In Matt Cutts’ latest video (on 17th March 2014) he is talking about what should e-commerce web sites do about products which are not longer available (discontinued products).
What should sites do with pages for products that are no longer available? on YouTube published by Google Webmasters on March 17, 2014
This is the first time when Matt Cutts is recommending the “404 Page Not Found”. Is this the right solution? Depends. It is true, he is recommending them in a specific area: for the e-commerce product pages which are copied from somewhere else… the type of pages in which you do not put a lot of effort in terms of content and therefore they are not so valuable for SEO.
SEO is about hard work, about doing everything right, you do not want the Search Engine Crawlers to visit your web site and discover that some of your content is not there any more. And of course, like Matt Cutts said, you do not want to annoy users with messages like “We cannot help you”, “We do not sell this product any more” or “We have wasted your time”.
How to handle the expired content or e-commerce discontinued products
1. Serve a Custom 404 Error Page where you recommend users something else: sections of your web site or Product Categories. I am not recommending it 100%: web sites lose the link juice, not totally okay with Search Engines either, but at least you will have a chance to convert customers.
2. Do a “HTTP Error 410 Gone”, you are saying that you removed on purpose the page and are not providing a redirect URL (Still not 100% recommended, the user will be left with nothing until the page will be permanently removed by the Search Engine, and of course, you lose the link juice.
3. Do a “HTTP 301 Move Permanently” (Redirect), you are permanently redirecting the content to another product page. In my opinion, this is the solution that needs to be adopted by everyone who are thinking every time about user experience and SEO. You are putting more effort in finding the right content where you will redirect your page, but both users and Search Engines will get something useful: users will get a similar product page and Search Engines will not wonder what happened with the expired content (you will not lose the link juice either).
There is a small disadvantage to this solution: by redirecting a lot of content you will affect the server’s performance. And we all know by now that site speed is a SEO ranking factor.
In the end, to put it simple: do not go with default 404 Error Pages, try 301 Redirects which are very good for small and medium size e-commerce web sites (as long it is not affecting your site speed too much). For the big web sites it is not an ideal scenario and it is an entire different topic.