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How to tell Googlebot that pages are not soft 404 errors

     
10:44 am on Aug 9, 2018 (gmt 0)

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My website deals with technical support queries from users, which often results in them quoting error messages in a post, or making the title include some sort of error message info.

It looks like Google thinks that may of my pages are now "soft 404" errors, where as they are perfectly valid pages (responding with HTTP 200 OK) that just happen to contain wording that confuses the crawler.

Is there any way to tell google that this is indeed a valid page, that just happens to contain confusing error wording?
4:44 pm on Aug 9, 2018 (gmt 0)

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Is there any way
In a word: no.

At some time when we weren't looking, Google quietly redefined the “soft 404” (a term of their own invention). It used to mean any inappropriate redirect, as when a site refuses to serve a 404/410 and instead redirects to the front page. Now it means any content they don't consider adequate. I personally noticed it when I saw that GSC was listing one site's front page as a “soft 404” and therefore not showing it in search results. (It’s got pictures and links, which is all that humans require for this specific site.) I made the issue go away by adding one line--literally--of text, which turned out to be enough to make them happy.

In your case, the question may be whether every page should be indexed in the first place.

(They don't like quoted error messages? Honestly, now. I've got one obscure page whose wide-ranging content happens to include a few code snippets quoted as Bad Examples. Back when you could see search queries, I know people occasionally landed on that page by searching for those very snippets.)
4:48 pm on Aug 9, 2018 (gmt 0)

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It's not all pages containing error quotes that are considered Soft 404s - but perhaps 5% of them. It's a forum where people may call the thread title "Error 0x000543212", along with error quotes. I've had a look at the page and it's clear that it's not an error, but Googlebot clearly isn't able to deduce this. I think it's reasonable that this page should be indexed, as other users will be searching for how to fix this error.
8:05 pm on Aug 9, 2018 (gmt 0)

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That title might make it appear as if it is an actual error to bots, who knows? A word before that "Error" such as "About Error ..." might help them understand it is part of a text entry. Does the title use any <h tags or the semantic <title tags?
10:21 am on Aug 10, 2018 (gmt 0)

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Yes, the error name is often mentioned in <h1 and <title tags - but it's usually phrases in such a way that a human would know it's not an error. I think the only way around this would be to manually rename the UGC titles, which isn't ideal. I was hoping there was a way to let Googlebot know that a page that returns HTTP 200 OK, really is ok ;).
10:24 am on Aug 10, 2018 (gmt 0)

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Adding quote characters around the error title might help. Robots might see this is a quotation ,and not a real message.
11:26 am on Aug 10, 2018 (gmt 0)

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Since you say that users *post* error messages, if you are using a CMS there may be a ban list utility for some words. If you can add plugins, there may be one that accomplishes similar results.
9:38 am on Aug 15, 2018 (gmt 0)

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The problem is that I want users to post the error messages so that I can reply to them and help. I've now got thousands of URLs marked as soft 404s (all since from 15th July - before they were ok). I've examined the posts and plenty of them only contain an error snippet as a quote on the page (and enclosed in quotes) - this doesn't seem to be enough for Google to know it's not a real error message. Our traffic has dropped enormously as a result.

How would I contact Google about this sort of problem, as I'm sure it's not what they intend?
 

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