During the last week of May Google Webmaster Tools has started to display soft 404s under the crawl errors category.

What is a soft 404? First, a 404 error is a standard response code indicating that your Internet browser was able to communicate with the website, but the website’s server could not find the web page that was requested. This can occur if you type in the wrong page name or if the content itself was removed.

A soft 404 error occurs when a page is not found, but instead of returning a standard 404 error response code, the server sends a web page with a 200 OK response code. Soft 404s can also occur as a result of configuration errors.

Why are soft 404s bad? Because Google dislikes them!

We discourage the use of so-called “soft 404s” because they can be a confusing experience for users and search engines. Instead of returning a 404 response code for a non-existent URL, websites that serve “soft 404s” return a 200 response code. The content of the 200 response is often the homepage of the site, or an error page.

If Google dislikes soft 404 error pages you can guarantee that they are calculated into Google’s Page Rank algorithm. It does appear to be a coincidence that soon after making soft 404s available in Webmaster Tools that others started noting that they had a decrease in Page Rank when Google updated its public numbers on June 4th.

The solution to keep Google and your visitors happy is instead of returning a soft 404 it is much better to return a 404 response code and clearly explain to users that the file wasn’t found.

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