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Are 404 & Soft 404 Errors Google Ranking Factors?

Are 404 & Soft 404 Errors Google Ranking Factors?

Can 404 and soft 404 errors affect your Google search rankings?

According to Google, the answer is no.

However, there is one exception you want to know about to avoid getting a 404 error affecting your rankings. Read more to learn more.

Requirement: 404 & Soft 404 error is a ranking factor

What Is 404 Error? 404 errors occur when a user or crawler tries to access a page that does not appear to exist on a domain. 404 errors occur when:

A page is deleted from your site without a 301 redirect. Someone makes a mistake by typing the page URL in their browser’s address bar. Another site is linking to the wrong URL.

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In addition to traditional 404 errors, some pages cause soft 404s.

A soft 404 occurs when a site returns a 200 success code from the server but a “404 page not found” at the same time for a user.

The page either does not exist or parts of the main content do not load completely.

The proof against 404 and soft 404s as ranking factors

In 2011, Webmaster Trends Analyst Susan Moskwa published a series of 404s questions and answers on the Google Search Central Blog. The short answer to the first question, does 404 errors affect my site’s rankings, was no.

“The fact that some URLs on your site no longer exist / return 404s does not affect how your site’s other URLs (those that return 200 (successful)) work in our search results.”

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Google Search Console Help also shares information on 404 errors.

Most importantly, they assure you from the start:

“… 404 errors do not affect your site’s search performance, and you can safely ignore them if you’re sure the URLs should not exist on your site.”

As for soft 404 errors, you should avoid anything that makes it difficult for Google to process the structure of your site. Specifically:

“Do not create fake content, redirect to your website, or use robots.txt to block 404s.”

The exception

404 errors cannot corrupt the ranking of pages that are loaded successfully. But they can when you have inbound links pointing to a page that no longer exists.

In an earlier chapter, we concluded that inbound links are a ranking factor.

Let’s say you remove a page with inbound links from your site. In 2017, Google Search Central released a video on how to handle a URL that results in a 404 error.

If you see significant traffic going to the Google Analytics URL or links to the URL, use a 301 redirect.

According to a tweet from John Mueller in 2019, with a 301 redirect,

“… redirect URL links can be seen as redirect destination links.”

Without a 301 redirect, however, PageRank would be lost from these inbound links.

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This is the only time a 404 error has the potential to affect your ranking.

404 & Soft 404s as a Rank Factor: Our Judgment

Google directly states that 404s do not affect your site’s rankings.

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In fact, “404 page not found” and 301 redirects are preferred over soft 404 errors.

Advanced SEO documentation for developers on Google Search Central suggests that you fix soft 404 errors to redirect or definitively return 404 or 410 errors.

If the content still exists but the page returns a soft 404 error, you can use the URL Inspection tool to review how Google views the page.

Featured Image: Paolo Bobita / Search Engine Journal

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