Published: 26th Dec 2018 | Words: 501 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
What is a soft 404 error?
A soft 404 error is a misconfiguration of a website page where a 200 response code is returned when a 404 response code should be returned. A soft 404 however can be returned when 404 headers are not properly configured and what they do is tell search engines and users the page does not exists but still returns the page. It’s like returning both a 200 response code (the page is here, and all is good) and a 404 header (the page no longer exists). When a browser or search engine requests a page the usual response is what’s called a 200 response header. This header lets the requesting body know that the page is fine, the page exists and will be returned. A 404 status header lets search engines know that a page does not exist and 404’s can prove useful when you want to de-index / get rid of a page from search engines like Google or when a user visits a URL where there is no page. While learning how to use 404 headers effectively is a must, especially on dynamically generated sites, understanding the concept of soft 404’s is as important if not more so. While search engines use incredibly complicated programs and algorithms to build their index of pages, they still use very simple systems in places including response codes for web pages.
What causes soft 404 errors?
Having a 404 page that says something like "page not found" and just including it within a page does not produce a 404 response code to search engines. Within PHP you must set a 404 header when returning a 404 page. The main cause of soft 404 errors are returning pages that look like 404 pages to search engines but don’t actually return the correct code. Search engines can detect if a page is supposed to be a 404 page without any help. Sometimes you may see other pages listed as producing a soft 404, this probably means there is some problem with these pages.
How to detect soft 404 errors
Soft 404’s can severely damage your sites search rankings if they get out of control, but you can use Google search console to pick up on soft 404’s and sort them out before they cause your site real damage. You would be surprised at the simple things that can cause soft 404’s but long as you regularly check the errors listed within Google search console you should be able to figure out the cause very quickly and modify your coding appropriately.
In Google Search console > Crawl > Crawl Errors
How to fix a soft 404 error
There is no one fits all solution for 404 errors but generally the main cause is something at server level and a developer will need to investigate the issue. If it’s a case of your 404 – page not found website page not returning the correct code, then you can just make sure it returns the correct 404 response header. If this issue occurs on other pages, then further investigation is required.