Matt Cutts of Google, recently made a video where he discussed handling out of stock or discontinued products on ecommerce sites. I agree with some of his suggestions but not one crucial one.
Many of us working in SEO can point to specific examples where an increase in 404s leads to a drop in rankings and organic traffic. Google has said in the past that you needn’t worry too much about 404s. That’s great however someone should tell their algorithm.
In fairness to Google they have updated their help page about 404s over the years so it now tells you to fix up broken links within your own site. I don’t think it used to. In his video that I have embedded below, he says that if a product has been discontinued or out of stock it’s probably just better to 404 as it can been frustrating for a customer to land on a page for something they cannot buy. That’s the bit I disagree with. I would argue it’s more frustrating to get a 404 response. We would usually recommend to a client that it is better to permanently redirect a discontinued product page. Think of it this way. If you went to a Hi Fi retailer to buy a new home stereo and you had your heart set on some audiophile setup that you had been reading about, when you got to the store would you prefer the salesman to say, “sorry it doesn’t exist” or “Oh that model has been discontinued but there is a newer model over here that’s different but you’ll probably still like it.” ?
We’ve seen Google completely dump major brands from ranking for themselves because of perceived 404s. It’s happened to several NRL teams on more than one occasion. They pushed a site live but did not permanently redirect the old URLs to the new ones. 404s went through the roof. Google detected theses 404s from a previous crawl. Check this out. That 404 list is for an NRL team we work with from time to time. Google thinks they have 430,000 404s.
It may seem like webmaster philosophy 101 but the answer is a definitive no. All the 404s you see in Google Webmaster tools are requests made by Google on your webserver for a page that does not exist. When you click on one of the links in webmaster tools you can also find out where Google has found the link to this non existent page so you can go and fix it. In my experience 80% of the time Google is finding those busted links from within the site. However in the majority of cases those links are no longer within the site. Google has them in it’s database though from an old crawl. So even if you are not linking to broken pages within your site, Google thinks you are because of old data it has on you.
When in doubt 301. I would especially do this for ecommerce sites. So what if the product is discontinued! What sort of crap retailer would turn someone away without explanation or alternative.
Here’s the story that Barry Schwartz wrote on it.
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