2 min read

Choosing Between 301 Redirects and 404 Error Pages

Choosing Between 301 Redirects and 404 Error Pages

A common question that often arises pertains to the choice between utilizing millions of 404 error pages or employing 301 redirects.

Google's very own Gary Illyes recently offered some clarity on this matter, shedding light on how we should approach each status code.

404 vs. 301s?

The query presented was quite straightforward: "What is less harmful: having millions of 404 error pages or millions of 301 redirects, where sold product pages redirect to the parent listing page?"

To which Gary's response was succinct, though perhaps deserving of a more detailed explanation. Here's what Gary had to say:

"404 status codes are completely harmless, and so are 301. You need to decide what’s better for your scenario and fly with that."

Status Codes

Gary makes reference to "status codes" when discussing the 404 and 301 responses.

These responses serve as messages from the server to a browser or bot in response to a request for a webpage.

This interaction between a browser and a server is essentially a request for a webpage, and the server's reply communicates the status of that request.

This is why Gary refers to the 301 and 404 codes as status codes. They are, in essence, responses from the server to the browser's request and are often referred to as response codes.

Technically, they are status codes, aligning with the terminology used by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the creators of HTML standards.

Five Categories of Status Codes

There are five categories of status codes, each serving a distinct purpose:

  • 1xx (Informational): Signifying that the request was received and the process is ongoing.
  • 2xx (Successful): Indicating that the request was successfully received, understood, and accepted.
  • 3xx (Redirection): Suggesting further action is needed to complete the request.
  • 4xx (Client Error): Highlighting issues such as bad syntax or an unfulfillable request.
  • 5xx (Server Error): Denoting server failure in fulfilling a seemingly valid request.

Understanding Error Pages and Error Codes

The term "404 error pages" is commonly used to describe pages that are not found, even though the pages themselves are not in error.

Rather, it means that the request for a missing webpage "cannot be fulfilled."

The server's response in this case is a 404 status code, indicating that the page was not found.

It's important to clarify that a 404 response is neither inherently good nor bad; it's simply a response indicating that the page in question cannot be located.

According to the W3C, the 404 (Not Found) status code signifies that the origin server did not locate a current representation for the target resource or is not willing to disclose whether one exists. Importantly, a 404 status code doesn't specify whether this absence of representation is temporary or permanent.

Similarly, Mozilla Web Docs defines the 404 status code as an indication that the server cannot locate the requested resource, with no determination made regarding the duration of this absence.

This clarifies why Gary Illyes asserts that "404 status codes are completely harmless."

Choosing Between 301 and 404 Responses

Gary emphasizes that the choice ultimately rests with the individual publisher and what works best for their unique circumstances. Webpages can go missing for various reasons.

For instance, if pages are missing due to a merger of two sites and there are old or outdated pages that closely match new pages in topic, a publisher can opt for 301 redirects. These redirects guide users from old pages to new ones with similar themes.

However, if no suitable topic match exists for certain pages, using 404 responses is a valid approach to signal that the page is absent.

In cases where removal is permanent, a 410 status code can be employed, although Google treats the 404 and 410 responses similarly.

So, What Then?

Ultimately, the guiding principle should be what serves the user's experience best. Consider scenarios where merging a Topic K site into a larger Topic A-Z site; one-to-one redirects to relevant pages in the bigger site for Topic D may make sense, while the remaining pages could redirect to the main category page for Topic D within the larger site. As Gary aptly states, "You need to decide what’s better for your scenario..."

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