What is a 404, soft 404, and 301?
These are HTTP response status codes. When a URL is entered in the browser a communication happens between the browser and a server. The browser tells you if it was a successful communication (the user sees a page) or not. Learn more about HTTP response status codes.
404: A page that does not exist. This is when the browser successfully communicates with the server, but the server can not find the page. For example, if a user mistypes a URL in the browser they will receive a 404 page as a response. Note: 404 pages are not indexed by search engines.
soft 404: Not an ‘official’ HTTP status response code, but a label created by Google. This is when a browser successfully communicates with the server and returns a page with little to no content. Note: soft 404 pages could be indexed by search engines; therefore, they are a waste of your crawl budget.
301: A page that has been permanently moved to a new location – a URL is redirected to a different URL. This is when a browser successfully communicates with the server and responds with a different page to the user. Note: it is best to use a 301 (permanent) redirect rather than a 302 (temporary) redirect. Learn more about 301 redirects.
When to 301 a page
- Merging page content
- Redirecting an old page to a relevant new or existing page
- Redirecting common misspelled URL(s) to the correct URL
For better user experience, you should 301 redirect a page to another relevant page – a page that is about the same topic. The goal for your page is to provide an answer to what the user is looking for.
When to merge pages
Merge topic-related pages that have low traffic year-over-year into one, better-performing page. Then, redirect the old URL(s) to the new URL.
When to 404 a page
- Can not 301 or merge
- When old content dies
Make sure that a 404 page has no internal links pointing to it. Visually, a 404 page should provide value to users, such as links to similar pages.
What to do with soft 404 pages
Since soft 404s provide no value to users or to search engines, it is best to either 404 or 301 redirect them. You want search engines to crawl valuable pages and not waste their time on these.