According to Wikipedia, a 404 error is:
“A 404 error is often returned when pages have been moved or deleted. … 404 errors should not be confused with DNS errors, which appear when the given URL refers to a server name that does not exist. A 404 error indicates that the server itself was found, but that the server was not able to retrieve the requested page.”
A 404 is a response code. There’s a ton of them, but you’ll hear about 404s, 301s, 302s, and 200s the most and they are all response codes. Response codes are sent whenever your server is accessed to tell Google, your internet browser, or whatever is hitting your server about the status of the requested page or URL and its corresponding content.
404s tell Google “This page no longer exists – you can remove it from your cache” but by using a 301 redirect that overrides a 404 response code for a listing page, it tells Google (or a browser), “This page and its content has moved, here’s it’s new permanent location”, if its new location is the home page or whatever page you redirect to… this isn’t the same thing as what Google originally indexed. This makes Google mad. SEO success depends on not making Google mad.
In terms of real estate websites with IDX listing content, a 404 is most often seen when Google indexes a listing page and then tries to check/reindex that URL, and it is no longer in the active MLS feed. For most real estate website and IDX platforms, this means that the URL is no longer going to go to an active, valid listing page on your website. When this happens your server should respond with a 404 error code. This just means that your server is telling Google or a browser that this page no longer exists, nicely.
Your MLS’s data feed creates a stream of new listings that create new pages/URLs on your website. If your website is indexable, these listing pages and URLs get indexed by Google. They stay there for a while, and some point change status, get sold or are otherwise removed from the active MLS feed and in doing so disappear as a page from your website, and as such, 404 errors are completely normal and to be expected on real estate websites. If you’re in a really big market with a ton of listings coming on and off the market every day, it could be a lot.
What affect do 404s have on SEO?
If things are working properly on your site, none at all. Google has made it very clear that 404 errors are a normal part of the internet and are a signal to them that the content is no longer active and available, so they should remove it from their index. Don’t believe me? Here’s a blog post from Google itself explaining their position on 404s.
What’s a Soft 404?
This is when a website returns a response code other than a 404 for a page/URL that doesn’t exist. We see this happening when some of our customers override our 404 codes with some redirect and 404 plugins. Google detects that the page doesn’t really exist and the content isn’t what it was expecting and different from what was there when it was last indexed. Google is really smart, Y’all.
We’ve also seen this when websites and sometimes IDXs show what amounts to a fake 404 page. It looks like a 404 but isn’t actually returning the correct 404 response code from the server. Showcase IDX doesn’t do this, for what it’s worth…
Can I redirect traffic to another listing or my homepage?
You can… but this is an absolutely terrible idea. So please don’t.
In short: From our experience, we recommend avoiding any redirection for 404ing listing page URLs. It’s fine for other (non-IDX) pages on your website to 301 redirects as long as they are redirecting to relevant pages.
Let’s start with what a redirect is… A 301 Redirect response code is kind of like a 404 error code, but it signals a permanent change of URL for a page’s content. 302 Redirects, on the other hand, signal a temporary change of location for that page/content. There are a number of WordPress plugins that allow you to automatically redirect 404s with one of these types of redirects on what would be URLs with 404’s to another page on your website. This isn’t as good an idea as it might sound at first.
There’s one exception we’ve seen to this in terms of redirects on listing URLs and that’s with some real estate platforms (mostly large portals like Zillow) who do a redirect to the page relevant to the same listing/address in an off-market/sold mode page. This is an SEO technique and not a bad one, because, in terms of Google, the content is still relevant to the original page, at least that’s the current thinking and it seems to make a lot of sense.
There are blog posts out there that say that 301 redirects are fine… and they are… for certain instances. Just not listing pages. The important term to be mindful of in all this talk of redirection is relevancy. Now some might argue that redirecting to another similar listing might be fine. But this is not in the spirit of what Google is looking to do. How would you feel if you were searching for a specific address… clicked it on Google and it some other random listing page. It’s not a great experience. As such, Google isn’t going to be happy with it either. There are some plugin solutions for WordPress that let you do this, but long-term it just seems like a bad idea and can get complicated quick.
So you are telling me that I shouldn’t worry about 404s in terms of indexed listing pages?
404s are going to happen. It’s inevitable. They are just an indication that Google is indexing your site and when rechecking the links in their cache, those pages aren’t there any longer and they are telling you in Google Search Console. That’s it. Stay calm. Don’t panic. Everything will be okay.
If you have 404s on valid listings/URLs, then you have a problem. Contact your technology provider and ask them what the heck is up with that… because that should not happen. Also, if you hard-link to a listing page that is 404’ing this may negatively impact your search engine ranking.
Showcase IDX clears all potential 404 URLs from our sitemaps as soon as the listing is inactive and purged from the search and no longer generates a page or URL on your website.
What if I see a surge of 404s in Google Search Console?
So, this can happen from time to time. In looking at a lot of cases of this, it seems like Google is doing catch up on a domain or set of sitemaps that it may not have fully rechecked in a while. So when they go back to the URL they have in their cache, they find a bunch that are no longer valid listings so they come back as 404s. No need to panic.
Why should I believe you? I want more proof…
Showcase IDX follows Google’s recommendations on what makes good SEO. We understand what Google is trying to achieve when sending organic traffic to a website so we tailor our product to work within those guidelines, and so far it works really well.
Here are some other resources if you want a little extra proof and resources about this topic:
From the Google blog. The most legit source out there when it comes to this.
This blog post is a source of confusion and gets quoted to us all the time… if you read it carefully, it agrees with our stance, if you don’t read it carefully, it looks like it contradicts everything we say because it says something along the lines of just redirecting every 404’d page to your homepage. Context matters. This approach doesn’t apply to IDX listing pages. But can apply to other content pages in certain circumstances.
This part of the post is really relevant:
Here are some cases when a 404 page is better than a 301 redirect:
You deleted a page (such as a blog post, a portfolio entry, an employee, a job listing, or a service you no longer offer) and don’t have similar content elsewhere. Why would you redirect them to something different from what they are looking for? Let them know the content is gone with your 404 page.
You removed a product from your ecommerce site. Don’t arbitrarily send them to another product. That’s a bad user experience. Let them know the product is gone with a 404 page and help them get to a product they might want.