Google Alerts About Soft 404 Errors and Their SEO Implications

  • June 29, 2024
  • SEO
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In a recently published LinkedIn post, Google Analyst Gary Illyes emphasized the importance of addressing two common issues faced by web crawlers: soft 404 errors and cryptic errors. These seemingly minor issues can have significant ramifications on the effectiveness of SEO strategies.

Understanding Soft 404 Errors

Soft 404 errors occur when a web server incorrectly returns a “200 OK” HTTP status code for pages that, in reality, do not exist or simply contain error messages. This misleading response can cause web crawlers to waste valuable resources by repeatedly accessing these unhelpful or non-existent pages.

Illyes compared this to visiting a coffee shop and finding that every item on the menu is unavailable, despite being listed. For web crawlers, this scenario is even more problematic.

As Illyes explains:

“Crawlers use the status codes to interpret whether a fetch was successful, even if the contents of the page is basically just an error message. They might happily go back to the same page again and again wasting your resources, and if there are many such pages, exponentially more resources.”

The Hidden Costs of Soft Errors

The implications of soft 404 errors extend beyond inefficient utilization of crawler resources. According to Illyes, such pages are often excluded from search results because they are filtered out during the indexing process.

To mitigate this problem, Illyes recommends returning the correct HTTP status code when encountering an error on the server or client side. This enables crawlers to recognize the situation accurately and allocate resources to more deserving content.

Illyes also advises against rate-limiting crawlers with messages like “TOO MANY REQUESTS SLOW DOWN,” since crawlers are unable to comprehend such textual instructions.

Why Search Engine Journal (SEJ) Cares

Soft 404 errors can adversely affect a website’s crawlability and indexing efficiency. By resolving these issues, web crawlers can concentrate on fetching and indexing pages that offer valuable content, thereby enhancing the site’s visibility in search results.

Eliminating soft 404 errors also leads to a more efficient use of server resources, avoiding unnecessary bandwidth consumption due to repeated visits to error pages.

How This Can Help You

To identify and rectify soft 404 errors on your website, consider implementing the following steps:

  1. Regularly review your website’s crawl reports and logs to detect pages returning HTTP 200 status codes that actually contain error messages.
  2. Ensure proper error handling on your server so that error pages serve the correct HTTP status codes (e.g., 404 for not found, 410 for permanently removed).
  3. Utilize tools such as Google Search Console to monitor your site’s coverage and flag any pages identified as soft 404 errors.

Proactively addressing soft 404 errors can significantly improve your website’s crawlability, indexing, and overall SEO performance.


Featured Image: Julia Tim/Shutterstock

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