Why 404 pages should not return a 200 code

Technical issues have a great effect on SEO rankings. It might be difficult to reverse engineer which technical issues have what effects but it must make sense to get things right – the site will work better for its human visitors and keeping bots happy is always a good idea.

Visitors (and links) often try to access pages that do not exist. They may mistype the URL, the page may have been removed or the site may have been rebuilt. Whatever page is returned when this happens, it should return a 404 code. Frequently, webmasters configure their sites to return a 200 or a 3xx, and show the visitor content designed to help them on their way. This is not a good idea – if everytime a ‘wrong’ URL is accessed and brings up a real page showing a 200 code, then this is telling Google that there are lots of valid pages all with the same content. In other words that are lots, possibly thousands, of valid pages all with identical content. Not a good idea!

The best way to address this issue is by building a custom 404 that shows the sitemap. In this way, any missing pages return a 404 (telling Google they do not exist) and presenting real visitors with a way of easily navigating to where they were trying to get to.

There was an interesting discussion on WebMasterWorld on this topic.

then a custom 404 is the best paFrequently, typing an incorrect page name brings back a page that shows a 200 code when put through a header checker.


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