Soft 404s can lead to a negative user experience, less conversions and influence the visibility of your website more than the loss in PageRank from maintaining them. Here’s how to handle expired landing pages appropriately.
Every day, a large number of landing pages expire due to outdated information, sold out products, discontinued services and because entire communities sunset. The way that expired content is handled from an SEO standpoint can have a big impact on a website’s organic search rankings. SEO landing pages with expired content have the potential to damage the website’s organic rankings if handled incorrectly.
PageRank vs. user signals
The preservation of incoming external PageRank to the website is an often claimed rationale offered by website owners for preserving landing pages with expired content, notably sold-out products. It is a false notion that a landing page must be maintained as indexable and by returning a 200 OK status code, even when a product or service isn’t available to users any longer in order to maintain whatever authority or PageRank that same landing page has amassed over time. Doing so efficiently means producing a soft 404 landing page. A soft 404 is an error page with no relevant content which always returns a 200 OK status code instead of a 404 or 410 status code.
For a variety of reasons, that method is doomed to fail. First, the primary purpose of a commercial website should be conversion rate, not supposed PageRank accumulation. Secondly, PageRank is impossible to assess with any degree of precision. PageRank continuously changes as Googlebot crawls the web and the exact worth of individual landing pages or websites is not disclosed by Google. No external third-party tool can substitute that value in any meaningful way. Finally, product landing pages rarely attract lasting, high-quality, merit-based backlinks. Essentially, the perceived PageRank loss is arguable, while actual PageRank loss is insignificant.
Soft 404s are detrimental to the user experience and, as a result, a thorn in the side of search engines, particularly Google. Therefore, maintaining expired content landing pages, greatly magnifies the risk of poor user signals.
The proper way
Larger areas of a website that have outlived their function but cannot be removed, like sunset communities, can be relocated off domain, thereby raising the main website’s trend signal. In such a case, 301 Moved permanently redirects must be established and maintained without an end date or return 404 status code so search engines know to discount the content.
However, there is a way to profit lawfully from 404 error pages without endangering your business by confounding search engines or diluting user signals. That is by enhancing 404 Not Found pages, which still return this proper status code and supplementing the content of the error page with relevant, in-context information for users. These dubbed custom 404 landing pages must continue to address their main purpose – whether a product or service is unavailable. They can be augmented with relevant product alternatives and/or the results of an internal search based on keywords from the request URL, enabling users to continue on their journey within the website — and for the website operator to potentially still capitalize on the lead.
Internal linking to expired content landing pages must also be updated and, as a result, discontinued. Internal linking is one of the most essential on-page signals for search engines, suggesting both relevance and importance from a crawl priority standpoint, so enhancing content landing sites that have expired is pointless.
Finally, it is essential to always keep in mind that 404 Not Found landing pages, no matter how numerous, do not impact a website’s organic rankings. No website ranks poorer or better because of, or despite, its 404 Not Found pages. Soft 404 landing pages, however, can not only impact rankings but also have the potential to drag down the entire website in organic search.