Recently, there is a lot of buzz within the webmaster community about ‘soft 404 errors‘ reported by Google webmaster tools. Google has stated that such errors can be problematic & should be taken care of immediately.
So, exactly, what are these soft 404 errors ?
When Googlebot crawls a page again after having once crawled successfully & indexed, it expects the same page to be there or at least a page with similar updated content. But, what will happen if the page no longer exists ? In this case, Googlebot expects a 404 not found response code from the server. Under normal circumstances, this would be the case almost with every site.
However, what will happen in case the webmaster has redirected the non-existent page to the home page of the site or even another relevant page ? We understand that this is done keeping the ‘user; in mind since the user would not really like to land up on a 404 page. But, Googlebot thinks that this practice is not the ideal way of treating users & we should not be redirecting them to the home page of the site.
In this scenario, it reports a ‘soft 404‘ error. Google recommends, we always throw a 404 (not found) or a 410 (gone) message to the user.
How to avoid ‘soft 404’ errors ?
One of the best way to resolve this issues is to 301 redirect (permanent redirection) the non-existent page to it’s most relevant page. In case there is no relevant page, then to redirect the page to the home page. Note, that this redirection needs to be mentioned specifically in the .htaccess file on a page by page basis.
The .htaccess code for 301 permanent redirection is:
Redirect 301 /OLD_URL_PATH NEW_LOCATION_URI
Where, /OLD_URL_PATH is the URL of the old page & NEW_LOCATION_URI is the URL of the page to which the user will be redirected.
So, for example, if I wish to redirect users from http://www.webmastersjournal.com/non-existent-page/ to the home page, then my .htaccess code will be:
Redirect 301 /non-existent-page/ /
So, when Googlebot or anyone visits this page: http://www.webmastersjournal.com/non-existent-page/, they will be redirected to the home page of this site.
The best way to check the URL redirect path of the page is to install the ‘Redirect Path‘ Google Chrome Extension.