Letting go of outdated and old pages on your website is a part of the maintenance process, but it leaves a gap in your site which makes it important to decipher the difference between 404 and soft 404 errors. Fixing these errors is important for your website to function efficiently and according to SEO standards.
What is a standard 404 response code?
A standard 404 error is simply indicative of the fact that the page you are looking for cannot be found or is no longer available, but it is important to understand the context of the error as it can be detrimental to the performance of your website.
404 errors are fairly common and mainly occur if there is an error in the URL address or because of a page removal. Incomplete or wrong URLs straightaway take the user to a 404 page because the page does not exist.
While 404 and soft 404 errors sound very similar, it is crucial to be able to distinguish between the two to be able to fix them accordingly.
What is a soft 404 error?
What differentiates a soft 404 error from a hard 404 error is the fact that it is not an official status code. Moreover, a soft 404 status code does not exist at all. A soft 404 error occurs when there is a disruption in the server and it forces the webpage to respond with a 200 OK status code, thus notifying if the webpage is actually missing from the server itself. To put it in simpler terms, anyone who receives a soft 404 error is in a dilemma because of the duality of a soft 404 error, since it confuses search engines by telling them that it does after all exist.
Why do Soft 404’s Occur?
There are a plethora of reasons why soft 404s can occur. Some soft 404 error examples include:
A missing webpage
In a circumstance where a page is missing, a soft 404 error happens. However, the server configuration diverts the missing page to a custom URL.
Poor server configuration
Poor server configuration consequently leads to missing pages serving the 200 code which further confuses crawlers. Hence, servers need to be configured properly so that missing pages serve a 404 status code whenever requested.
Problems with page rendering
The page at hand is rendered blank or nearly blank, chances are that Googlebot will not be in a position to configure the page resources. This is bound to happen if the resources are voluminous in terms of size and capacity or are directly blocked from being accessed. Moreover, there is also a fair chance of such pages being identified and marked as soft 404 errors, as Google does not have information to see if it is a 404 page or not.
Lack of content
In case the content is completely absent from the page or there is a serious lack of it present, also known as thin content, this will lead to the server responding with a 200 status code. Consequently, this means that the request was deemed successful. However, in the case of indexing pages that turn out to be incomplete web page queries, search engines categorise them as soft 404s.
Redirecting to a custom webpage
In some cases, missing pages divert to a custom webpage that ultimately serves a 200 status code. This leads to Google validating these pages by terming them as soft 404s.
Hard 404 errors vs Soft 404 errors
One aspect which is extremely crucial to understand about 404 errors is the fact that if pages are indeed missing, there is no issue at hand that needs to be resolved. It is perfectly fine to show a standard 404 response in turn for requests for webpages that have ceased to exist or never existed completely. The error is very clearly indicative of the fact that there is no need to index the page, hence being removed in a matter of time search results altogether.
However, if the page does exist but on a completely different URL address, this is a challenge that needs to be resolved by redirecting a broken link to the real URL. This helps in preserving a page that was missing or simply diverting the old URL to a new address that has now replaced it.
As mentioned, a soft 404 always emerges from a preexisting issue that needs to be resolved, and identifying the difference between these two errors is pivotal for the daily operations of a website.
Soft 404 Error Checker
There are numerous effects of soft 404s on your SEO strategy, and it is best to check your site for soft 404s to reduce them. The most convenient way to check if there are indeed soft 404 errors is by using Google Search Console. You will need to log into your account and check the graph for your site’s “Performance”, which roughly translates to total clicks per day. Apart from the graph, also check for “Coverage” which will be directly underneath it.
In the case that there are pages with soft 404 errors, you will get to see it on the Coverage graph. To procure detailed information, click on the “Open Report” option to know more about the resulting errors.
Apart from Google Search Console, you can also alternatively make use of Fetch as Google to see if a certain URL is giving the right status code, also including soft 404s. This tool is especially useful in identifying if Googlebot can access a particular URL and if any page resources are restricted to Googlebot.
Solutions for Fixing Soft 404 Errors
It is imperative to fix soft 404s as soon as possible to get your pages indexed and shown in Google search results. Additionally, too many soft 404 errors have the potential to reduce the crawl rate of your site and directly hamper its rankings of the same. This in turn will lead to very few pages being indexed.
Here are some effective solutions to fix soft 404 errors:
Identify and Fix Thin Content
Crawling tools have the habit of reporting pages that host thin content and a distinguishable word count. Hence, categorise pages according to the amount of content and words that they host to assess accordingly if they have thin content or not.
Work on eliminating Duplicate Content
There are a variety of crawling tools that foster the ability to identify what chunk of the page just templates content. Likewise, there are sophisticated tools that help find internal duplicate content. In the case that the primary content is the same as your other pages, there is a need to look into the content of these pages and understand if your site hosts duplicate content.
Correct Status Codes
Part of avoiding soft 404s is to ensure that servers are providing the correct status code for every URL. This means that a valid page would show a status code of 200, while a missing page would flash a standard 404 code. This keeps Googlebot from being misled and confused.
Apart from using crawling tools, it is also advisable to use Google Search Console, as has been mentioned already. Crawling is beneficial as it helps you find issues that are directly causing these soft 404 errors and offers solutions before Google identifies them.
There are a myriad of reasons why it is important to distinguish between hard 404s and soft 404s, as both errors mean different things for your website. Moreover, your pages will get de-indexed by Google if you do not work on your soft 404 errors, which will ultimately lead to the disruption of your website traffic. It is highly recommended that you use tools like Google Search Console and crawlers to work on these errors in real-time, which will help your SEO strategies as well as website traffic.