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soft 404 errors

How To Handle Soft 404 Errors: SEO Best Practices


Understanding what makes or breaks your website's visibility is crucial in the intricate web of search engine optimization (SEO). The soft 404 error is a particularly slippery slope among web admins' numerous errors. 
 

Join seobase as we explore the soft 404 errors, discussing what they are, what causes them, and how you can efficiently manage them to maintain and enhance your site's SEO performance.

 

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What is Soft 404 Error

A soft 404 error occurs when a page on your website that doesn't exist (and therefore should return a '404 Not Found' status) instead returns a 200 OK status. In simpler terms, the server is mistakenly telling search engines that a page exists at a specific URL when, in reality, it does not. This discrepancy can lead search engines to treat these pages as 'phantoms' — visible but not quite there, diluting your website's quality in search engine algorithms' eyes.

 

Read: What Are 404 Pages And How They Can Benefit Your SEO

What Causes Soft 404 Errors

Soft 404 errors can arise from various sources, understanding these common causes can help web admins and SEO specialists effectively diagnose and resolve soft 404 issues. Here are some of the primary reasons soft 404 errors occur:

Improper use of redirection

Redirecting users from a non-existent page to an unrelated page or a generic homepage without using the correct HTTP status codes can cause soft 404 errors. For instance, if a deleted product page redirects users to the homepage with a 200 status code instead of returning a 404 status, search engines might interpret this as a soft 404.

Thin or low-quality content

Search engines can interpret pages with very little content or content that does not add value as equivalent to a 'page not found'. These pages do not fulfill user intent or provide a meaningful experience, leading search engines to classify them as soft 404s.

Dynamic pages with empty results

Websites that generate pages dynamically based on user input or database queries might display pages with no or irrelevant content. For example, a search result page with no results might still return a 200 status code, potentially being flagged as a soft 404.

Outdated or broken links within the site

Links that point to pages that have been removed or renamed without proper redirection can lead to soft 404 errors. This includes both internal links and inbound links from other websites.

Session IDs in URLs

Some websites use session IDs or parameters in URLs to track user sessions. However, suppose these URLs do not lead to distinct, valuable content. In that case, they might be seen as soft 404s by search engines, especially if they generate empty or near-duplicate pages for different sessions.

Faulty content management system (CMS) settings

Sometimes, the way a CMS is set up can create pages that should not exist or lead to the generation of pages with duplicate or no content. Ensuring your CMS is configured correctly to handle page creation and deletion properly can help avoid soft 404 errors.

 

Read: What Leads To Webpage Errors And How To Fix Them

what is a soft 404

The Impact of Soft 404 Errors on SEO

Soft 404 errors significantly impact a website's SEO, affecting visibility and user experience on search engine result pages (SERPs). Here's a more concise overview with critical insights:

Reduced crawl efficiency

Soft 404s waste search engines' crawl budget on non-existent pages, potentially missing valuable content and delaying its SERP visibility. This inefficiency can prevent timely discovery and indexing of content.

Diluted index quality

A high number of soft 404 errors may lead search engines to view a site as lower quality, negatively affecting the ranking of legitimate pages. This perception dilutes the site's index quality and impacts content visibility.

Wasted link equity

Links pointing to soft 404 pages don't pass value, reducing the site's authority and SEO potential. This lost link equity undermines ranking efforts and diminishes competitive edge in SERPs.

Poor user experience

Soft 404s frustrate users expecting content, potentially increasing bounce rates and lowering engagement metrics. Negative user experiences can indirectly affect a site's SEO performance and rankings.

Impact on rankings

Soft 404 errors can lower site rankings, reducing traffic and engagement and negatively impacting conversions. Addressing these errors is essential for maintaining SEO health and ensuring content visibility.

Strategic responses

Tackling soft 404 errors involves regular site audits, correct server configurations for accurate status codes, enhancing thin content, and using redirects wisely to preserve link equity and direct users to relevant content.

Diagnosing Soft 404 Errors with Google Search Console

Diagnosing soft 404 errors is a critical step in maintaining your website's SEO health, and Google Search Console (GSC) is an invaluable tool for this purpose. GSC helps web admins and SEO professionals identify and address these errors effectively. Here's how you can use Google Search Console to diagnose soft 404 errors:

Step 1: Access Google Search Console

First, ensure you have access to Google Search Console for your website. You'll need to verify your site with GSC to access the data. Once verified, log into your GSC account and select the property (website) you want to diagnose for soft 404 errors.

Step 2: Navigate to the coverage report

Within the Google Search Console dashboard, navigate to the "Coverage" section. This report provides detailed insights into the indexing status of pages on your site, including errors, valid pages, and pages with warnings.

Step 3: Filter for soft 404 errors

In the Coverage report, look for the "Excluded" tab, where Google lists pages it didn't index for specific reasons. Among these reasons, you'll find soft 404 errors listed as "Soft 404." This filter lets you see which pages Google has identified as soft 404s.

what causes 404 errors

Step 4: Analyze the affected pages

Click on the "Soft 404" label to view a list of URLs that Google has flagged. Examine each URL to understand why it might have been classified as a soft 404. Consider factors such as content quality, page functionality, and whether the page exists but returns a 200 status code incorrectly.

Step 5: Verify server response codes

Use tools like HTTP status code checkers to verify the response codes your server returns for the flagged URLs. Ensure that truly non-existent pages return a 404 status code, not a 200.

Step 6: Make necessary corrections

Based on your analysis, make the necessary corrections to your site. This might involve updating or enriching thin content, correcting server configurations, implementing proper redirects for moved or deleted content, or fixing broken links.

Step 7: Submit for reindexing

After making corrections, return to Google Search Console and use the "URL Inspection" tool to request a recrawl and reindexing of the affected pages. This tells Google to review the changes and update its index accordingly.

 

Read: Google Search Console Errors: How To Identify And Fix Them

Best Practices for Handling Soft 404 Errors

Managing soft 404 errors requires a blend of technical fixes and strategic content planning. Here are some best practices to effectively address soft 404 errors:

  • Proper 404 page configuration: Ensure your server returns a 404 status code for non-existent pages. A custom 404 page can guide users back to relevant sections of your site, improving user experience.

     

  • Audit and fix misconfigurations: Review your server settings and redirection rules to avoid unintended soft 404 errors.

     

  • Enhance thin content: Identify pages marked as soft 404s due to insufficient content. Improve these pages by adding relevant, high-quality content that provides value to your audience.

     

  • Use 301 redirects judiciously: For pages that have been removed or moved, use 301 redirects to guide users and search engines to the appropriate new page. However, ensure that the redirect leads to content relevant to the original page to avoid creating a soft 404 situation.

     

  • Monitor and adapt: Use tools like Google Search Console to monitor your site for soft 404 errors. SEO is an ongoing process; staying vigilant is critical to maintaining your site's health.

Read: Optimizing 301 vs 302 Redirect For SEO: Best Practices

soft 404 google search console

Conclusion

Soft 404 errors can be a thorn in the side of any website owner, but with the right approach, they can be effectively managed and resolved. By understanding what causes these errors and how they impact your SEO, you can take proactive steps to mitigate them. 

 

Utilizing tools like Google Search Console to diagnose and fix soft 404 errors, coupled with a focus on improving content quality and user experience, can significantly boost your website's visibility and user engagement. In the ever-evolving landscape of SEO, staying informed and adaptable is crucial to success.

 

To learn all about SEO best practices, keep up with seobase!

 

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