404, Soft 404, and SEO

Last Updated: Jan 09, 2017 03:21PM EST
The error code 404 is used when a visitor to a web site tries to access a page that does not exist. This kind of error can happen for a few reasons. The two most common reasons are:
  • The user followed a link to a page that previously existed, but has since been removed from the site
  • The user manually entered a URL into their browser's address bar and made a typing error.
When this happens, the web server has nothing to display so instead it shows a special page that returns the 404 error to the user. There is usually some background code that lets the server know what happened so it can record the problem in error logs. You can learn more about this on the following Wikipedia page.

Improving User Experience

Website owners can improve the user experience by implementing a Custom 404 Error Page, since the Default 404 error page on many servers is just a simple 'generic' message letting the user know that the page was not found. That can be a negative experience for the visitor, since it doesn't provide them with any direction. However a Custom 404 Error Page allows the site to display a more elegant page that uses the site's main graphical template and includes a link back to the homepage. It can also include suggestions on how to find the content they were originally looking for. Google even recommends making your 404 page more useful and provides guidelines on what they think should be included in a 404 page:

https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/93641?hl=en

ProductCart's Custom 404 Page

ProductCart has a built in 404 Page that follows Google's advice on what information and options should be displayed to the user. To use the custom 404 page you need to change your server settings to point to /store/pc/404.asp when it can't find the page a user is looking for. Where to change this setting is different for each web hosting provider and the hosting provider should be able to help you change this setting.

The ProductCart custom 404 error matches the theme of your store so it's obvious to users what site they are on. It tells visitors that the page they were looking for is not found. Any links in your navigation will be available to help users find their way to working pages. The page also makes sure to tell the web browser that the page was not found.

SEO Optimized URLs

One of the biggest benefits to using the ProductCart 404 page is the ability to turn on SEO Optimized URLs (known as 'SEO Friendly URLs' in ProductCart). With SEO Optimized URLs turned on your category and product pages have a more user friendly URL with keywords that search engines can pick up on to help identify content. You can learn more about how to set up your store with SEO Optimized URLs at https://productcart.desk.com/customer/portal/articles/1543705 which details the steps needed to turn the feature on.

SEO Friendly URLs generated by ProductCart use the Custom 404 Error Page setting on the server to magically 'rewrite' the URL of the dynamic page, which would normally look something like the following:

www.example.com/store/pc/viewPrd.asp?idproduct=210

You can see that it uses the ProductCart ASP page and requests the product ID number from the database - which is 210.

Whereas the SEO Optimized URL would look something like this for the same Product: 

www.example.com/store/pc/red-white-and-blue-baseball-cap-35p210.htm

You can see that it uses the Product Name in the URL (which is more elegant and search engine friendly).

This method builds upon several key points designed to optimize SEO efforts. The URL is human readable. Anything a real person can read and understand is preferable to a string of code when it comes to usability and if it's better for the user it's a plus for SEO. The user also benefits if someone posts a link to the product on another site. A real person can actually tell what product they are going to see which is a plus for helping a user navigate from one site to another. If your product name is descriptive of the item then the URL will have keywords that search engines can pick up on which is one of many factors companies like Google use to determine what content is on the page. Search engines are also looking for unique content and a unique URL helps them determine that this really is a different product.
 

Canonical URLs

In the world of content management and online shopping systems, it's common for the same content to be accessed through multiple URLs (for example, you have a Product that's assigned to more than one Category). To avoid any suspicion of a site using duplicate content to 'goose' its Search Engine rankings, ProductCart generates Search Engine recommended URLs called Canonical URLs and includes them in the Page source. This tells Google and the other search engines that they should index that specific URL.

Soft 404 Errors

Sometimes a 404 error is not the best option to show a user. In instances where a product no longer exists because it has been discontinued or is otherwise unavailable it is important to let the user know that the product they want is no longer available. ProductCart does not show users trying to view unavailable products a 404 page. The page that needs to be displayed does exist, viewPrd.asp hasn't gone anywhere, so 404 isn't the correct message. Instead users are shown msg.asp which explains that the product they are looking for is no longer available. If the product was already indexed by a search engine there are routine checks to make sure indexed URLs are still valid. The program that checks links for services like Google is smart enough to know that a product is not found and a message explaining the status of the product is displayed instead. This is reported as a "Soft 404" which means that even though the browser didn't get a 404 error the content that was expected was not found.

These kids of errors are often reported to web site owners in reports on sites like Google Webmaster Tools. It's a good idea to review the soft 404 error when reported. If the product should still exist it may have been inadvertently deactivated or a another problem may be keeping it from displaying. If the product really is gone and the URL no longer points to a valid product then there is nothing to worry about. If the URL is no longer used then it's best for it to be removed from the index so the resources spent keeping track of the unused URL can be spent looking for and indexing new URLs on your site.
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