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Are 404 & Soft 404 Errors Google Ranking Factors?

Do you think 404 and soft 404s errors can affect your Google search rankings? Find out if they are ranking factors here.

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

According to Google, the answer is no.

However, there is an exception you will want to know about, in order to avoid having a 404 error impact your rankings. Read on to learn more.

The Claim: 404 & Soft 404 Errors are a Ranking Factor

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

  • A page is deleted from your website without a 301 redirect.
  • Someone makes a mistake typing the page URL into their browser’s address bar.
  • Another website links to an incorrect URL.

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

A soft 404 occurs when a website returns a 200 success code from the server, but a “404 page not found” simultaneously for a user.

The page either doesn’t exist or portions of the main content didn’t load completely.

The Evidence Against 404 & Soft 404s as Ranking Factors

In 2011, Susan Moskwa, Webmaster Trends Analyst, published a series of questions and answers about 404s on the Google Search Central Blog. The short answer to that first question, do 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 (the ones that return 200 (Successful)) perform in our search results.”

Google Search Console Help also shares information about 404 errors.

Most importantly, they assure you from the start:

“…404 errors won’t impact your site’s search performance, and you can safely ignore them if you’re certain that the URLs should not exist on your site.”

Regarding soft 404 errors, you should avoid anything that makes it hard for Google to process your website’s structure. Specifically:

“Don’t create fake content, redirect to your homepage, or use robots.txt to block 404s.”

The Exception

404 errors may not hurt the rankings of pages that load successfully. But they can when you have inbound links pointing to a page that no longer exists.

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

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

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

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

“…links to the redirecting URL could be seen as links to the redirection target.”

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

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

404 & Soft 404s as a Ranking Factor: Our Verdict

Google directly says 404s don’t affect your site’s rankings.

As a matter of fact, “404 page not found” and 301 redirects are preferred to 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 is returning a soft 404 error, you can use the URL Inspect Tool to review how Google sees the page.

Featured image: Paolo Bobita/Search Engine Journal

An announcement to adapt SEO strategies for Google's systems with an image of a book titled "Google Ranking Systems & Signals 2024."

Category SEO
Kristi Hines

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