

Usually, 404 errors do not affect a site’s Google rankings to be ignored. They are often associated with typos, incorrect settings, or attempts by Google to recognize and crawl links in embedded content.

The appearance of 404 errors on the site is an inevitable phenomenon, and the reasons for this may be different:

  • changing the structure of the site;

  • broken links;

  • changing the page URL;

  • The page or site no longer exists.

These reasons require careful study – it is necessary to replace broken links with actual ones. When changing the structure and URL addresses of the site, correctly set up 301 redirects to relevant pages. However, there are also “everyday” situations when 404 pages appear. For instance:

  • A typo when the user enters the URL;

  • removal of goods on the site.

In these cases, the appearance of a 404 page is inevitable and logical for search robots. I will tell you how to minimize the impact of a large number of such pages in the following article, but now let’s look at how to develop a high-quality 404 page for a website.

In each case, you need to create a template and configure a 404 server response code for non-existent pages. When doing this, follow the rules that help SEO:

  1. The 404 page must be configured correctly and give the HTTP 404 (Not Found) code to avoid getting into the index of search engines. First, such pages will be counted as duplicates. Second, it can negatively affect behavioral factors. After all, if a person from the search gets to the 404 page, he will be upset because he expected to see something completely different. Hence, it will quickly leave and return to the search again.

  1. You shouldn’t do a 301 redirect to your homepage. Thus, you are misleading the user: he expected to receive one page but incomprehensibly ended up on the main page. From the 404th page, there should be a link to the main page, but not a redirect.

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