HTTP 404 errors and SEO

Lots of people make use of Google Webmaster Tools and other similar online services to monitor their site. These services are generally free to use and can provide lots of useful insights about your website.

We've found that a common concern raised by users of those tools is that they may see an unusually high number of pages associated with 404s - and many of these pages relate directly to The Events Calendar (or Events Calendar PRO) and its event views.

So why is this and is it something to worry about?

Why and when we return 404s

"404" is the HTTP status code used when the requested resource or information could not be found. However, in the context of a service like Google Webmaster Tools there are effectively two different definitions:

  • Traditional or "hard" 404s - where the site returns a status code formally declaring that the requested resource could not be found
  • "Soft" 404s - where the site returns a different status such as a 200 OK code, but the search engine (ie, Google) decides it probably should be returning a 404

It is critical to understand that while it is within the power of a website to return a hard 404, they cannot return a soft 404: this is a concept that exists only within the logic of the search engine itself – the exact criteria are malleable and quite likely changes over time.

When does The Events Calendar return a 404 status?

Previously, The Events Calendar returned a 404 status for most empty event views. For instance, if you visited week view for a particular date and it contained no events, a 404 status was returned.

In response to customer feedback, it was decided to alter the default behaviour in this regard and return a 200 OK status instead: after all, the thing that has been requested - a list of events in a given week - is indeed being returned, it's just that it happens to be void of any events.

The SEO angle

A traditional 404 is not bad in of itself; often a 404 code is simply the most appropriate status code for a given situation.

Though it can be daunting to be faced with a long list of 404s - soft or otherwise - when you use a service like Google Webmaster Tools, it is worth asking yourself, "Am I being faced with a list of problems that will actually impact my search ranking - or is this merely helpful diagnostic information?"

Search engines are smart and getting smarter all the time - but they aren't perfect and what works well on one site may not work so well on another.

Ultimately, before hitting the panic button, try looking at other metrics to measure the real impact. Is traffic down or up overall? What percentage of visits are referrals from search engines and how has this changed over time?

You may find that the discernible impact is very small indeed.