Soft 404s: The Server Header Status Code String That Hurts SEO

Soft 404s: The Server Header Status Code String That Hurts SEO

Server header status codes are essential for conveying the status of a page to search engines, indicating whether it is available, has moved, or in the case of 404s, does not exist. However, a subtle but consequential variation can cause confusion: the soft 404.

A soft 404 is similar to a 404 in that it shows visitors that content is missing. However, it does not indicate the absence of the page to search engines, but instead directs users to indexed “error” pages that provide little value. Understanding the difference between soft and regular 404s and why these errors should be corrected is important for anyone who wants to accurately optimize their site for search engine optimization (SEO).

For example, let’s say you want to visit ww.example.com/example-page. When you load the page in your browser, you will see an error page and the server returns a 404 server header status. This is correct behavior. However, a soft 404 occurs in this scenario: when you load ww.example.com/example-page in your browser, the page returns a 302 server header status, which temporarily redirects the browser to a page that looks like an error page but returns a 200 OK server header status.

As a visitor, you still see an error page. However, bots interpret the 302 redirect as a signal to keep the bad URL indexed (since the redirect is temporary), and the 200 OK status on the error page means that the error page can also be indexed . So in the latter scenario, you end up with two indexed URLs that you don’t want in the index.

Understanding Server Header Status Codes

Server header status codes are integral to the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) response. These codes guide users and search engines through the paths of the web.

Server header status codes are organized into five categories:

Informational (1xx): Confirms receipt of a request, indicating that it is being processed continuously; Success (2xx): Indicates that the request has been received, understood and accepted successfully; Redirect (3xx) – Informs the client that another action needs to be taken, usually a URL Redirect; Client Error (4xx) – Indicates an error on the part of the client, such as a request for a page nonexistent;Server Error (5xx) – Indicates server errors in fulfilling valid requests due to internal problems.

A handful of common codes include 200 OK (requests successful), 301 Moved permanently (page moves), and 500 internal server errors (server struggles). Within this list is the 404 Not Found code, which indicates a deadlock where content was expected. As with any technical element of SEO, its importance lies in maintaining a clean and user-friendly site experience, as well as the need for diligent site development and management.

What are Soft 404s?

A soft 404 is an error that indicates that a page appears non-existent to users, but does not indicate the correct status code to search engines. Unlike a standard 404, which directly declares the nonexistence of a page with an explicit status code, soft 404s are more elusive, often arising from misconfigured servers or misplaced redirects. In essence, a soft 404 returns a dead end page without properly informing search engine crawlers of the error, leading to indexing problems.

Soft 404s threaten SEO efforts by creating a rift between user experience and search engine expectations. These false errors mislead search engines into indexing worthless pages, which can waste crawl budgets on content that contributes nothing to the user’s search queries.

Soft 404 ID

The first step to fixing these tricky code errors is to identify soft 404s. Google Search Console (GSC) is a great place to start, especially if you’ve received an email informing you that this type of error has been discovered in GSC. To find out where soft 404s are specifically flagged, go to Indexing > Pages > Why pages are not indexed. Locate Soft 404 in the Reason column and click to view the list of URLs.

Manually checking for soft 404s involves navigating to pages that you suspect are not valuable or may be incorrectly configured to display content. Look for pages that display error messages or no content with a 200 OK status code, a telltale sign of a soft 404. Pay close attention to URLs that result from broken links or outdated redirects, as these are common culprits. With a thorough scan of your site, you can find and rectify them to help strengthen your SEO efforts.

Crawlers such as Ahrefs, Screaming Frog, and Semrush can also flag pages that exhibit soft 404 characteristics by analyzing response codes and content signals. Conducting an audit is generally a good idea, as it can guide you on what adjustments need to be made and confirm which parts of your site are communicating effectively.

Troubleshooting Soft 404

Once you’ve located any soft 404s, fix them to maintain your site’s SEO health and provide a positive user experience. There are several options for correcting these problems depending on the type of page, the time available, and your technological capabilities.

Fix soft 404 errors by:

HTTP status code fix: Verify that pages that want to be non-existent return a 404 Not Found or 410 Missing status code; Designing a Custom 404 Page: A custom page redirects visitors to your site’s content instead of exiting. Provide value to visitors by displaying a search bar, navigation options or links to new, trending or relevant content; Optimizing content on thin pages: If a page is flagged for lack of content but is meant to exist, optimize it with long times. -Form relevant content that can help eliminate ambiguity; Using redirects correctly: For pages that have moved or no longer exist, implement the 301 Moved Permanently code to redirect to the most relevant existing page.

When you discover a soft 404, consider the most appropriate solution from the three page-specific options: fix code, optimize, or redirect. A custom page isn’t required, but it’s a handy supplement for broad coverage and a safeguard of sorts for the 404 pages that users might encounter. Depending on your site’s goals and strategy, implementing one or more of these fixes can improve its overall health and usability.

Effective handling of soft 404s is necessary to preserve your website’s integrity and search engine rankings. Focusing on routine monitoring, strategic content management, and technical precision allows you to navigate these challenges with confidence.



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About the Author: Ted Simmons

I follow and report the current news trends on Google news.

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