Soft 404s can Harm Your Google Rankings

10 Sep
2021

Google Rankings are critical when it comes to getting your business in front and centre of your customers. But there is one overlooked deterrent that can kill your rankings: the Soft 404. A soft 404 is an expired landing page or, in other words, a website URL that tells the user the page no longer exists when clicked on. Landing pages expire or become outdated every day
when products sell out, or services are discontinued.

When you want to have spectacular Google rankings, handling these expired pages is vital. Otherwise, they can harm your entire website with up to a 50% loss in organic traffic. Websites small and large experience this problem, but big businesses can easily get by having thousands of these expired pages. For small businesses, this can destroy your SEO optimization.

The problem is that search engines continue crawling that content, and as a result, the pages you want to rank are overlooked. This is why websites with ever-changing product databases must constantly perform SEO audits. They are the only way to determine if expired content poses a threat to your website.

Important Ranking Factors
Google rankings are dependant on several factors, including the total number of crawlable pages, the quality of the content, current SEO trends, and most importantly, the user experience and satisfaction. User signals are an important ranking factor as Google favours websites that offer a good user experience.

When Google detects a negative user experience on your website, your rankings will suffer. For example, when users click on an expired page, they return to their Google results to find an alternative. This clicking behaviour is known as a “bounce rate.” The more frequently this happens, the quicker your website becomes irrelevant to search engines. Google has also become proficient in recognizing negative landing page language, such as “out of stock” and “0 results found”. Once Google detects this, the rankings of your website suffer as a whole.

How To Deal With Soft 404s
When large sections of your website become outdated and cannot be deleted, they can be moved off the domain using a 301 Moved Permanently. This will inform search engines that the content has been discontinued. On the other hand, expired product pages should not use 301 redirects as it will interfere with user signals. Instead, 404 Not Found or 410 Gone HTTP status codes will inform Google that the pages no longer provide the same content, which will boost the signal of current product and service landing pages.

Custom 404 pages pose no risk or benefit to your SEO but are a way to maintain a quality user experience. Whatever you do, never block URLs in the robots.txt; otherwise, it will prevent search engines from crawling and understanding changes made. Lastly, it’s important to note that Soft 404 landing pages will significantly impact your organic rankings.

Gareth Owen
author