Soft 404 vs 404: What’s The Difference?
Stephen McCance April 21, 2023
When browsing the internet, it’s not uncommon to come across the dreaded “404 Error Page Not Found” message. Google search console warns about 404 errors which include both 404 and soft 404s. Whilst both are called 404s, they are both very different from one another. Due to them both being very different, it requires different methods to fix them. As you come across these 404 pages, it can leave a user feeling confused and frustrated due to them leaving no direction as to what to do and will often just leave the website or close the tab. This is bad for the website owner. Whilst they do serve a purpose, they can also be harmful to the website if used incorrectly.
A key example of a “page not found” error used in the wrong way is a soft 404 error. These can hinder SEO results and cause a lot of disruption to a website in terms of rankings, web traffic and reputation. In this blog, we will define what a soft 404 error is, and the difference between a regular 404 errors for technical SEO methods.
What are soft 404 errors?
Soft 404 errors are pages that show a “not found” error code, but the content is not missing. The page alternatively may be empty or it could have content from other pages from other websites. Soft 404s can result from misspelt URLs, problems with the server or outdated links.
When there is a soft 404 error, it is shown on the website, but not to Google crawl bots. This in turn results in the page still being crawled and indexed on SERPS (Search Engine Results Page) which can be a real issue.
The issue with a soft 404 is that it is not an official status, it is only one that Google creates to make you aware of the issue. This in turn means that Google will carry on indexing this page until the website owner takes action to resolve this issue.
What is the difference between a hard 404 and a soft 404?
The main difference between a soft 404 and a hard 404 is the status they show to search engines. When it comes to a hard 404 error, the error code not only shows to the page visitor but also shows to search engines which tell the bots not to crawl or index the page. A soft 404 is where it only shows the error to the website user.
Due to the soft 404 not being a direction to search engines, they will only see a 200 OK status which allows search engines to crawl the page. If your Google Search Console is showing soft 404 errors, then it means that there are some pages on your website that may be showing 404 errors for pages that actually exist.
Can soft 404 errors impact rankings?
Soft 404 errors can certainly impact your rankings on SERPs, but to understand why this can happen, you should understand first how Google crawls a website. A server has only so much strength, and to prevent the server from strain and reduce the workload for the bots, Google uses crawl budgets. This helps to determine how often a site should be crawled as well as how much. The crawl budget is basically the number of pages a bot can crawl on your site when they visit. This budget is set due to the crawl rate and crawl demand.
Crawl Rate: Crawl rate is simply the number of requests per second a bot makes when crawling your website.
Crawl Demand: Crawled demand is how much Google wants to crawl your website based on its popularity and how long it’s been since it was last crawled.
When you have a large number of soft 404 errors, then this is wasting the crawl budget. This means that fewer of your existing pages that should be getting crawled are being missed, leading to fewer rankings on SERPS.
For example: if your website has 100 pages and the crawl budget is 50, then Google will only be crawling 50% of your website. If 10 of the 100 pages are soft 404 errors, then there is a risk that some or all of the soft 404 pages will get crawled.
What problems can soft 404s cause?
Soft 404 errors can not only contribute to lowering your rankings, but they can cause a range of different issues on your website. If a search bot crawls the page with a soft 404, it could find that the content on the page is not actually missing. The bot will then in turn think that you are serving fake 404 errors which in turn will lead to your site being penalised by Google.
One of the main issues with websites is poor user experience. This is a ranking factor and you can be penalised if you have a poor user experience. Due to soft 404 URLs being visible on SERPS, this could lead users to a page that doesn’t exist.
If the user visits this page, they may believe that the page isn’t there and will leave the website. This in turn can harm your bounce rate and result in users spending less time on your website.
Not only is it bad for user experience, but it can also hinder the website’s overall performance and operations in terms of web speed. This is due to take up bandwidth.
The main difference between a soft 404 and a hard 404 error is that search engines may interpret a soft 404 as a valid page, leading to negative impacts on SEO, while a hard 404 clearly signals to search engines that the page is not available and should be removed from search engine indexes. Therefore, it’s important to properly handle 404 errors to avoid negative impacts on website performance and SEO. One method on how you could do this is by using a 301 redirect which in turn sends the user to a different page, or alternatively speaking to a web developer to determine the best methods. Contact us today and we will be able to help you with all of your SEO needs.