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What’s The Difference & How To Fix Both

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What's The Difference & How To Fix Both

Google search console warns publishers about 404 errors: 404 and soft 404.

While they’re both called 404, they are very different.

Consequently, it’s essential to understand the difference between the errors to fix them.

HTTP Status Codes

A webpage accessed by a browser responds with a status code that communicates whether the request was successful and, if not, why it wasn’t.

These responses are communicated with what is referred to as HTTP response codes, but officially they are called HTTP status codes.

A server provides five categories of response codes; this article is specifically about one response, the 404 page not found status code.

The Meaning Of A 404 Response Code

All codes within the 4xx series of responses mean the request could not be fulfilled because the page was not found.

The official definition is:

4xx (Client Error): The request contains bad syntax or cannot be fulfilled

The 404 response is ambiguous as to whether the webpage might return.

Examples Of Why 404 Page Not Found Happens

  • If someone mistakenly deletes a webpage, the server responds with the 404 page not found response.
  • If someone links to a non-existent webpage, the server responds that the page was not found (404).

The official documentation is clear about the ambiguity of whether a page is temporarily or permanently gone:

“The 404 (Not Found) status code indicates that the origin server did not find a current representation for the target resource or is not willing to disclose that one exists.

A 404 status code does not indicate whether this lack of representation is temporary or permanent…”

To summarize, the 404 page not found code means there was an error in the browser request because the requested page could not be found.

What Is A Soft 404 Error?

A soft 404 error is not an official status code. The server does not send a soft 404 response to a browser because there is no such thing as a soft 404 status code.

Soft 404 describes a situation when the server presents a webpage and responds with a 200 OK status code, indicating success when the webpage or content is actually missing.

Four Common Reasons For A Soft 404

A webpage is missing, and a server sends 200 OK status.

This kind of soft 404 happens when a page is missing, but the server configuration redirects the missing page to the home page or a custom URL.

The page is gone, but the publisher has done something to fulfill the request for the missing page.

Content is missing or “thin.”

When content is completely missing, or there’s very little of it (a.k.a. thin content), the server will respond with a 200 status code, which means the request for the page was successful.

But for indexing webpages that are not successful webpage requests, search engines call this soft 404s.

The missing page redirects to the home page.

Some mistakenly believe that there’s something wrong with a 404 error response.

So, to stop the 404 error responses, a publisher may redirect the missing page to the homepage, even though the homepage is not what was requested.

Google calls these failed page requests soft 404s.

Missing page redirected to a custom webpage.

Sometimes, missing pages redirect to a custom-made webpage that serves a 200 status code, which results in Google labeling these pages as soft 404s.

Who Invented The Phrase Soft 404?

The concept of a soft 404 may have originated in a 2004 research paper titled, Towards an Understanding of the Web’s Decay (PDF).

The missing pages that are improperly substituted present a problem to search engines that are trying to index real pages.

Here is how the research paper frames soft 404s:

“According to the HTTP protocol when a request is made to a server for a page that is no longer available, the server is supposed to return an error code…

…in fact many servers, including most reputable ones, do not return a 404 code—instead the servers return a substitute page and an OK code (200).

…Our study shows that these type of substitutions, called “soft-404s” account for more than 15% of the dead links.”

Soft 404 Due To Coding Errors

There are cases where the page isn’t missing, but specific problems (like coding errors)  have triggered Google to categorize it as a missing page.

Soft 404s are essential to investigate because they could signal broken code.

Typical coding issues:

  • Missing file or include that’s supposed to populate a webpage with content.
  • Database error.
  • Missing JavaScript.
  • Empty search results pages.

404 Errors Have Two Main Causes

  • An error in the link directs users to a page that doesn’t exist.
  • A link to a page that used to exist but suddenly disappeared.

Linking Error

If the cause of the 404 is a linking error, you have to fix the links.

The tricky part of this task is finding all the broken links on a site. It can be more challenging to crawl large complex sites with thousands or millions of pages.

In instances like this, crawling tools come in handy.

You have so many site crawler software options to choose from: the free Xenu and Greenflare; or paid software like Screaming Frog, DeepCrawl, Botify, Sitebulb, and OnCrawl, where several of these have free trial versions or free but limited feature versions.

A Page That No Longer Exists

When a page no longer exists, you have two options:

  • Restore the page if the removal was accidental.
  • 301 redirect it to the closest related page if the removal was on purpose.

First, you have to locate all the linking errors on the site. Similar to finding all errors in linking for a large-scale website, you can use crawling tools.

However, crawling tools may not find orphaned pages: pages not linked from anywhere within the navigational links or from any of the pages.

Orphaned pages can exist if they used to be part of the website, then, after a website redesign, the link going to this old page disappears, but external links from other websites might still be linking to them.

To double-check if these kinds of pages exist on your site, you can use various tools.

How To Identify 404 Response Pages

Google Search Console Reports

The Coverage report lists 404 error URLs on a website.

Screenshot from Google Search Console, August 2022

The Search Console will report 404 pages as Google crawls through all the pages it can find. This can include links from other sites to a page that used to exist on your website.

Google Analytics

You won’t find a missing page report in Google Analytics by default. However, you can track them in different ways.

For one, you can create a custom report and segment out pages with a page title mentioning Error 404 – Page Not Found.

Another way to find orphaned pages within Google Analytics is to create custom content groupings and assign all 404 pages to a content group.

Site: Operator Search Command

One cannot use the site: search command to find 404 errors because Google doesn’t index 404 webpages or soft 404 webpages.

Google’s site: search operator is useful for finding webpages on a site that contain a specific keyword phrase in the content of the webpages.

Google’s Search Console is the best source for identifying a list of soft 404s and regular 404s.

The website traffic error logs are a useful source for identifying 404 error responses.

Other Backlink Research Tools

Backlink research tools like Majestic, Ahrefs, Moz Open Site Explorer, Sistrix, Semrush, LinkResearchTools, and CognitiveSEO can also help.

Most of these tools will export a list of backlinks linking to your domain. From there, you can check all the linked pages and look for 404 errors.

How To Fix Soft 404 Errors

Crawling tools won’t detect a soft 404 because it isn’t a 404 error. But you can use crawling tools to catch something else.

Here are a few things to find:

  • Thin Content: Some crawling tools report pages that have thin content along with a sortable word count. Start with pages with the least amount of words to evaluate whether the page has thin content.
  • Duplicate Content: Some crawling tools are sophisticated enough to discern what percentage of the page is template content. And there are also tools made specifically for finding internal duplicate content like SiteLiner. If the main content is nearly the same as many other pages, you should look into these pages and determine why duplicate content exists on your site.

Aside from the crawling tools, you can also use Google Search Console and check under crawl errors to find pages listed under soft 404s.

Crawling an entire site to find issues that cause soft 404s allows you to locate and correct problems before Google detects them.

After detecting these soft 404 issues, you will need to correct them.

Most of the time, the solutions appear to be common sense. This can include simple things like expanding pages with thin content or replacing duplicate content with new and unique ones.

Throughout this process, here are a few things to consider:

Consolidate Pages

Sometimes, thin content is caused by being too specific with the page topic, leaving you with little to say.

Merging several thin pages into one page can be more appropriate if the topics are related. Not only does this solve thin content issues, but it can fix duplicate content issues as well.

For example, an ecommerce site selling shoes in different colors and sizes may have a different URL for each size and color combination. This leaves a large number of pages with content that is thin and relatively identical.

The more effective approach is to put this all on one page instead and enumerate the options available.

Find Technical Issues That Cause Duplicate Content

Using even the most straightforward web crawling tool like Xenu (which doesn’t look at content but only URLs, response codes, and title tags), you can still find duplicate content issues by looking at URLs.

This includes www vs. non-www URLs, HTTP and HTTPS, with index.html and without, with tracking parameters and without, etc.

404 Errors And Soft 404 Errors

The most important thing to remember about 404 errors is that if the pages are truly missing, then there is nothing to fix. It’s okay to show a 404 response for requests for pages that do not exist.

But if the pages exist but on a different URL, then that’s something to fix by redirecting a broken link to the actual URL, restoring a missing page, or redirecting the old URL to a new page that replaced it.

A soft 404 is always the result of a problem that must be diagnosed and fixed.

Understanding the difference between the 404s is essential to keeping a website operating at peak performance.


Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal



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AI Content In Search Results

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AI Content In Search Results

Google has released a statement regarding its approach to AI-generated content in search results.

The company has a long-standing policy of rewarding high-quality content, regardless of whether humans or machines produce it.

Above all, Google’s ranking systems aim to identify content that demonstrates expertise, experience, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-E-A-T).

Google advises creators looking to succeed in search results to produce original, high-quality, people-first content that demonstrates E-E-A-T.

The company has updated its “Creating helpful, reliable, people-first content” help page with guidance on evaluating content in terms of “Who, How, and Why.”

Here’s how AI-generated content fits into Google’s approach to ranking high-quality content in search results.

Quality Over Production Method

Focusing on the quality of content rather than the production method has been a cornerstone of Google’s approach to ranking search results for many years.

A decade ago, there were concerns about the rise in mass-produced human-generated content.

Rather than banning all human-generated content, Google improved its systems to reward quality content.

Google’s focus on rewarding quality content, regardless of production method, continues to this day through its ranking systems and helpful content system introduced last year.

Automation & AI-Generated Content

Using automation, including AI, to generate content with the primary purpose of manipulating ranking in search results violates Google’s spam policies.

Google’s spam-fighting efforts, including its SpamBrain system, will continue to combat such practices.

However, Google realizes not all use of automation and AI-generated content is spam.

For example, publishers automate helpful content such as sports scores, weather forecasts, and transcripts.

Google says it will continue to take a responsible approach toward AI-generated content while maintaining a high bar for information quality and helpfulness in search results.

Google’s Advice For Publishers

For creators considering AI-generated content, here’s what Google advises.

Google’s concept of E-E-A-T is outlined in the “Creating helpful, reliable, people-first content” help page, which has been updated with additional guidance.

The updated help page asks publishers to think about “Who, How, and Why” concerning how content is produced.

“Who” refers to the person who created the content, and it’s important to make this clear by providing a byline or background information about the author.

“How” relates to the method used to create the content, and it’s helpful to readers to know if automation or AI was involved. If AI was involved in the content production process, Google wants you to be transparent and explain why it was used.

“Why” refers to the purpose of creating content, which should be to help people rather than to manipulate search rankings.

Evaluating your content in this way, regardless of whether AI-generated or not, will help you stay in line with what Google’s systems reward.


Featured Image: Alejandro Corral Mena/Shutterstock



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Seven tips to optimize page speed in 2023

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Tips-to-optimize-page-speed-in-2023

30-second summary:

  • There has been a gradual increase in Google’s impact of page load time on website rankings
  • Google has introduced the three Core Web Vitals metrics as ranking factors to measure user experience
  • The following steps can help you get a better idea of the performance of your website through multiple tests

A fast website not only delivers a better experience but can also increase conversion rates and improve your search engine rankings. Google has introduced the three Core Web Vitals metrics to measure user experience and is using them as a ranking factor.

Let’s take a look at what you can do to test and optimize the performance of your website.

Start in Google Search Console

Want to know if optimizing Core Web Vitals is something you should be thinking about? Use the page experience report in Google Search Console to check if any of the pages on your website are loading too slowly.

Search Console shows data that Google collects from real users in Chrome, and this is also the data that’s used as a ranking signal. You can see exactly what page URLs need to be optimized.

Optimize-to-Start-in-Google-Search-Console

Run a website speed test

Google’s real user data will tell you how fast your website is, but it won’t provide an analysis that explains why your website is slow.

Run a free website speed test to find out. Simply enter the URL of the page you want to test. You’ll get a detailed performance report for your website, including recommendations on how to optimize it.

Run-a-website-speed-test-for-optimization

Use priority hints to optimize the Largest Contentful Paint

Priority Hints are a new browser feature that came out in 2022. It allows website owners to indicate how important an image or other resource is on the page.

This is especially important when optimizing the Largest Contentful Paint, one of the three Core Web Vitals metrics. It measures how long it takes for the main page content to appear after opening the page.

By default, browsers assume that all images are low priority until the page starts rendering and the browser knows which images are visible to the user. That way bandwidth isn’t wasted on low-priority images near the bottom of the page or in the footer. But it also slows down important images at the top of the page.

Adding a fetchpriority=”high” attribute to the img element that’s responsible for the Largest Contentful Paint ensures that it’s downloaded quickly.

Use native image lazy loading for optimization

Image lazy loading means only loading images when they become visible to the user. It’s a great way to help the browser focus on the most important content first.

However, image lazy loading can also slow cause images to take longer to load, especially when using a JavaScript lazy loading library. In that case, the browser first needs to load the JavaScript library before starting to load images. This long request chain means that it takes a while for the browser to load the image.

Use-native-image-lazy-loading-for-optimization

Today browsers support native lazy loading with the loading=”lazy” attribute for images. That way you can get the benefits of lazy loading without incurring the cost of having to download a JavaScript library first.

Remove and optimize render-blocking resources

Render-blocking resources are network requests that the browser needs to make before it can show any page content to the user. They include the HTML document, CSS stylesheets, as well as some JavaScript files.

Since these resources have such a big impact on page load time you should check each one to see if it’s truly necessary. The async keyword on the HTML script tag lets you load JavaScript code without blocking rendering.

If a resource has to block rendering check if you can optimize the request to load the resource more quickly, for example by improving compression or loading the file from your main web server instead of from a third party.

Remove-and-optimize-render-blocking-resources

Optimize with the new interaction to Next Paint metric

Google has announced a new metric called Interaction to Next Paint. This metric measures how quickly your site responds to user input and is likely to become one of the Core Web Vitals in the future.

You can already see how your website is doing on this metric using tools like PageSpeed Insights.

Optimize-with-new-Interaction-to-Next-Paint-metric

Continuously monitor your site performance

One-off site speed tests can identify performance issues on your website, but they don’t make it easy to keep track of your test results and confirm that your optimizations are working.

DebugBear continuously monitors your website to check and alerts you when there’s a problem. The tool also makes it easy to show off the impact of your work to clients and share test results with your team.

Try DebugBear with a free 14-day trial.

Continuously-monitor-your-site-performance

 

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What Is User Experience? How Design Matters To SEO

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What Is User Experience? How Design Matters To SEO

User experience is the foundation of a site’s usability, and it’s an aspect of on-page SEO that many people overlook.

If your site lacks the positive user experience and ease of use that end users require to navigate your site, you’ll push visitors to your competitors.

In this guide, you’ll learn what user experience (UX) entails, the types of experiences, the difference between UI and UX, and why it matters to SEO.

What Is User Experience (UX)?

UX is how people interact with your website.

You’ll also find this term used for products, but we’re focusing strictly on websites at the moment.

If you have a, intuitive user interface design, users will have an easier time navigating your site and finding the information they want.

If you do have a digital product, such as a SaaS solution, this interaction will also occur on your digital product.

User experience elicits a couple of things:

In short, user experience can provide a positive experience with your website – or it can lead to frustration among users.

Note: Usability is not UX design. It’s a component of UX that works with design to create the experience your users desire.

What Are The Types Of User Experience?

User experience evaluation must look at the three types of UX design to best understand the needs of the end user.

The three types of UX include:

  • Information: One aspect of a content strategy that goes overlooked is information architecture. Time must be spent on how information on a site is organized and presented. User flows and navigation must be considered for all forms of information you present.
  • Interaction: Your site has an interaction design pattern – or a certain way that users interact with the site. Components of a site that fall under the interaction UX type include buttons, interfaces, and menus.
  • Visual design: Look and feel matter for the end user. You want your website to have cohesion between its color, typography, and images. User interface (UI) will fall under this type of UX, but it’s important to note that UI is not interchangeable with UX.

What Is The Difference Between UI & UX?

Speaking of UX and UI, it’s important to have a firm understanding of the difference between the two to better understand user experience.

User Interface

UI design is your site’s visual elements, including:

Visual elements on your site are part of the user interface.

UI definitely overlaps with UX to an extent, but they’re not the same.

Steve Krug also has a great book on usability, titled “Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability.” It was first published in 2000, and the book is a #1 bestseller today.

Steve’s insight from over 20 years ago (although we’re now on the 3rd edition of the book) provides guidelines on usability that include:

  • Desktop.
  • Mobile.
  • Ease of use.
  • Layouts.
  • Everything UX.

If there’s one thing this book will teach you about usability, it’s to focus on intuitive navigation. Frustrating website users is the exact opposite of a good user experience.

User Experience

UX works on UI and how the user will:

  • Interact with your site.
  • Feel during the interaction.

Think of Google for a moment.

A simple landing page that is visually appealing, but Spartan in nature, is the face of the Internet. In terms of UX, Google is one of the best sites in the world, although it lacks a spectacular UI.

In fact, the UI needs to be functional and appealing, but the UX is what will stand out the most.

Imagine if you tried performing a search on Google and it displayed the wrong results or took one minute for a query to run. In this case, even the nicest UI would not compensate for the poor UX.

Peter Morville’s user experience honeycomb is one of the prime examples of how to move beyond simple usability and focus on UX in new, exciting ways.

The honeycomb includes multiple points that are all combined to maximize the user experience. These facets are:

  • Accessible.
  • Credible.
  • Desirable.
  • Findable.
  • Usable.
  • Useful.
  • Valuable.

When you focus on all of these elements, you’ll improve the user experience dramatically.

Why User Experience Matters To SEO

By this point, you understand that UX is very important to your site’s visitors and audience.

A lot of time, analysis, and refinement must go into UX design. However, there’s another reason to redirect your attention to user experience: SEO.

Google Page Experience Update

When Google’s Page Experience Update was fully rolled out, it had an impact on websites that offered a poor user experience.

The page experience update is now slowly rolling out for desktop. It will be complete by the end of March 2022. Learn more about the update: https://t.co/FQvMx3Ymaf

— Google Search Central (@googlesearchc) February 22, 2022

Multiple aspects of UX are part of the ranking factors of the update, including:

  • Intrusive adverts.
  • Core Web Vitals.
  • HTTPS Security.

You can run a Core Web Vitals report here and make corrections to meet these requirements. Additionally, you should know whether your site has intrusive ads that irritate users, and if your site lacks HTTPS.

Page performance works to improve your SEO. Google’s research shows that focusing on UX can:

  • Reduce site abandonment by as much as 24%.
  • Improve web conversions.
  • Increase the average page views per session by as much as 15%.
  • Boost advertising revenue by 18% or more.

When you spend time improving your site’s UX, you benefit from higher rankings, lower page abandonment, improved conversions, and even more revenue.

Plus, many of the practices to improve UX are also crucial components of a site’s on-page SEO, such as:

  • Proper header usage.
  • Adding lists to your content.
  • Making use of images.
  • Optimizing images for faster loading times.
  • Filling content gaps with useful information.
  • Reducing “content fluff.”
  • Using graphs.
  • Testing usability across devices.

When you improve UX, you create a positive experience for users, while also improving many of the on-page SEO foundations of your website.

Final Comments

Customer experience must go beyond simple responsive web design.

Hick’s law dictates that when you present more choices to users, it takes longer to reach a decision. You’ve likely seen this yourself when shopping online and finding hundreds of options.

When people land on your site, they’re looking for answers or knowledge – not confusion.

User research, usability testing, and revisiting user experience design often will help you inch closer to satisfying the SEO requirements of design while keeping your visitors (or customers) happier.

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