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In a dynamically generated site (PHP, Python, pick your poison), 404 pages are normally handled dynamically to simply send a 404 header and display some error page on the URL that the user visited.

I'm wondering if a site has a large number of 404 pages and they for example, contain a significant number of links to help a visitor get to a useful part of the site, might a search engine see this as a cloaking of doorway pages?

I can't image search engines would generally punish you for having lots of 404s, you can't help people linking badly to you site but I can imaging they would punish you for cramming the 404 page with links.

As an extension of that. Is there any benefit of redirecting users to a single URL to display the 404 page, something like http://www.domain.com/404? How would this affect SEO?

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You can do what you like with your 404 pages, as Google only retrieves the HTTP header, not the content.

No PageRank is assigned to the 404 page, or any of the links contained on/in it.

Redirecting to a 404 page is merely adding an additional step in the chain (request -> 301/302 -> 404), so there's no value to be gained.

Adding links to your 404 pages, especially ones to pages that are relevant is always a good idea for your visitors.

  • I'm curious as to whether there is any tangible evidence for the fact that a redirect to a 404 means as much as a direct 404 in terms of SEO effects. – Grimace of Despair Oct 1 '12 at 12:32
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As a rule, I never intentionally send users to a 404. It's there as a net to bring users back into your site if they use a broken url, mis-type, or there's some temporary glitch, but it's really good to add links to the page that are helpful to users to get them back into your site.

In the case of the large site with lots of links leading to the 404, I think search engines accept that 404s happen, either because of you, or because of third-parties. It's just one of those things. However, I'd take that as an opportunity to create some category 'hub pages', which I'd focus on groups of similar content/products, and then 301 re-direct the appropriate 404-triggering urls to them - therefore giving search and users a 200 OK page, and making them useful to crawlers and other users.

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