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I just ran across an error in Google Webmaster Tools that I have never seen before. I manage the website for my local community band (I play trombone). One of the pages on the site is a list of our upcoming performances. It is powered by a WordPress events plugin that uses a database of upcoming events that are entered through the administration interface. We just finished up our summer and fall concerts and our next performance will be our Christmas concert. I hadn't gotten around to adding that into the website yet, so there are no upcoming events shown on the page. In fact the text on the page says:

No upcoming events listed under Performance. Check out past events for this category or view the full calendar.

Then in Google Webmaster Tools, this page is showing up as a "soft 404":

google webmaster tools soft 404

The page is returning a 200 status and Google is indicating that he 404 is "soft". I wouldn't have expected Googlebot to be as sophisticated to parse that particular sentence. Is Googlebot able to detect that the text on the page indicates that there is currently not content and then treat it as a 404 page because of that?

If Google is treating this page as a soft 404 because of the text on the page, does that mean that like regular 404 pages, the page won't show up in search results?

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Did you set up a proper 404 page ? support.google.com/webmasters/answer/181708?hl=en –  Jobin Jose Oct 18 '13 at 10:23
    
I don't want that page to be a 404 page. It lists our upcoming performances. –  Stephen Ostermiller Oct 18 '13 at 10:24
    
I know that, but the articles says it may happen you are not setup a proper 404 page for your site. –  Jobin Jose Oct 18 '13 at 10:29
    
Pages on the site that are truly "not found" do return a proper 404 status. That particular page is the only one listed as a "soft 404". There are a number of regular 404s listed in the crawl report as well. –  Stephen Ostermiller Oct 18 '13 at 10:33
1  
Surely parsing text on the page is the only way Google could detect soft 404s? Perhaps a better question is whether Google treats them in the same way as normal 404s and excludes them from the index (which I can see would be an issue in this case). –  Tim Fountain Oct 18 '13 at 10:49

4 Answers 4

up vote 1 down vote accepted

It does appear that Google is calling this page a "soft 404" based on the text on this page and lack of other content. I updated the page by scheduling new performances. Google Webmaster Tools is now no longer classifying this page as a soft 404:

soft 404 errors

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Here's a source from "soft 404" are explained.

Excerpt:

A "soft 404" occurs when a webserver responds with a 200 OK HTTP response code for a page that doesn't exist rather than the appropriate 404 Not Found. Soft 404s can limit a site's crawl coverage by search engines because these duplicate URLs may be crawled instead of pages with unique content.

I think Googlebot considers your page as duplicate with another one (most probably because the content is very thin in your page). That's why Google doesn't spend time to index your page (like he does with duplicate content pages). Moreover, I don't think Googlebot can understand what your sentence in the page means.

In that case, Google advises to apply a 301 redirect to another page or apply a 404 or 410 HTTP response.

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Here’s a list of steps to correct soft 404s to help both Googlebot and your users:

  1. For the soft 404s, determine whether the URL:

    • Contains the correct content and properly returns a 200 response (not actually a soft 404)
    • Should 301 redirect to a more accurate URL
    • Doesn’t exist and should return a 404 or 410 response
  2. Confirm that you’ve configured the proper HTTP Response by using Fetch as Googlebot in Webmaster Tools

  3. If you now return 404s, you may want to customize your 404 page to aid your users. custom 404 widget can help.

Hope this link from Google will give more details.

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The question is not about how to resolve the situation but why the page is considered as soft 404. –  Zistoloen Oct 18 '13 at 11:14

It appears that URL is a non-www version, I would recommend using an external rewrite to force the www version. It may be the case that your site is in fact duplicated in Google's eyes, and they are seeing the non-www version as duplicate. Try requesting the same page with both www and without it, if you are getting a result, you are showing Google duplicates. You would also want to check for any internal linking to non-www version's of any pages, and manually correct those links to include the www.

Note: I would also like to see the linked from tab on that screen. Try crawling that page as Googlebot, and post results. I have seen Google do some silly things in GWMT with URL's. The more information, the better.

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I don't like www, so I force non-www. There is no duplicate content because of a www in this case. I link to the page internally in several places to let users know about upcoming performances. –  Stephen Ostermiller Oct 23 '13 at 14:09

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