Are Soft 404s Harmful To Your Website?

Soft 404s are not ideal. They can lead to a frustrating experience for your audience, a reduction in the number of conversions to your website, and, lower your visibility / ranking potential. Yet, they are such a problem and prevalence to many webmasters’ sites right across the internet. In our latest article we’ll explain what soft 404s are, the problems, and how they can be remedied.

What are they?

Not all landing pages (and the content on them) is current forever. Times change, topics and facts evolve (and thus become outdated,) or products are sold and are no longer in stock.

A soft 404 therefore, is a page which has nothing on it and returns an error code to the user, yet, shows a 200 ok status to the search engines, thus promoting it to be shown. Showing a page is ‘ok’ for searching purposes, when it is culled in reality is what this topic is about, and these are instances of soft 404s.

One of the greatest problems with soft 404s lies in the fact that people believe landing pages need to be maintained to keep the positive authority alive – even if the content is outdated etc as described above. This is NOT true.

Let’s think about your website or that of the average business. For any company, it’s rate of conversions or sales revenue is one of the most important things that drive it. Advertising to Google that blank pages are ‘ok’ does absolutely nothing for revenue. In fact, quite the opposite – people are likely to get annoyed or think there is something wrong with your website and simply move away to somewhere else, giving the revenue to someone else.

Yes, but isn’t page rank and rankings important – isn’t this the whole point?

Of course, but as is often the case, it is not as simple or as clear cut as that. In this purpose we are also measuring that against another variable (soft 404s) so the answer is even more complicated.  Remember that Google is happier to promote websites and businesses which are popular with audiences. This is the ultimate gold standard aim in positive user experience terms. It would therefore seem then that those websites which are annoying their audiences by displaying blank pages which are supposed to be ‘ok’ is the exact opposite of this. As we have often said before, page rank and rankings are important, but this is only 1 piece of the puzzle, and this is often reliant on the success of other multiple factors.

The search engines are latching on to this problem.

Those that continue to think that they are missing out if the totally shelve their redundant landing pages, are also falling foul of Google’s increasing intelligence. Search engines can now recognise pages where results are being returned as ‘no search results,’ ‘sold out’ etc. These are now even being highlighted in Google Search Console and this only serves to prove the point that there are quantifiable parameters around this practice and the poor user experience it entails.

How should it be done?  

If large sections of a website have become outdated, good practice is to attach a 301 ‘moved permanently’ redirect or the classic 404 to signal to the search engines that the content is gone. What many people don’t realise, is that far from having a negative effect, this actually has a positive effect on your website, since it gives greater weight to the remaining ‘200 ok’ pages on your site.

In simple terms and to conclude, it is easy to think like this. 404 pages do not impact your visibility or rankings, because they are an honest representation of your website in the present. If someone were to be penalised for that it would be rightly outrageous. It is the soft 404s that can damage your website because they are giving in inaccurate reflection and in the eyes of search engines – including Google, this is diluting your authority.

Is your website suffering from problems? Learn how our SEO Audit service can identify issues and help with remedies.

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