Soft 404 Errors: What They Are and How to Fix Them

Soft 404 Errors: What They Are and How to Fix Them
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Have you ever browsed the internet to look for something, and when you visit the website, a blank page stares back at you? You have probably encountered a 404 error.

Typical 404 error messages happen when HTTP 404 response code is triggered. This code means the client (or “visitor”) was able to locate the server but not the specific destination. That’s why it displays, “This page doesn’t exist.” In other words, they found your site, but not the specific page within your site.

A 404 error can be helpful feedback for a web user. However, this article will not delve into 404 messages but on its distant relative, soft 404 errors.

Why are we focusing on soft 404 errors? Because they can negatively impact your site’s SEO performance. The consequences could be dire, especially if many of them go undetected and start to pile up.

To avoid soft 404 errors from accumulating, web builders should work quickly. Needless to say, once soft 404 errors begin to accumulate and remain unfixed, they affect your website’s performance.

We understand that some of you may be encountering soft 404 errors for the first time in this article, so we’ll do away with the technicalities and present this article as a general guide. We included everything you need to know about soft 404 errors, from what it is to how you can fix it to improve your website’s performance and rankings.

Soft 404 Errors: What are they?

It is quite common to refer to a soft 404 error and a regular 404 error interchangeably, but they are actually two different things.

The regular 404 error, the one we’re most familiar with, happens when a webpage is unavailable. Through the exchange of information occurring in the background between the server and the HTTP status code, a message then appears on the browser, “404 Not Found.” This means that the page you’re looking for does not exist.

In contrast, when you encounter a soft 404 error, it doesn’t mean that the page itself does not exist. In fact, the server sends a “200 OK” status for the web page (instead of the 404 status). However, the problem lies in Google mistakenly interpreting this “200 OK” status as a “404 error” status, thus showing that the page does not exist. In other words, the error lies mainly in the mistake of the search engine.

To better understand the difference, let’s consider this example. You have a visitor on your website. He looks for something and uses the search box. If the content he’s looking for is non-existent, normally, he would just get a “not found” reply. In Soft 404s, instead of just getting a “not found” statement, the search engine misinterprets this as a query to a specific page and therefore inappropriately returns a 404 message.

Here are other causes of Soft 404 errors:

Your page has too little or no content at all

Since soft 404 errors arise from searching something and not getting any result, this error is usually triggered when your webpage does not have any content to “search” in the first place. In this instance, a “not found” return will be interpreted by Google as a status code of the “404 Not Found” situation.

Fixing these pages or adding content to them may help you get rid of the 404 error. If that doesn’t work, a professional might be able to help you apply the “no index directive” through the meta robots tag as an alternative solution.

Redirect Target Is Not Relevant Enough

It’s quite common to redirect users to other websites. It could be a link to another article or a listing not relevant to Google’s algorithms.

The problem resulting in soft 404 errors happens when Google finds that the link you’re redirecting to is not relevant. In this case, Google will display a “404 Not Found” message.

You Have Accidentally Blocked Google From Rendering

A soft 404 error can also happen when you have inadvertently blocked Google from accessing your JavaScript or CSS files. These files are used to render pages. If Google cannot access them, it may lead to a soft 404 error.

This issue can be resolved by debugging and verifying your webpage via Google’s inspection tool. After fixing this issue, Google will be able to render your files, and the 404 should be resolved.

Page Content Has 404-like Phrases

As smart as Google is, it can still fall victim to certain ambiguities. If your page has phrases that are primarily found on a 404 page, it can cause a soft 404 error.

Avoid phrases you would find on a 404-error page, such as “does not exist,” and “no longer available.” These phrases can be mistaken for a 404 page by Google. Removing them from your site can fix the error.

Why this is serious

A web page being read as a “404” is not good, to say the least. First, there’s often nothing wrong with the page itself! So, the amount of time and resources you spend creating that page will be futile if search engines cannot read them correctly.

Second, if a regular page gets a “200 OK” status, they are usually displayed in the search engine results. Further, they can be crawled and indexed, making them easily searchable. Pages with soft 404 errors will also appear in the search engine result and can even be indexed or crawled, but when your clients or visitors click them, all they get is a blank page. This will severely affect your client’s experience. You will bear the brunt of their dissatisfaction when it’s not even your fault, to begin with.

Thus, it is imperative that you should take an immediate step to fix these errors if you are experiencing soft 404s on your website.

How To Fix And Resolve Soft 404s

Aside from checking the usual causes of soft 404s mentioned earlier, you can also try the following:

Verify if it is a Soft 404 or just a false alarm

Pages incorrectly marked by Google Search Console as a soft 404 error can be audited and verified.

In your coverage report, click the “Submitted URL seems to be a soft 404” button. Once you see the complete list of soft 404 pages, open the URLs in new tabs.

If you find a page that you want to appear on your website, choose the “Validate Fix” option. After this, Google will crawl the page and update the status code.

Once done, you should inspect the page and test the live URL.

Improve The Affected Page And Request Indexing

If your page exists, but Google has been reporting it as a soft 404, it’s probably due to the page having little to no content. In this case, improve the page content and resubmit it to Google.

Once you’re done adding more content to the page, it will become more “crawlable” to Google, and it will no longer be subjected to soft 404 errors.

Final Words

There are other, more technical solutions to solve your soft 404 error woes. You can try to keep the page on your site but de-index it from search engines. Since soft 404 errors can sometimes result from miscommunication between your server and the search engine, you can also try to reconfigure your server to return the proper code.

Lastly, you can attempt to redirect the page through a 301 redirect code, we suggest using the Redirection plugin. At least your client’s will be brought back to your home page or somewhere else instead of just getting a “404 not found” error message.

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