Google recently confirmed that expired products on e-commerce platforms would be deemed “soft 404s,” so we’re doing a dive into what this might mean for you and your website. Radd Interactive’s analyst team factors in every scope of Google’s indexing process in order to bring our clients optimal results. Read on to learn the difference between hard and soft 404s, and how you can best deal with them.

What are regular (or hard) 404s?

A regular 404 message is a type of HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol) status, or response, code. Response codes work to communicate with the server regarding the loading status of any given page. Presented numerically, these codes let the server know what sort of issue the page is experiencing and why. 404s, specifically, indicate that the page no longer exists and will not be returning to the website any time soon.

What are soft 404s?

In contrast to regular 404s, soft 404s are not official messages sent to the server, rather, they are considered labels. Google adds a soft 404 label to certain pages within its index if it feels the page is acting similarly to a standard 404 response code. What alerts Google to this strange behavior is that, despite operating like a hard 404, these pages sometimes continue to relay 200 success codes. The resulting soft 404 label notes that although a success code may be sent, something is clearly amiss. This, in turn, keeps GoogleBot from crawling a page that is not presenting properly, be it a loading issue or otherwise.

Occasionally a page may be mischaracterized as “missing” by Google, and there are a few reasons for this as well. One reason may be that the page lacks content or is too similar to other pages on the website. Google will also label a page as a soft 404 if the products being sold are no longer in stock. This is even more likely to occur if the page displays a “no longer available” message. Google will infer this to mean that the page itself is no longer available, not the product. Linking errors also trigger soft 404s, such as redirecting to a discontinued page. Lastly, slow loading speeds may result in a soft 404 label because GoogleBot will take the lag as an indication of a page’s absence.

What are the best practices for dealing with 404s?

When it comes to maintaining the integrity of your web pages, content is your best friend. Make sure your writing includes the keywords you wish to target, but also reads in a way that is informative and professional. It is crucial for each page to have its own original content and, as mentioned previously, Google’s algorithm reads copy-pasted and overly repetitive material as spam which could earn you a soft 404 label. If you do happen to have a variety of similar URLs, consider consolidating them. By combining related pages into one content-heavy page, you will better avoid getting inadvertently slapped with a soft 404.

You also want to make sure your anchor text links direct to existing, relevant pages. If you are an e-commerce site whose product pages disappear once sold out, be sure you’re no longer linking to these locations, and be sure to avoid leaving a “no longer available” notice if a product is not coming back. Instead redirect out of stock products that are not returning to an equivalent product or parent category page. Redirecting URLs is a great way to ensure your website maintains its authority and keeps traffic flowing.

Keep in mind that accidents happen, so it is important to comb through your site to make sure everything is presented the way you wish it to be. You want to make sure your live pages are showing properly and are able to be indexed by GoogleBot.

And remember, although soft 404s are not the same as actual 404 response codes, Google treats them as such.

Although a nuisance, soft 404s can be reverted by making slight adjustments to your website and by making sure your pages are optimized to their fullest potential. The analysts here at Radd Interactive are diligent in their work and aim to both avoid potential issues and rectify existing ones. Be sure to keep up with our blog and stay informed on all the latest SEO news and developments.

Have more questions about soft 404s vs. hard 404s? Contact us to learn more.