How to Fix Soft 404 Errors

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How to Fix Soft 404 Errors

If you’re a website owner and have been managing your site for a while, you may have received an email from Google Search Console alerting you to soft 404 errors on your website.

A soft 404 is an error from Google for you. A user was able to load a part of the page but large key elements of the page were missing. Google feedback this to you as a soft 404.

In other words, the server returns status 200 however the content of the page is not loaded properly. For example, the page needs data from the backend server, however the server is offline. The page cannot display correctly.

4 Quick ways to fix these errors

Check out these 4 simple methods to resolve soft 404 errors and maintain your site’s SEO ranking and traffic.

1. Make sure the content is loaded properly 

One cause for a soft 404 are backend server errors. If your page requires data from the backend but the server is offline, the website does not have any data to show. The website might return a status 200 to the visitor or bot, however no content is shown. This will result in a soft 404 error which you will receive from google.

There are other reasons why content might be missing or there is a failure in loading content. One of them is javascript rendering issues. If your website is built in javascript and errors in your javascript code or huge javascript loading times exist, the content might never show up or only very delayed. If no content can be found in a reasonable time, a soft 404 error can be issued.

In addition to javascript rendering, huge loading time because of third party app bloat are possible. For example, if your website loads apps including hotjar, google ads, google analytics, zendesk etc. the loading of the content is delayed. This is typically not an issue, but we have encountered cases where the user of a website first needed to load 20 MB of apps which very much delayed the ‘arrival’ of the content. Note, this problem is even bigger in countries with a slower internet speed.

If you have a custom 404 error page, but return a status 200, this can also result in a soft 404. A hard 404 means that the page does not exist at all and we website sends a status 404. A soft 404 means that the website returns a status 200 even though the web page does not exist.

2. If the Page Doesn’t Exist: Redirect it to a relevant location

Examine each page reported as a soft 404;

  • Check for misplaced JavaScript handling or CMS content rendering issues, ensuring the page loads intended content correctly.
  • If your content should indeed be removed, apply a 404 or 410 status code.

But remember, having a lot of 404 errors on your site can also look unprofessional and may frustrate visitors. It’s important to have a good customized 404 error page, especially if you run an e-commerce business or provide services. 

A well-designed 404 page with helpful links and clear directions can guide visitors back to the main areas of your site and can stop potential customers from leaving your site when they hit a broken link.

3. If the cotnent Was Moved: Set Up a 301 Redirect

When a page has been moved or no longer offers value, use a 301 redirect to send users and web crawlers to a relevant active page. This server configuration helps in maintaining link equity and ranking positions while improving site navigation.

Most CMSs come with a built-in tool for setting up redirects. All you have to do is enter the original URL and the new one, and the system will automatically redirect traffic to the updated page. Once set up, search engine crawlers will be informed about the redirect, ensuring they crawl the correct pages.

Especially for e-commerce websites or job portals, ensure category, product pages and each job opportunity pages are active or properly redirected.

4. If you want to keep the page as it is, but not have it NOT indexed by Google: Set a “noindex” tag 

If you have a page that you want to keep but don’t want it to appear in Google’s search results, the solution is simple: use a “noindex” tag. You can do this by adding <meta name="robots" content="noindex"> to your page’s HTML code. This tells Google crawlers to skip indexing that particular page,

Taking these steps should alleviate issues regarding soft 404s, keeping both users and search engines content with the quality of your website.

How to Identify these errors using Google Search Console

To find soft 404 errors on your website, here’s what you can do;

  1. Checking Google Search Console’s Coverage report,
  2. Look for errors labeled “Submitted URL seems to be a Soft 404” to identify pages with this issue, This report details the pages that Googlebot attempted to crawl but deemed to have an issue.
  3. You may find these errors listed in two categories: as errors or as excluded.
  4. Prioritize fixing those with the “error” status first, as they are actively impacting your site. Although those marked as “excluded” are less critical, they still need attention because Google has stopped crawling them for some reason. 

It’s crucial to address them quickly to maintain good SEO and user experience.

Soft 404s Impact on SEO and Your Website

Soft 404 errors can have a considerable impact on your website’s SEO performance. Search engines prioritize content that offers value, and when they encounter soft 404 errors, it can affect your site’s ranking in Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs). 

Google manages how often it crawls a site through a crawl budget. If your website has many soft 404 errors, it consumes a larger portion of this crawl budget on non-existent or low-quality pages, leaving fewer resources to crawl your important content. As a result, your site’s ranking and visibility can suffer.

For example; Google assigns you a crawl budget for 80 pages, but you have 10 soft 404 errors, those 10 errors are taking away from the resources used to crawl your important content. This not only impacts your SEO but also hurts the user experience, as search engines detest encountering dead or misleading links.

Soft 404 Errors Impact on User Experience

When users click on a link and encounter a soft 404 error, they often think the page isn’t there and leave your site. This can lead to a higher bounce rate and less time spent on your site, which can ultimately harm your user engagement and decrease your traffic.

To retain visitors, it’s crucial to fix soft 404 errors quickly and guide users to the content they’re seeking. 

Soft 404 errors VS regular (or hard) 404 errors

To avoid confusion, let’s also break down the difference between soft 404 errors and regular (or hard) 404 errors;

  • A soft 404 error:  Soft 404 error occurs when a webpage seems to be missing content but some basic version of the page is loaded. This error is displayed to site visitors but not to Googlebot.  Instead, it will return a “200 OK” status code which gives Googlebot the green light to crawl.
  • A regular (hard) 404 error: Regular 404 error occurs when a webpage URL does not exist, leading both page visitors and googlebot to discover a “404 Not Found” status code.

In short, pages with soft 404 errors are pages that shouldn’t exist but still exists according to the Google crawler (Googlebot).

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What are soft 404 errors and how do they impact a website?

A: Soft 404 errors are instances where a webpage returns a “200 OK” HTTP status code (indicating a successful response) even though it should return a “404 Not Found” code. This can confuse search engines and users, impacting the website’s search engine rankings and user experience.

Q: How can I find soft 404 errors on my website?

A: You can identify soft 404 error code by using tools like Google Search Console or other website auditing tools that detect crawl errors. Look for URLs that seem to be soft 404 errors, as they may be returning incorrect HTTP status codes.

Q: What causes a soft 404 error to occur?

A: soft 404 errors on your site can occur when webpages seems to be a soft 404 but is actually returning a “200 OK” status code. This can happen due to issues with the website’s coding, incorrect error handling, or when a submitted URL appears to be a soft 404 to search engines.

Q: How do I fix soft 404 errors on my website?

A: To fix soft 404 errors, you need to ensure that URLs returning soft 404 errors actually return a “404 Not Found” status code. You can set up a 301 redirect to point the URL to another relevant page or create a custom 404 error page to enhance user experience.

Q: What is the difference between a regular 404 error and a soft 404 error?

A: A regular 404 error occurs when a webpage is genuinely not found, leading to a “404 Not Found” status code. On the other hand, a soft 404 error occurs when a webpage seems to be missing content but returns a “200 OK” status code, causing confusion for search engines and users.

Q: How does Google handle websites with a large number of soft 404 errors?

A: Google considers a large number of soft 404 errors on a website as a sign of poor user experience and may impact the site’s visibility in search results. It is essential to fix these errors to ensure your website’s SEO performance and ranking.

Q: What do I need to know about soft 404 errors according to Google?

A: Google wants website owners to correctly return a “404 Not Found” status code for pages that are truly missing, instead of showing soft 404 errors. They recommend fixing soft 404 errors to provide accurate information to both users and search engines.

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