I have many quite old, varied, trusted 404 links pointing to our site.
Is it OK for SEO to use these as inbound links for a new domain? I would make them into 301 redirects.
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My answer is 'yes'. It is OK. I've done it myself.
You may even find Google still has the old 404 as a search entry in its database. I've known Google resurrect entries I thought were long gone - 'ancient' in web-land. If the old SERPs entries pop out when you replace them with a 301, then you may find you have both the old URL and the new in the SERPs for a time until Google completely digests there's now a 301 in place. I've observed this happen regularly.
As pointed out - if you want any SEO value out of the old link, then don't stray too far off the original content. Think: 'transition' when creating the new content. That way, you may well benefit from any SEO 'value' the old page had.
That is really tricky.
404's in general are not bad at all. It's honest to say the least.
Now, I do not suggest having a lot of 404s or 301s but if you want to use them as intended, then a 301 is not the real way to go (as user I would think 301 was not useful or honest if you will.
I would think a catchy 404 page with some good links or call to actions well give the user a good starting choice and in turn keep them there, which leads to better experience and SEO.
I know if I am looking for shoes and then redirected to a main page of clothes, I am not happy at that point and will leave.
Keep in mind search engines want to show results that users tend to benefit from and if they don't like the method neither will the search engines.
Hope that helps.
From an SEO and sales conversion point of view id suggest eliminating 404's with 301s
Using the example provided by the above answer, if you want shoes and reach a 404 they'll likely click back and hit a different google page equaling lost potential* sale.
However if you're redirecting them to other products and banner the page with "we didn't have what you were looking for, but you may be interested in..." then there is a greater chance of sale as they may see something they do like, even if it doesn't relate to their original query.
That would be okay to me, however even better fix for the 404's would be (if possible) populate the content and resolve 404s by actually providing (again, if possible) what that page should..
Hope this helps