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What are Soft 404 Errors and How to Fix Them (Easy Guide)

soft-404-errors-and-how-to-fix-them

You would’ve probably heard about an Error 404 on a webpage or even come across one quite often. But that’s just a regular ‘Page Not Found’ error. So, what exactly is a soft 404? And how is it different from the usual ones? And should you fix this any differently? This blog will answer all these questions and more.

As a user browsing the web and catching up on some serious reading, a 404 error flashing on your screen can be quite disappointing. This means that you’ve reached a dead end on a website and have to find your way back. But as a website owner, a 404 Error is more than just a disappointment. Though these pages have a purpose, they can be pretty harmful if not fixed or misused. 

If you’ve been working on your site for a while, you’ve probably encountered a soft 404 error. Google Search Console may have notified you via email about the many soft 404 errors on your site. 

A soft 404 error occurs when the server returns a 200 OK status for the requested page, but Google believes it should return a 404. It may do so if the page content appears to be an error or if there is no content.

Keep reading this blog to know more about soft 404 errors, how they can affect your website and how you can also fix them.

What’s A Soft 404 Error? How Is It Different From 404 Errors?

A soft 404 error occurs when Google crawl bots return a 404 error code after crawling a certain page of your website. This usually happens when you have a page on your site that is live and working but doesn’t have enough or necessary content on it. 

Simply put, this means that when a page is faulty, your server delivers a 200 OK code that informs search engines that the page is valid. But instead, the server should’ve delivered the appropriate error code, which would have informed search engines to reject the incorrect page. 

So, as a result, search engines continue to crawl these inaccurate pages and list them in the search results even when they are faulty. Soft 404 errors are not standard server status codes; they are special alerts that Google creates in order to let you know about them. 

Soft 404s can be brought about by server issues, old links, and URL misspellings.

Soft 404 errors differ from regular 404s in the status servers display to search engines. When there is a hard (regular) 404 error, both search engines and website visitors receive the same error message. This conveys to both parties that the page is faulty. However, when there is a soft 404 issue, the error code is displayed only to visitors and not search engines.

How do These Occur?

Soft 404 errors usually occur for the following main reasons

1. A webpage goes missing

When a page is missing, but the server configuration directs users to the home page or a custom URL.

2. When there is no or little content

The server returns a 200 OK status code indicating that the request for the page was successful when there is no content or very little content (also known as thin content) on that particular page. 

3. Temporary crawling issues

When Google tries to crawl the page, some of the page resources (CSS, JS) cannot be loaded, resulting in the page having no content and Google believing it should be a 404.

Do Soft 404s Affect SEO?

To be honest, yes. Unfixed soft 404 errors can affect your site’s SEO and ranking. There are a lot of both direct and indirect ways in which your site’s ranking can be harmed due to these soft 404s.

For starters, Googlebot may stop crawling your website if it encounters a 404 error when crawling a page on your site.  Google implements something called a crawl budget to decide how much and how frequently to crawl a website in order to prevent load on the server and lessen the effort for the crawl bots. 

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So, when you have a lot of soft 404s on your website, you are using your crawl budget on pages that are not important.  Your site’s rating may suffer due to your most crucial pages not being crawled as frequently as they must be. They often indicate poor upkeep and disregard for the user’s experience.

Furthermore, users who click on links to pages that lead to 404 errors can assume that the page doesn’t exist and leave your website. This may lower user engagement and increase bounce rates for your website, both of which have an adverse effect on how well it ranks.

How To Fix Them?

The first step in fixing soft 404 errors is to find them. You can locate all kinds of 404 errors on the Google Search Console- in particular, the Coverage Report and the URL Inspection tool. And to be able to check this, you must have a Google account. You can then sign up for Google Search Console, where you can get access to a variety of tools and features for improving your overall website performance and ranking.

Now that you have found the soft 404 errors, it’s time to fix them! Fixing these errors also depends on the type of page you want to revise and what you wish to do with it. 

Here are a few suggestions on how to fix soft 404 errors for certain conditions:

If the page doesn’t exist anymore, set up a custom 404 page or 410 error

In the case that your webpage doesn’t exist, you can give it a usual 404 Error (page not found) message or a 410 Error (content deleted) message. This way, both your website visitors and Google crawl bots can see the right error. Personalising your 404 Error Page with great design elements can also be a good branding opportunity.

If the page does exist, revise your content

If a page is available but still receives a soft 404 error, Google considers this thin content and recommends that you fix that page. Provide some strong, valuable content to prove to search engines that this page is important. (not user friendly)

If the page URL has been relocated/moved, set up a 301 redirect

It’s essential to set up a redirect as soon as possible within a few days of combining content pages or moving content around. Otherwise, your website visitors will be directed to a 404 page. Simply create a permanent 301 redirect to the newer page on your website.

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Conclusion

When you remove a page from your website, you should notify both website visitors and search engine crawl bots. The most common approach is to create a 404 error page. However, if not configured properly, you can encounter a soft 404 error.

Keeping your 404 errors under control is a recurring task for all website owners. Check Google Search Console on a regular basis to see if there are any new errors. If you find them, resolve these as soon as possible. These fixes only take a few minutes but can have a significant impact on website performance.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What is a hard 404 error?

A hard 404 error is just a regular 404 Error or a ‘Page Not Found’ error. A user comes across this message when a page no longer exists on the internet.

2. Does Google crawl 404 error pages?

Although Google may not keep a web page in its index, if the page once existed, it will remember that and crawl the old URL to see if it has returned.

3. Is Error 404 a bug?

An Error 404 is one of the most common problems users face while browsing. This HTTP status code indicates that the requested page was not found on the website server.

4. What should a 404 message say?

When you see the following error messages, you know it’s a 404 error page:

  • 404 Not Found
  • Error 404: Page Not Found

You can also customize the 404 error message on your website to make it exciting and engaging. 

5. Do 404 errors harm site rankings?

404 errors don’t have a direct impact on your site rankings. However, not fixing them can prove detrimental to your site. Though search engines understand that 404 errors are normal, it’s advised to fix them as soon as possible.

Sorav Jain

Sorav Jain is one of World’s leading digital marketing influencers. He started his career as an SEO specialist and, in 2010, went on to establish echoVME Digital, one of the top digital marketing agencies in Chennai. At echoVME Digital, Sorav Jain works closely with his team to bring out the best digital marketing and social media solutions for brands across India. In 2019, he also founded Digital Scholar, the educational extension of echoVME that offers digital marketing training for enthusiasts from all walks of life. In addition to being a digital marketing agency and digital marketing training institute owner, he is also a keynote speaker, consultant, and author, with 5 books to his credit to date.
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