Sometimes, old or outdated pages on your website need to go. Deleting stale web pages or content is just part of regular maintenance, but deleting a page leaves a void on your site—and you need to take the steps to let Google and other search engines know if the content is really gone, or it has just moved. This is why it is so important to understand the different between “hard” and “soft” 404 errors.
Wait a Minute: What Is a 404 Error?
When a searcher tries to open a page on your website that no longer exists, your site generally reacts two ways: by displaying a generic or custom “Page Not Found” page and by returning an HTTP response code 404 from your server that indicates the page isn’t there. While the reader may be satisfied with the displayed message or a redirect to other content, the crawlers from Google and other search engines depend on the code returned from your server to determine if there is content on the page that should be indexed.
Why the Difference Between Hard and Soft 404 Errors Matters to You
There’s a right way and a wrong way to delete pages. Although the difference may not seem that important, especially compared to content creation and your other marketing tasks, going the wrong route means that you’re essentially wasting Google’s time and taking some of the juice away from your real pages—the pages that feature unique information and core content.
Think about it. Do you really want Google to continue to index a bunch of pages on your site that just say “File Not Found,” or would you rather let search engine crawlers focus on crawling your content that still exists?
The Wrong Way: Soft 404 Errors
Don't let the name fool you. Soft 404 errors are much harder on your website's visibility than a hard 404 error. A “soft” 404 error happens when the wrong code (often the 200 response code) is returned by your server when someone tries to access a page that no longer exists on your site. Even if your website displays an error page to the reader, it still needs to return the right error code to let search crawlers know to ignore the page. Or, you have deleted an old page and you redirected it to a new page that isn’t relevant to what the original content was on the old page.
When your website’s server does not return a 404 code (or a 410 “Gone” code in some cases), search engine crawlers are essentially being told content does exist on that page, and will spend time attempting to index that “content.” If the number of soft 404 errors is high, especially in comparison to the number of “real” pages on your site, it can have a negative impact on your organic search performance. Google recommends using Fetch as Google or similar tools to verify whether a particular URL on your site is using the right HTTP response code.
The Right Way: Hard 404 Errors
When everything is working the right way, your reader will see an error page, and your server will return a 404 or 410 response code. This lets both readers and crawlers know that the page doesn’t exist anymore and shouldn’t be indexed, and that page will be removed from search results over time.
This means that the possibly limited time Google’s crawlers spend indexing your site can be concentrated on the pages you really want indexed—and it helps the crawlers better hone in on what your website is really about. And, by using a custom 404 error page or redirecting readers to other relevant and helpful content on your site, you basically eliminate the potential for problems when you remove a page.
Solving the Problems With 404 Error Pages: The 301 Redirect
At Foster Web Marketing, the confusion over soft and hard 404 errors is handled automatically for our clients in DSS. By using a 301 “permanent redirect” we essentially offer an easy way to direct users and crawlers away from a deleted page and toward an updated or similar page. In DSS, you can redirect pages automatically when you delete them. However, you still need to select the most relevant new page of information to send the old page traffic to, or you could still have issues with soft 404 errors. You don’t want to be in a situation where readers are directed to irrelevant pages that don’t answer their questions or where crawlers index the same page over and over again through removed pages. So, if you have content on your website that is not relevant to anything else on your site and you want to get rid of it please reach out to our client support team to help you figure out the best course of action.
Do you have questions about 404 errors, page redirects in DSS, or how Google indexes your website? Don’t hesitate to give our friendly SEO team a call at 888-886-0939.